The Vocal and Instruments Mechanics of Chant

Yeah. Another thread on sacred music. But this one is not intended to be about what kind of music is preferred. My intention is to discuss how chant is technically different from other styles of music. I’m hoping musicians can share tricks and tips for introducing chant into parishes where it has not been the norm and to improve the quality of the chant in parishes where the quality of the chanting could use some, er, improvement.

First off, I am not the highly trained musician that you are. However I have been singing choral music for some 35 years, some very good, …and some pretty not-so-good. The current music director at my parish is the only one who ever sold me on chant. (And I admit to liking much --but not all-- contemporary Catholic music.) My previous experiences with chant… Well, let’s just say I did not care for it. I will further say that my music director is classically trained but also taught himself to play piano in the style of Elton John. He has a long history with Paul Salamunovich who is one of the more prominent choral conductors in southern California’s music history. So my music director knows chant.

The point of all this is that my conductor has explained to us how chanting is DEFINITELY different than typical western singing. It’s not even like sacred polyphony …although there is some overlap with vocal techniques.

A first major point is language. Romance languages (such as Latin) are different from English and other more Germanic languages in that they are aspirate languages rather than guttural languages. I think that’s a better way of describing it than saying they are head voices rather than chest or nasal voices. Chant is best sung with an aspirate voice. Nasal resonance is good. Nasal tone is very, very bad.

The other way that romance languages differ from American English is in the importance and location in words of consonants, vowels, and vowel diphthongs. Romance languages frequently have words where the vowels figure prominently. They also often end in vowels. Rhythm and cutoffs are EXTREMELY important when singing in English because guttural consonants need to be sung at the same time or the language of a song will be completely butchered. It’s usually not such a big problem in chant where consonants are clipped and vowel sounds are light and airy . What often is big problem for English singers is vowel diphthong. When an English speaker says the name of the first letter of the alphabet out loud he usually says something that sounds like, “aaaaye-ee”. When speaking the letter “O” he will often say, “ooooooooh-eww”. That little flip at the end of the vowel sound just doesn’t work when chanting (or for singing any Latin for that matter.) The vowel sound needs to be pure.

In my personal experience, those who come from backgrounds where they where they heard Spanish or Italian spoken have a more natural time with chant. Those who come from Germanic or Irish backgrounds have a great deal more difficulty because the vocal techniques for chanting seem unnatural. I’m old enough to just barely remember when the Extraordinary Form was the Form. Most of the priests were from Irish or German backgrounds. Their Latin speaking voices were rather unpleasant and their chanting voices even more so. I think the seminary must have taught them to speak and sing with a kind of nasally drone because so many of them sounded that same way! I honestly think that might have been one of the reasons that folk and contemporary music became popular for Catholics. It was a backlash against that droning, almost sneering, tone.

Fortunately my music director has demonstrated to me that chant is not meant to sound that way. It should be light and airy, even when sung with full voice. Again, this is much more natural for those who grew up speaking Romance languages than for those who grew up speaking English. English speakers have a much more difficult time with that airy sound.

The piano is not always the best instrument for accompanying chant because the voice should be the instrument “playing the melody” while the keyboard instrument is there to sustain the chords and to keep the pitch from falling. An electric keyboard may actually do a better job than a piano since it can mimic an organ. Chant can be rather free-form but it actually sounds best if it is sung faster than many of us are used to hearing it. It’s also sounds better to western ears when its kept to a strict rhythm (except maybe at the end of a verse.) But chant shouldn’t sound like it’s being rushed so it’s important choirs and cantors know how to quickly move past opening consonants and into pure vowel sounds. (Many English speakers and singers have a tendency to hang on to opening cosonants and drawl their way through the vowels. It doesn’t work for chant.)

Any chance you could repost that in black, and without using Comic Sans? I’m sure it’s very interesting, but it’s just too tough to read that much text with those design choices.

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Quote it and remove the formatting.

