Mixed Voices, Mixed Abilities

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

Mixed Voices, Mixed Abilities


Ballou, Mary Jane, Sacred Music


Singers come in mixed abilities as well as mixed voices. The director's task: to blend this patchwork into something beautiful.

Perhaps you inherited an existing ensemble with a diversity of experience, music reading or aural learning abilities, and vocal quality. One schola I know has singers ranging in age from twelve to eighty with an equal spread of talent and training. A "growth spurt" of new members can also change the dynamic and skill set of an established group.

Or maybe your "neophyte schola" has a year or two under its belt. You want to take the singing and the repertoire up a notch and some singers are ready. Meanwhile, others in the group are still laboring with one or two settings of the ordinary and the Rossini propers.

This can be a pivotal moment. The type of singer you attract and retain will depend on the way in which you handle these diverse voices. Your approach will also have an impact on the spirit and character of the schola.

Assuming you have the numbers, should you split into two groups, risking hurt feelings and calls to the pastor? Must you surrender your ambitions and possibly lose the more able singers by attempting no music more difficult than your weakest singers' abilities?

Let me propose to you a better way. Everyone can sing something, but everyone does not need to sing everything.

THE MONASTIC MODEL

Virtually all singers can master the basic chants of the most popular ordinary settings and the psalm tones. Not every singer in the average schola is vocally or musically suited to the Graduale Romanum or polyphony. Do their limitations make them less valuable to the ensemble? No. Your job as director is to find the best and most beautiful music for the singers you have, moving along a continuum from basic to advanced and placing your singers with the music best suited for their talents. Here is your new guiding principle:

We're all in this together, but not for every song!

Consider the monasteries that have traditionally been the home base of Western plainchant. Use the model of a monastic choir with your schola. This will appeal to lovers of chant and help them place their own efforts in a historic context. It will also prevent your plans from appearing arbitrary and capricious by grounding them in centuries of practical experience with liturgical music.

In a monastery, not every monk or nun sings every single chant. The full choir traditionally sings the psalmody and the ordinary of the Mass, while smaller scholas handle elaborate antiphons and propers. St. Benedict points out in Chapter 47 of his rule, "Only those ... should come forward to sing and read who have the ability to fulfill this role in a way which is helpful to others." (1)

The purpose of monastic worship is the glorification of God by making the best use of everyone's vocal resources. It is this same "best use" of musical talents that you want for your schola.

THE HARD WORK OF LEADERSHIP

In a perfect world, all singers (and directors) would recognize their own musical strengths and limitations. …

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