To Welcome, Encourage, Teach, and Praise: Working with New Chant Singers

By Ballou, Mary Jane | Sacred Music, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

To Welcome, Encourage, Teach, and Praise: Working with New Chant Singers


Ballou, Mary Jane, Sacred Music


A recent experience with my schola painfully reminded me once again that singers can teach directors important truths. After spending the day producing a brilliant explanation of modes, I proudly showed it to a schola member, who handed it back after the first sentence and said, "I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. And I don't see any way in which this will improve our singing." Ouch! After I got past being insulted, I recognized that she had a point. To wit, my rabid interest in chant may not be shared with the same intensity by those who want to sing with me.

If you read Sacred Music, chances are good that you are or want to be a church music fanatic. You've been bitten by the chant bug at a colloquium or workshop. Now you're starting a "garage schola" with a couple of friends or perhaps you're helping to help start up the music for a new extraordinary form Mass or you've gotten a shot at the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass that has no music. Excited and entranced, you cruise the internet for chant recordings and videos and enjoy puzzling out rhythms and arcane notation. And now you're going to share all you know and bring this music to life in your own place on the planet with a group of singers.

While you need not curb your enthusiasm, take a moment to consider your schola. Many people who want to sing chant don't want to join the cult of episemas, dominants of plagal modes, the history of the Merovingian empire, and the restoration of chant in late nineteenth-century France. They want to sing, thank you very much, and they're interested in knowing what will help them sing better right now--and not a great deal more. Your singers would rather sing a mode than listen to you talk about one.

FIND OUT WHERE THEY ARE

In Alexander Technique (a method of movement training popular with musicians and actors), there is an expression: "Begin where you are--not where you wish you were." With singers, your motto should be "Begin where they are--not where I am."

In order to do that, you need to know where they are right now. Make no assumptions about musical background, sight-reading skills, knowledge of Latin, ability to hold a part, vocal range, and quality of voice.

Obviously, if the schola in question is an auditioned ensemble, these questions were answered in the audition process. However, many scholas are open to all comers. In this case, insist on an individual "vocal placement meeting" with each singer. Reassure them that these are not auditions, but your opportunity to find the best place for their voices. You will find that many singers have limited skills or are very rusty, not having sung since the high school choir thirty years ago. Their Latin may have been laid to rest with the Caesar's Gallic Wars. However, if they can match pitch and have a reasonably pleasant vocal tone, you can find a place for them in the schola.

AT THE VERY BEGINNING

Now they are standing in front of you with binders or their new copies of the Parish Book of chant and it's time to sing. It's essential for you to arrive at this moment with some initial decisions on language and notation.

First of all, choose a single ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation guide and make sure every singer has a copy in his or her binder (or use the one in the PBC). That will save quibbling about German vs. Italian pronunciation systems, a time-waster.

Do likewise with a listing of neumes and remember that knowing the names of each neume is not a prerequisite to singing the music. Introduce one a week and play an occasional game of "Spot the Salicus" with a new pencil as a prize. Your singers have taken time from their busy lives to work with you and a little levity can give them a breather before a difficult new piece.

Solfege will help you and your schola move through music more quickly and with greater assurance. Again, give them digestible bits of solfege that relate directly to a chant being rehearsed. …

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