Yeah. Another thread on sacred music. But this one is not intended to be about what kind of music is preferred. My intention is to discuss how chant is technically different from other styles of music. I’m hoping musicians can share tricks and tips for introducing chant into parishes where it has not been the norm and to improve the quality of the chant in parishes where the quality of the chanting could use some, er, improvement.
First off, I am not the highly trained musician that you are. However I have been singing choral music for some 35 years, some very good, …and some pretty not-so-good. The current music director at my parish is the only one who ever sold me on chant. (And I admit to liking much --but not all-- contemporary Catholic music.) My previous experiences with chant… Well, let’s just say I did not care for it. I will further say that my music director is classically trained but also taught himself to play piano in the style of Elton John. He has a long history with Paul Salamunovich who is one of the more prominent choral conductors in southern California’s music history. So my music director knows chant.

The point of all this is that my conductor has explained to us how chanting is DEFINITELY different than typical western singing. It’s not even like sacred polyphony …although there is some overlap with vocal techniques.

A first major point is language. Romance languages (such as Latin) are different from English and other more Germanic languages in that they are aspirate languages rather than guttural languages. I think that’s a better way of describing it than saying they are head voices rather than chest or nasal voices. Chant is best sung with an aspirate voice. Nasal resonance is good. Nasal tone is very, very bad.

The other way that romance languages differ from American English is in the importance and location in words of consonants, vowels, and vowel diphthongs. Romance languages frequently have words where the vowels figure prominently. They also often end in vowels. Rhythm and cutoffs are EXTREMELY important when singing in English because guttural consonants need to be sung at the same time or the language of a song will be completely butchered. It’s usually not such a big problem in chant where consonants are clipped and vowel sounds are light and airy . What often is big problem for English singers is vowel diphthong. When an English speaker says the name of the first letter of the alphabet out loud he usually says something that sounds like, “aaaaye-ee”. When speaking the letter “O” he will often say, “ooooooooh-eww”. That little flip at the end of the vowel sound just doesn’t work when chanting (or for singing any Latin for that matter.) The vowel sound needs to be pure.

In my personal experience, those who come from backgrounds where they where they heard Spanish or Italian spoken have a more natural time with chant. Those who come from Germanic or Irish backgrounds have a great deal more difficulty because the vocal techniques for chanting seem unnatural. I’m old enough to just barely remember when the Extraordinary Form was the Form. Most of the priests were from Irish or German backgrounds. Their Latin speaking voices were rather unpleasant and their chanting voices even more so. I think the seminary must have taught them to speak and sing with a kind of nasally drone because so many of them sounded that same way! I honestly think that might have been one of the reasons that folk and contemporary music became popular for Catholics. It was a backlash against that droning, almost sneering, tone.

Fortunately my music director has demonstrated to me that chant is not meant to sound that way. It should be light and airy, even when sung with full voice. Again, this is much more natural for those who grew up speaking Romance languages than for those who grew up speaking English. English speakers have a much more difficult time with that airy sound.

The piano is not always the best instrument for accompanying chant because the voice should be the instrument “playing the melody” while the keyboard instrument is there to sustain the chords and to keep the pitch from falling. An electric keyboard may actually do a better job than a piano since it can mimic an organ. Chant can be rather free-form but it actually sounds best if it is sung faster than many of us are used to hearing it. It’s also sounds better to western ears when its kept to a strict rhythm (except maybe at the end of a verse.) But chant shouldn’t sound like it’s being rushed so it’s important choirs and cantors know how to quickly move past opening consonants and into pure vowel sounds. (Many English speakers and singers have a tendency to hang on to opening cosonants and drawl their way through the vowels. It doesn’t work for chant.)

:blush:

Though of that after I posted :doh2:. But then again, any time you can link to Ban Comic Sans, it’s worth it.

Yeah. Another thread on sacred music. But this one is not intended to be about what kind of music is preferred. My intention is to discuss how chant is technically different from other styles of music. I’m hoping musicians can share tricks and tips for introducing chant into parishes where it has not been the norm and to improve the quality of the chant in parishes where the quality of the chanting could use some, er, improvement.

There have been a couple of decent articles written about introducing chant and other sacred music in the parish setting. There’s The Blueprint: Sacred Music in Your Parish, How to Start Your Own Garage Schola, and plenty more of that sort.

For me, I think often people haven’t really figured out what they want when they say they’d like to “introduce chant in their parish.” There’s a world of difference between having a schola (or even the regular choir) chant the introit before the congregation sings the entrance hymn, and just declaring, “I’d like the congregation to chant Credo III in Latin!”

