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Hearing Is Fundamental
By Dennis Fleisher

musician’s “ear” is the sine qua
non of musicianship, the hallmark
of a God-given gift of musical
talent. How well we hear sounds in a
musical context is an indicator of musical
aptitude, for hearing is the foundation of
what we do and how we do it as musicians.
Hearing is the most common first step in
music making: Even before we learned
to read music, our first musical sounds
were likely produced when we tried to
imitate something we heard. This same
developmental action is also the basis of
many musical forms, particularly the call-
and-response and, more pertinently, the
in pastoral music is not for entertain- means the interaction between the stage
dialogic elements of the Mass. Hearing is
ment or to elicit praise, though we are and the audience; in the liturgical world it
fundamental in music.
inspired to excel through the affirmation means the interaction between the music
If we study music seriously, we develop
of a responsive and participating assem- ministry and the rest of the assembly. This
our listening skills further in ear training
bly—liturgical actions that we help foster. is the other part of music making that mat-
classes. But even without formal training,
Making music for liturgy with precision ters: What they hear matters.
our musical hearing develops through at-
and beauty, with quality and appropriate- Of all the musical elements listed so
tentive listening and collaborative music
ness, is, ideally, transparent: The music far, there is one that gets less attention
making with other musicians. Ideally, this
is foremost, not the performance or the than other elements in musical forma-
sharply honed hearing acuity becomes
performer. tion: dynamics. It’s usually not until we
an intrinsic part of our musicianship. We
The selection of appropriate music is have facility in making the notes that we
don’t have to think about: We just do it.
important in our ministry, but so too is the add dynamics. As a music student and
quality of our music making because both educator, I encountered many exercises
What We Hear Matters the music itself and the way it is rendered in music theory and ear training related
can effect or encourage participation. Play- to pitch and rhythm but few (if any) for
In pastoral music, what we hear mat- ing music poorly can be distracting and dynamics. This may be because pitch and
ters, and it matters for many of the same alienating; playing well can be engaging rhythm can be quantified and measured:
reasons that it matters in other musical and inspiring. Our effectiveness in engag- Pitches are measured in frequency (vi-
arenas. It enables us to produce music ing the rest of the worshiping assembly can brations per second), while tempos and
with accurate intonation, precise rhythms, be strongly influenced by basic elements rhythms are gauged by time, usually in
and effective dynamics—the musical char- of musical sound including intonation, seconds. Dynamic levels, however, are
acteristics of quality—and quality matters accuracy, pleasing tone, and tempos. To highly subjective, and though there is a
in liturgy. Using our musical gifts in the some extent most of these things can be decibel scale in acoustics to quantify loud-
sacred liturgy glorifies our Creator and heard within the space shared by the music ness precisely, there are no commonly used
gives voice to the Body of Christ. Unlike ministry, but we need to realize that what loudness scales in music.2
performative music, however, excellence we hear among the musicians is quite dif- Of all the musical elements in the con-
ferent from what the rest of the assembly trol of pastoral musicians which can have
hears. significant impact on liturgy, dynamics is
Dr. Dennis Fleisher is an acoustics These musical elements—pitch, one of the most important though one of
consultant and designer who has worked on rhythm, and dynamics—and the need the most overlooked, particularly at the
acoustics for more than 250 churches and to hear them clearly and accurately are upper extreme of the dynamic range: ex-
chapels and 25 cathedrals during a career common to all types of music making: cessive loudness. Our ability to hear how
that has spanned more than 25 years. With They are largely intra-ensemble1 in that loud we are in the assembly is a critical but
undergraduate degrees in music perfor- the key interaction is from musician to challenging aspect of our music making
mance and music education, a master’s musician. There is, however, another and pastoral priorities. Let’s examine the
degree in music theory, and an interdis- important facet of musical hearing that is challenges and the means to overcome
ciplinary doctorate in physics, acoustics, less often addressed and more complex: them in using dynamics effectively to
and music, Dr. Fleisher is the principal for the one between the musicians and the support and encourage—not hinder and
MuSonics in Grand Rapids, Michigan. listeners. In the performance world that frustrate—the singing assembly.
Pastoral Music • June-July 2007 13
Factors for Hearing Unamplified musical sounds have dy- from what is heard in the space for the rest
Our Own Sound namic ranges that vary significantly from of the assembly, particularly with regard
instrument to instrument and from singer to volume. Given this condition, what
When the music ministry is too loud, to singer. Some of this is in the nature of can we do to avoid excessive loudness
so overpowering that it renders the rest the sound-producing mechanism (vocal that would overwhelm and discourage
of the assembly’s voice superfluous or un- chords, stretched strings, reeds, and so the whole assembly’s participation?
necessary, our music is counter-liturgical. on), and some is because of the physical The multiplicity of hearing factors
We need a clear perception of how loud we strength or talent of the player. These indicates a complicated situation. Sound
sound to the rest of the assembly to prevent differences are evidenced in the makeup amplification adds to—and possibly
this. (First we’ll consider only unamplified of instrumental groups. Orchestras will multiplies—the complexity and difficulty.
sounds; we’ll add the complicating factor typically have twenty to thirty violins With unamplified sounds we can gener-
of amplification later.) but only three trumpets: The number of ally develop a sense of our own loudness
In all but the smallest ensembles, we players in each section is related to the by the level of effort we expend. This is
are physically distributed and spread inherent loudness of specific instruments. particularly true for winds, brass, strings,
out, perhaps just a foot or two from our The piano projects sound differently in and vocalists, where loudness is closely
nearest neighbor and as much as twenty different directions, particularly with the correlated to physical exertion—how
or thirty feet from the member of the lid open. strongly we blow, the speed and pressure
ensemble farthest from us. We can hear Depending on where we are situated of bow movement, etc. Amplification
those nearest to us far better than those with respect to certain instruments, there- reduces—practically eliminates—any as-
at a greater distance. If a chorister is two fore, the loudness of those instruments sociation between effort and loudness.
feet from the piano, that instrument may can overwhelm other sounds, even most In most music ministries, we now
sound uncomfortably loud; at twenty feet of the other singers and instruments in the have more than acoustic instruments
(the far end of the choir), that same level ensemble. But sounds from all instruments and vocalists. We’ve added microphones
is probably quite comfortable. Distance tend to spread out over distance, and by and speakers and electronic instruments
and loudness relationships exist for the the time unamplified sounds reach the (keyboards and guitars), some of which
assembly too, but to a much smaller de- congregation, these dynamic differences produce most of their sound locally, while
gree. The nearest assembly member may are greatly reduced. the sounds for others come from remotely
be fifteen feet from the music ministry, the As musicians we realize that what we located loudspeakers, projecting sound
farthest probably well under one hundred hear in our own personal region of music primarily to the congregation and to a
feet. Without delving into the math and production may be far different from what much lesser degree to the music ministry.
science, the difference in loudness from is heard in other areas of the music minis- It’s no wonder, then, that we often feel that
the nearest to farthest parishioner is only try. Extending this line of thinking, we can we’ve lost control of our music making,
about half what it is from the nearest to realize that what we hear in the space that particularly our sound quality and loud-
farthest music minister. contains the music ministry is far different ness.

