Singing in Unison? Selling Chant to the Reluctant Choir
Ballou, Mary Jane, Sacred Music
"But we want to sing real music! Chant isn't real music." How many choir directors have heard that refrain when they introduce chant?
What is "real music"? To many singers, that means music in parts, whether a choral octavo of a contemporary piece, a Byrd motet, or a Bach chorale. Sing in unison? That's for warm-ups and babies. In fact, I once sang with a choir that did its warm-up drills in four parts. A schola expects chant. The average parish choir fed a diet of descants and octavos will need to make a shift in consciousness as chant is introduced. It is the director's job to ease that process.
Unison singing is at once the most elementary and the most difficult. It is most definitely "real music." First, we need to be clear what I mean when I say "unison singing." This is not "choir karaoke" where everyone wails the tune along with the assembly while the accompanist pounds away in the hope that volume will cover a multitude of sins. This is not singing the melody "because we didn't have time to work up an anthem."
Performing even the simplest chant with beauty takes practice. Teaching it successfully takes patience and close attention. This genre also demands humility on the part of singers who must sacrifice their vocal distinctiveness to the unified whole. Why bother? When they are sung well, chant and unison song convey intensity and unity unlike any other vocal music.
Theoretical and Practical Advantages
The problem is convincing the skeptics in the choir that this music is worth their time and trouble. How do you sell and develop unison singing with your choir?
Singing in unison has a philosophical justification. From Dante's Purgatorio to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Life Together, the unison voice extinguishes wrath and is the audible expression of Christian unity. Chant is the singer's connection to over two thousand years of Judeo-Christian music. It is the music of worship past, present, and future, creating an unbroken union that knows no limits of time and place. Singers should consider themselves part of a universe of the faithful that reaches far beyond their own experience.
The beauty lies in careful attention to the text, attentive listening by individual singers to themselves and each other, and a sure and easy command of the melodic line. The words come to the front of the music and of the singers' minds. With sacred texts, that can be a very powerful experience. Many singers are so focused on getting the right notes and staying with their part that they simply "chew" the text, regardless of the language. The time saved from pounding parts for different sections can be used for teaching about the meaning and history of the text, its author (if known), or simply making sure that every singer knows what he or she is saying. If the words didn't matter, we could sing everything on "nu" and have lovely vocal production.
Unison singing is a golden opportunity for director and singers to focus on different aspects of singing and choral technique. The choir can perceive itself as a cone, directing the sound to you as the vertex. Many ensembles sing in several directions--everyone in a given part singing only to each other, not to mention the occasional chorister who stands at a right angle from the rest of the choir. Breathing, attack, blend, head vs. chest voice can be easily isolated when all are on the same notes at the same time.
A choir that is comfortable singing unison a cappella music is fearless. If the tenors all take the weekend off or the organ ciphers, there is no need for panic. The ensemble can sing wherever they find themselves. No looking nervously for a piano or hauling that keyboard around in the back of the van. All that is needed is a pitch pipe or tuning fork. A few chants and songs memorized, with a canon or two--and short impromptu concerts are possible, with great possibilities for artistic evangelization! …