It’s easiest to start by adding chant, rather than replacing existing things with chant. If you have a schola capable of doing it, they can chant the introit and the communio at the proper times, with the congregation singing their hymns as customary also. I’d think next easiest would be the Kyrie in Greek, either to something like Missa Primitiva or even Orbis Factor, which is already used as a setting for the Lenten acclamation (“Praise and honor to you”), and is easier than most people seem to think. And there are a number of settings for the acclamations of the Eucharistic Prayer that, although in English, are based on chant melodies. Richard Proulx’s Corpus Christi Mass is a great example; the people’s parts are based on Adoro Te Devote and are very easy.

One huge factor, I think, is having the priest chant his parts (and I don’t mean this!), even to the simple tones, and having the people chant the Our Father, which everyone knows. I find that those things alone introduce a layer of reverence and solemnity that makes the praise-and-worship hymns start to look silly by juxtaposition.

Also, as to pronunciation and intonation, I think people make too big a deal out of this. Sometimes you’ll read discussions as though Latin contained five, and precisely five, vowel sounds; as though “e” had the same sound in every position in every Latin word in every sentence. Hogwash. Just listen to some Italian.

As for practical advice, whenever I’m working on a foreign language I find it immensely helpful – and, usually, shockingly and humblingly difficult – to sit down with a page of text and just read it out loud, trying to speak with as much fluidity as I would have reading a text in English. It’s hard – harder than you would think if you’re an English-speaker who has never tried it and isn’t at least conversationally fluent in another language! Sometimes I’ll read each sentence twice before moving on to the next. But the proper intonation of any language makes sense only when you’re speaking it naturally as a text, not when you’re prodding haltingly across every word.

I agree with your observation but I can usually tell when listening to a chant CD what country the monks are from. The Taize CD’s where even within the same selection singers or chant is in different languages, or the singers are from different countries, make it very noticeable.

The piano should not be in the same room where chant is taking place, worse than useless, ditto organ. a tone now and then to keep on pitch but no accompaniment, please, and should not be needed at all by experienced choir. chant here just sounds different than one I grew up with and I think you are right in general, except that Spanish language choirs here tend to be very nasal, and that does not translate well to chant.

It think where monastic choirs are alive and well chant thrives

OK. I can see we don’t see eye to eye in general because I LOVE comic sans and I find black text to be terminally boring. But for your sake I will go with Arial. And I’ll pick a darker blue.

I’d seen the first article but not the second. Thanks.

I agree that the priest is important as a leader. It’s been my experience that if the priest sings then everyone else is more likely to join in, regardless of the style of music. It’s true for chant. It’s true for contemporary music.

As for the priest in the referenced video… Nice voice. But it falters. And he’s not consistently on pitch.

I guess this a person issue. I realize that Mass isn’t American Idol and I’m not supposed to be a critic. Heaven knows I’m no diva! But I do find myself irritated by imperfections.

My particular parish tends to have a “progressive” bias. But they love chant and polyphony if it is well done. Not so much if it is just “ordinary”.

For me, the major difference between Sacred Music, particularly Chant (be it Gregorian, Byzantine, Coptic, etc.), and other forms of vocal music is that in Sacred Music the text is primary and the actual melody is secondary.

So much more readable! :extrahappy:

I’d seen the first article but not the second. Thanks.

You might be interested in some of the other articles here.

I agree that the priest is important as a leader. It’s been my experience that if the priest sings then everyone else is more likely to join in, regardless of the style of music. It’s true for chant. It’s true for contemporary music.

Yes, but I’m referring especially to the parts of the Mass reserved to the priest: the preface, the blessing, things like that.

I guess this a person issue. I realize that Mass isn’t American Idol and I’m not supposed to be a critic. Heaven knows I’m no diva! But I do find myself irritated by imperfections.

What I mean is, even “perfect” Latin intonation will not have precisely five vowel sounds. People have the same supposition about languages like Spanish, but Spanish vowels, and even consonsants like D, are colored by their position in a word or sentence. The problem is that it takes a decent grasp of the language to be able to do that accurately, which is why people insist that choirs pronounce Latin like robots. I struggle sometimes because my knowledge of classical Latin gives me a sense of long and short vowels which those less familiar with the language don’t have.