14 June-July 2007 • Pastoral Music

Audio technology offers wonderful system operating as if the full assembly most of the musicians present sufficiently
opportunities to improve the situation, were present. With no assembly present, before Mass to run this check. This is not
but along with this promise comes an the acoustics of the worship space will an appropriate thing to do, of course,
array of challenges. Some technologies be different (in many cases dramatically while parishioners are coming in, many
put a layer of separation between us and different), yet playing in the empty church hoping for some quiet time to pray and
the assemblies we serve; others produce can establish a baseline to be compared to transition to the worship environment.
conditions that would never occur without occupied conditions. And, since this check is not done with
amplification. For instance, an unampli- As vital as rehearsal in the worship full or normal occupancy in the space, the
fied twenty-voice choir can produce a space is, it is not an accurate representation levels and balance may be quite different
strong, full sound, but it can’t drown out of the sound at the Sunday celebration. once the full assembly is present. It is key
a full singing assembly. Add microphones, Nonetheless, this can be an important to realize, therefore, that performing a
amplifiers, and speakers to those twenty component of pastoral musicians’ “ear sound check is not a foolproof technique.
voices, and they can easily overpower the training,” as the ensemble learns what it There will almost certainly be a need for
largest and most enthusiastically singing sounds like in the empty church. Then, readjustment, and that readjustment is
assemblies. We know this intellectually, as often as seems practical, a leader or best done with informed ears—finding an
but given the limitations of hearing con- conductor could move discretely to the opportunity to get a musician or director
ditions within the music area, we don’t assembly seating area during a Mass to into the assembly area often enough to
always have the aural cues to remind us develop a correlation between the music train those ears and develop some level
of that possibility. ministry’s sound with and without the of correlation between sound check condi-
As we become aware of these problems congregation present. The fact of the mat- tions and active liturgy conditions.
(often not through our own perception ter is that we simply cannot hear our own Monitors. In recent years the use of
but from comments and critiques by our sound—particularly our own dynamic music monitor speakers has become
pastors and parishioners), we often try to level—from within the music ministry ubiquitous in Catholic music ministries.
overcome them with more technology: “If itself. We need to get a pair of ears “out It is often supposed that monitor speak-
we just had more mics, then each singer there” and allow sufficient time and op- ers can—or are intended to—provide the
could control the individual sound.” portunity for those ears to be trained for music ministry with a representation of
“With more speakers our sound would this particularly challenging task. what the rest of the assembly hears. This
be more evenly distributed.” But, often Sound Checks. There is a closely re- is not necessarily the case. While we tend
we sense that we’ve opened Pandora’s lated sound balancing exercise practiced to eschew performance models in pastoral
Box and that we need to seek other means in many churches, known popularly as music, it is highly likely that our use of
to bring us back to a more controlled a “sound check.” This involves checking monitor speakers came about through
situation, enabling us to hear what our loudness levels (in some situations mak- their common use in performance settings
assemblies hear, giving us the audible ing tonal adjustments) of instruments and from nightclubs to performing art centers
cues we need. microphones to get an even balance. This to late-night TV shows. And since this
is vitally important, but it requires some concept is borrowed from the performance
Tools for Aural Unity discipline and cooperation in having all or environment, it is informative to take a

