A Thousand Teenagers Singing at Mass?

About this article

This description of an extracurricular high school music ministry program in Dallas, Texas, is an inspiring one. The music ministry group meets once a week for ninety minutes and sees itself as an opportunity for spiritual development. The program is open to the entire school community. These words of wisdom from a program that has been developed over several years will surely bring you some fresh new ideas!

Every August, despite our enthusiasm to bring fresh ideas to our classrooms and curriculum, the same question lingers for us as we plan for another year of all-school liturgies: How do we get a thousand teenagers to sing at Mass? The limitations of our acoustically-challenged "basilica" (a.k.a. the gymnasium) notwithstanding, we always seem to find ourselves struggling with lack of student (and faculty) participation in the musical moments of our celebrations.

We have tried a number of "solutions," including reconfiguring the worship space to make the choir more visible; bringing in additional sound equipment to improve the clarity of the music; even "planting" choir members throughout the community, in the hopes that their singing would inspire their peers to sing. Each solution had a modicum of success, but the results were far from our expectations.

After a few years, we realized that the real issue is not how to get students to sing but how to develop a music leadership that serves not as performers or "cheerleaders" to the assembly but as true ministers of the sung word.

One of our first changes was to move away from using the choir class exclusively as the way to provide singing for liturgies. Most of the gathered community had responded to the choir as an audience would, politely listening to the group as though at a concert performance. Instead, we created an extracurricular music ministry program, meeting once a week for ninety-minute rehearsals. Now music ministry is open to the en-tire student body; it includes both vocalists and instrumentalists, students and faculty, Catholics and non-Catholics. Working with them to develop their musicianship, we are able to train cantors and soloists.

Our focus is not only or even primarily musical, though. We see this activity as an opportunity for spiritual development. As in most parishes, we expect a level of commitment from those who want to be part of this ministry. A portion of each rehearsal is spent in prayer and education about various aspects of liturgy and the Scriptures, and attendance for the whole meeting time is required. As a group, we read and reflect on the scriptural passages for a given liturgy, and together we choose music from a range of possibilities.

In the process, our music ministers have developed a communal bond, and it is clear that the music and their ministry mean something to them. The other students see this, and they sense that the music folks are sharing that bond with the whole community. Now we have students approaching them to join the group. Although the music, being liturgical, is distinctly different from what they listen to at home, many of our students have decided that it is not "not cool" to be in music ministry. All kinds of kids have gotten involved--athletes, computer specialists, students from various ethnic groups.

Our music choices reflect the different worship experiences our students bring from their home parishes--from traditional hymnody and contemporary compositions to gospel, Hispanic, and chant.

By giving the music ministers a voice in the repertoire from which we choose our liturgical music, we have all expanded our musical and liturgical horizons. Additionally, we have become less piano-dependent, as we experiment with accompaniments ranging from drum and guitar to flute, trumpet, chimes, trombone, and harp. This variety adds a sense of newness to songs that we introduce at one Mass, then reuse at another liturgy during the school year.

The success of our music ministry program has not happened overnight. The past four years have been a process of trial and error. We had a pretty good idea of what we wanted, but we weren't always sure how to get there, and we're still not totally satisfied. We still can't get all one thousand teenagers to sing! But the small successes show us we're on the right track: the seventeen-year-old boy who was moved to tears by a solo performance of "Amazing Grace"; the student who stopped us in the hall to say how she "really got something out of Mass" that day.

In the language of a teenager, we must be doing something right.

Terry May is the director of public relations and the director of music ministry at Bishop Lynch High School in Dallas, Texas, and serves as a cantor in her home parish.

Kathy Leos has been the director of choirs at Bishop Lynch High School for fourteen years, and also works with the diocesan office for youth ministry in Dallas.


Copyright © 2009 Saint Mary's Press. Permission is granted for this article to be freely used for classroom or campus ministry purposes; however, it may not be republished in any form without the explicit permission of Saint Mary's Press. For more resources to support your ministry, call 800-533-8095 or visit our Web site at www.smp.org.

Published October 1, 1998.