[quote]My particular parish tends to have a “progressive” bias. But they love chant and polyphony if it is well done. Not so much if it is just “ordinary”.

Well, therein lies the eternal struggle. Assuming you have at least a marginally competent choir, one thing you can do is pick from among the more beautiful Latin hymns for an offertory motet or something like that. It would be hard to make O Filii et Filiae or Puer Natus in Bethlehem sound bad, for instance, and there are hymns like Salve Festa Dies and Ave Maris Stella whose modality is so alien to modern music that they have a real haunting quality, without veering off into melisma-land like a lot of the propers.
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Haha, melisma-land! So true!

The piano can be used, but it has to be played as one might play the harpsichord accompanying a recitative, where the chords are rolled and are not necessarily “on the beat”.

A couple of pointers from a guy who has been singing chant in a small choir for the last 8 years.

First of all, as mentioned the text, and not the melody, is the primary focus. And for Latin that means paying particular attention to the rules regarding accentuation. Get the accents wrong and it sounds all wrong.

Best for chant is a cappella.

Voices need to be in unison. It can take considerable practice for a group to individuals to learn to synch their voices. No one voice should dominate. Unity of voices is key.

Chant is not metered, which makes the above a challenge, but with time a good group will eventually harmonize very nicely as they get used to each other; I find what helps, is for choristers to stick to the same positions in the choir so they get used to the sounds of those around them; also sometimes someone with a strong and steady voice, with good Latin reading ability, next to a novice, can help the novice along.

Don’t exaggerate the rhythmic signs (episemas, dotted notes) but don’t ignore them either.

In addition to the individual notes that make up the base melody, there is a grand overlaying movement called “arsis-thésis”, where the melody builds to a crescendo and then settles back down to a diminuendo. Look at the gradual Christus Factus Est for an example

A good practice in chant is to first read the text through in Latin, and translate it to capture the mood of the piece. When you read it, exaggerate the accents so you’ll know their location:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis

But when singing them, don’t “hammer” the accents.

Lastly, with your Graduale Romanum, listen to some good recordings from Solesmes. The CD Adorate Deum by Alberto Turco; Nova Schola Gregoriana, is also great for the Propers with many popular antiphons.

I agree those of the latinate languages tend to do better at chant. My first language is French and Latin pronunciation for me is easy. However I have heard English singers really massacre Latin!

Thanks for your post. It was very informative. We are trying hard to steer our parish in the direction that our Holy Father is asking with regard to recapturing a truly sacred music for the liturgy. As expected, we get much resistance from musicians and singers who cannot be convinced that Vatican II did not actually ban the use of Latin or chant, but rather encouraged it. We just lost a long-time guitarist last week (please don’t let your tears fall on your keyboard).

This morning, I played the organ for our weekly school Mass. At the last minute, the cantor asked if we could change the Agnus Dei from the Judy Hylton version (a dreary, English version from the 70’s that they normally use at that Mass) to the Latin plainsong version. All 220+ children, from kindergarten through 8th grade, sang loudly in Latin. At the end of the Mass, we had adoration, rosary, and benediction. While they were not the Gregorian versions, the O Salutaris and Tantum Ergo were also sung loudly and enthusiastically in Latin by the children. We seriously underestimate our childrens’ abilities. Unlike some of their parents, they don’t come with preconceived notions about Latin.

I would argue, however, that while an electronic keyboard may sound like an organ, it is NOT an organ and is never an acceptable substitute for a real organ, pipe or electronic. It neither plays nor functions like an organ, and it is impossible to play a traditional organ score on a keyboard because of the lack of pedals, changeable stops, and other manuals.

Yes, Yes, Yes! I only sang in a schola for 2 years in college (led by a Benedictine monk) One of the first lessons is the the word accents are important and drive the chant and chant is not metered! I am glad that this is being applied outside of academia. :thumbsup:

That’s really what I was getting at when I was talking about vowel sounds in an earlier post. It’s not just because of a concern about using correct Latin pronunciation (although that is important) but because uniformity of vowel sounds is important for syncing voices, especially on held tones.

The reason I even brought this up is because there are many parishes that either don’t have an organ or they don’t have anyone who knows how to play the one they have. I know we have people who frequent this forum who provide piano accompaniment for their parish but would not be able to play the organ.