The roots of these hearing difficulties

stem from reforms in the liturgy, evolving
styles and expressions of pastoral music,
the use of technology, and the sizes of
our worship spaces. These factors are not
likely to change soon, so we need to find
new strategies, resurrect past wisdom, and
perhaps find ways to draw on the wisdom
and experience of musicians in other faith
traditions. There are several things we can
do to control excessive loudness, but the
most important involve having an accurate
impression of sound in the assembly.
Rehearsals. Regular and effective
rehearsals are essential, particularly for
part-time and occasional musicians.
(Professional musicians spend far more
time in rehearsals and practice than in
performance.) We should rehearse in the
same space in which we perform and do so
under the leadership of a conductor, and
that conductor should listen to the sound
of the music ministry from various loca-
tions in the congregation’s seating area.
We should sing with full voice, play at The praise band at Lakeway Church (non-denominational) in Lakeway, Texas, uses
normal playing levels, and have the sound microphones and sound monitors.

Pastoral Music • June-July 2007 15

closer look at how and why these devices then the most effective way to control
are used by professional performers and the music ministry’s loudness and put We need to find ways to hear
entertainers and compare that with how a pair of musically attuned, liturgically better what the congregation
and why we use them. Might they or can aware ears in the assembly is to locate hears.
they be an asset in our quest to hear what the sound operator and mixing console
the rest of the assembly hears? in the assembly. This is surely not a
The common use of monitor speakers panacea: It calls for an operator with an
in the professional performance setting is extraordinary combination of gifts and and what the rest of the assembly hears
to enable a musician to (1) hear himself abilities. More significantly, it introduces are essential elements in achieving that
or herself, (2) hear the other instrumen- a technological presence evocative of the unity. We need to find ways to hear better
talists and vocalists in the group, and performance world into a sacred space. In what the congregation hears to serve this
(3) selectively single out whatever other the majority of Catholic churches, this is ideal. Being more aware of the challenges
instrument(s) the musician judges to be not yet an acceptable option. Nonetheless, to such unity is the first step. The solutions
most important for the playing or singing it is, from a sound standpoint, the most will rely on the experience and creativity of
that he or she is doing at any particular effective option and about the only viable the music ministers in individual parishes
time. (For example, the drummer may response to some of the problems and and, often, the solutions will be different
want more bass for tight rhythm section suggested solutions outlined here. I’m not from music group to music group within
work but more sax for sax solos.) yet ready to go on record as an advocate the same parish. In acknowledging that
Note that in such situations, the for “in-house” mixing: I am as uncomfort- what we hear as musicians is important,
monitor “mix” is a separate and differ- able with the concept as most Catholics that there are challenges in the hearing
ent mix from the house “mix.” In the I know. Yet when and if it becomes clear conditions in most churches, and that we
most “professional” situations, there is that its benefits for liturgy outweigh the need to find ways to overcome the limita-
a totally independent mixing console for disadvantages, it may be appropriate to tions and to hear better what our brothers
the monitors, and the monitor mixer is revisit this idea. There are some precedents and sisters in the Body hear, we can move
located on stage or backstage, so that the for Catholic parishes, notably the Basilica toward more effective pastoral ministry.
monitor-mix operator has a better sense of of the National Shrine of the Immaculate
what the musicians are hearing on stage. Conception in Washington, DC, which
There are more factors in the professional uses such mixing. But it appears that its Notes
use of monitors in performance settings, presence there has not persuaded other
but even with just this much information, parishes around the country to follow 1. Throughout this article, the term “en-
it should be clear that monitors may not suit. semble” refers to all members of the music
fulfill a common notion among pastoral ministry, vocalists and instrumentalists alike.
2. The common musical “meter” for tempo is
musicians, i.e., that they can give us a rep- A Fundamental Goal
resentation of what the assembly hears. the metronome; for pitch the tuning fork, pitch
pipe, or electronic tuner. There is no analogous
Real-Time, Hands-On Sound Op- A fundamental goal of pastoral music is
device commonly used in music to measure
eration. Once we realize that excessive to create an aura of sonic unity, an audible dynamics. While most of us are familiar with
loudness in worship is caused almost and motivational expression that we are getting a tuning note before the beginning of
exclusively by electronic sound reinforce- one in worship, praise, and celebration. As a performance, I know of no situation where
ment, and that the use of such sound musicians, how we listen, what we listen a dynamic level is set. We ask for an “A” but
equipment needs careful monitoring, for, and how we adjust to what we hear not for a “mezzo forte.”
16 June-July 2007 • Pastoral Music