Responsorial Psalm Singing with the Five Graces Psalter

Guest post by Kelly Dobbs-Mickus

MorningStar has recently published a new volume of Responsorial Psalms for the 3-year Lectionary cycle by Luke Mayernik. In this series, we will explore the practice of responsorial psalm singing using the Five Graces Psalter for reference, in the context of Roman Catholic liturgy, while acknowledging that other traditions also use responsorial forms. Whether singing/playing responsorial psalms is new for you, or whether you are experienced, we believe these reflections will contribute to this aspect of your ministry.

This first part of the post considers the responsorial psalm in its liturgical context and then moves to the art of singing and accompanying psalm refrains. It assumes a “regular” parish setting while acknowledging that all worship situations are not identical.

The responsorial psalm is one of the Scripture readings in the Liturgy of the Word and therefore has an elevated place in the liturgy. The cantor or soloist (called psalmist from here) is the proclaimer, and therefore the communication of the text is his/her most important task. As musicians, we tend to be more concerned with the music than making sure the text is understood, but this clear communication of Scripture is a skill that must be practiced and continually developed by psalmists.

The psalmist sets the emotional tone of the psalm, and should possess an understanding of this particular part of the story of salvation and how it relates to the other Scripture readings. An excellent resource for psalm spirituality is Sr. Kathleen Harmon’s book Becoming the Psalms: A Spirituality of Singing and Praying the Psalms, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota, 2015. Preparation of the psalm must not be solely an exterior one; it is the psalmist’s privilege and responsibility to pray the psalms.

Accompanists also have a responsibility to prepare each psalm setting prayerfully. Decide which keyboard instrument fits the particular refrain, assuming there are equally viable options. The refrain accompaniments found in The Five Graces Psalter are quite flexible; even those that appear to be pianistic can be quite successful on the organ (the example included here is such a refrain), and vice versa. Pianists should consider options for volume and articulation, and organists should decide what stops will be most appropriate, etc. Guitar chord symbols are provided; adding guitar to refrains and/or verses adds richness to the texture. Guitar would be a sufficient accompaniment for verses in some situations.

The refrain melody is usually introduced by a keyboardist, with or without a solo instrumentalist. Playing the refrain accompaniment as written is a possibility, but other options are more helpful for the assembly. The keyboardist might play the melody only, perhaps in octaves. Another option is to “solo out” the melody, perhaps in a higher octave for piano, or on a solo stop for organ. This important skill for organists is most commonly done this way: Play the melody in the right hand, pair the alto and tenor voice in the left hand, and assign the bass line to the pedals. Here is the refrain for Palm Sunday, shown first as it appears in the Five Graces Psalter and then as a solo melody version.

A pianist has the ability to play the melody more loudly so that it is heard above the texture of the other voices. Having a solo instrument play the melody is very effective, with or without accompaniment. All of these options can be tailored to fit the tone of the psalm and/or the liturgical season or feast; in general, it makes sense to use simpler approaches for seasons such as Advent and Lent and more elaborate ones for seasons such as Christmas and Easter.

Establish a steady tempo in the introduction, and maintain it for the psalmist’s intonation and assembly response, being careful to rehearse the transitions among those repetitions, as well as the transitions between verses and refrains. There are several ways to handle these transitions—not necessarily one “right” way—but consistency and rehearsal are necessary for confident assembly participation.

When the psalmist sings the first refrain, there are several things to remember. Here’s a good way to think about what is happening in this liturgical moment: As part of prayerfully proclaiming this Scripture, the psalmist is modeling the best way for the assembly—a group of untrained singers—to sing this particular refrain, thereby enabling their prayerful participation.

  • The notes should be clear and in tune, and the tempo should be steady.
  • Breathe when you believe they will need to breathe.
  • Be musical, because a musical “performance” will engage the assembly. Follow the contour and expression of the musical line, emphasize/de-emphasize certain notes, etc. In other words, allow the music to be an effective vehicle for the particular text.
  • Avoid affectations in your tone (e.g., too much vibrato) and pronunciation (e.g., rolled Rs, or a “British” style) so that the assembly will feel comfortable imitating you.
  • Enunciate each syllable. Imagine that the assembly does not have visual access to the words.
  • Microphones are not a substitute for a supported vocal production; if you have a big voice, move back a bit. Rehearse with the microphone, and record your rehearsal for an objective perspective.

The accompanist plays two different roles in the responsorial psalm: accompanying the cantor and leading the assembly. S/he needs to support but not overpower the psalmist, taking a back seat especially during the verses to allow the words of the psalm to be primary. S/he needs to lead the assembly in singing each refrain with correct notes, steady tempo, clear breaths, and appropriate volume. It can be helpful for accompanists to give more prominence to the refrain melody—as described above—until the assembly becomes confident.

The psalmist should allow the keyboardist to be the leader for the assembly refrains. It may be necessary for him/her to help the assembly on the first repetition or two, but it is ideal for him/her to not sing with the assembly unless they are in need of his/her vocal support. When the assembly is singing confidently, an amplified voice singing over them is not only redundant—it sends the wrong message.

The liturgical primacy of the responsorial psalm demands careful preparation. The next part in this series will explore psalm-tone verses, including the choral options possible for The Five Graces Psalter.

Visit our website for more information on The Five Graces Psalter, especially the options for both print and downloadable versions.

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