This is an interesting thread. I am a choral music teacher and singing teacher. What I have learned about sung Latin is that the pronunciation of it depends on were in the world the music originated from. There is German Latin, Italian Latin, North American Latin etc. Also, because chant isn’t metered it is extremely important to know where the tonic accents lie in the words. Many books will have a accent over the syllable that is meant to be accented in the word. An example of a tonic accent in English: TO-day vs to-DAY. Which wounds most natural? Chant in it’s original purpose was meant to highlight the text of the prayer sung without being musically distracting. That is why it is sung without instruments. That includes the organ (if you are singing plainchant). Also, the text is meant to be understood. I like to sing chants in both the original Latin and in English (provided it is a musical translation).

The neat thing about plain chant is that it is PLAIN ( = unaccompanied ) I have been chanting it over 50 years without accompaniment, (sometimes in 3rd world countries where a church will have no organ or piano) and teaching children for the last 10 or so the way I was taught long ago by nuns in my old parochial school --by repetition and rote, because I don’t read music.

The trick is to listen to another person or a recording endlessly, singing along with it, until you can sing without it, starting only with a pitch-pipe to start you on a comfortable tone. The only other trick is NOT TO DRAG IT --it is a conversation with God, not a dirge --it’s light and airy though precise and sometimes strong and powerful.

A good resource for beginners is to get an old copy or a new reprint of the (blue) St Gregory’s parish hymnal which has all the basic Latin Masses and many Latin hymns in standard notation (not neumes). The most important hymns you should learn straight off are the Bedediction Hymns, --but there are many tunes for them in the St Gregory hymnal other than the “traditional” ones, which you should also learn for variety.

Learn the Veni Creator Spiritus, several settings of The Salve Regina and Ave Maris Stella; the Advent and Lenten , Holy Week anthems and hymns; the Pange Lingua, and the Missa de Angeles, Missa Orbis Factor, and above all the Requiem Mass which many old people yearn for and cannot find a choir to sing as they plan their funerals. Many years ago I sang (solo, a capella) the Requiem Mass for a dear friend and afterward was mobbed by people begging me to sing for their funerals – which i am happy to do and never ask anything in return, although it has happened that afterward a $100 bill has been pressed into my hand.

The Novus Ordo (In latin or English) Requiem mass does not have the stunningly beautiful “Dies Irae” as a sequence between readings; (the traditional Extraordinary form does) however I usually chant it just before the opening of Mass and it sets a profoundly contemplative mood for the Mass (watch the timing; it takes about 4 1/2 minutes, and when the Priest enters, you go straight into the Introit and then into the Kyrie, so you have to be fit and in practice to do it without panting at the end!) I have taught groups of children to sing the entire Requiem Mass, learning the cues and responses; and they love it, and are able to form themselves into small choirs of 8-12 for a funeral if the pastor requests, and their school schedules permit.

We must never forget that before Gregorian chant was written down, it was learnt by rote taught by one generation to another. There is the formal and difficult “Cathedral style” and monastic style, --but the “parish style” was and always will be “The folk-songs of the Church” and that is why you need no accompanyment nor musical background if you just start learning it very young. The chant itself develops the voice, and if you stay with it, an ordinary voice after many years becomes a very good voice. (What you can expect from Divinely inspired music).

I am always when teaching children or interested adults careful to translate the piece, explain why and when it was written, and then line by line pronounce the Latin carefully before attempting to fit the words to the melody. I sing a line and get them to repeat it until pronunciation and phrasing is correct, and then proceed to the next; pointing out where to breathe and where not to catch a breath without being noticed if necessary. When they know the piece well, I then show them where they should be softer and louder according to the meaning and expression.

Also I never ask the children to look at me (directing) but at the latin in the book, and listen to everyone around them to stay together. One person with good steady pitch intones, --but after that they stay together without need of a director (that’s the way they chant in Carmelite monasteries) . This means children who have learnt in this manner form their own choirs for a pastor without need of an adult leader waving their arms about like a windmill distracting everyone from the Mass. (After all, if they are sincerely motivated, the Holy Spirit is the true director of this, His own music.) The once they know the cardinal rule of “not dragging it” and “staying together” children are more demanding of each other than any director would be! This method of teaching works–try it.

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