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.)