Friday, January 16, 2009

After the Chant Intensive

What To Do After The Intensive Is Over
By Arlene Oost-Zinner

Studying the chant for and entire week can be an alarming experience. After five straight days of classes from morning to night, your head is spinning. You arrive back home and find yourself having a hard time adjusting to civilian life – you feel a jet lag of sorts, and you fear that you can no longer read modern notation. In fact, your world as a musician has been turned upside down. Nothing will ever be the same.

You might have attended because you are curious about the chant, and wonder at its prayerful sound. Or maybe you were already proficient in reading Gregorian notation, but wanted to learn more about the Solesmes method and its rhythmic peculiarities. Most likely you attended so you could become a more effective director of chant in your parish.

You’ve bee through a grueling but rewarding week. But the long days of counting and solfeging in class were only the beginning. Now you have to keep it up – which means systematic study on your own.

Understanding the basics

The CMAA Chant Intensive teaches chant according to the the the Solesmes method. Why? Because it works. It helps you teach your singers to sing together and make a beautiful sound. No one denies that there are other approaches to learning and singing chant. Scholarship in the discipline continues, and it will do you well as a musician and conductor of the chant to keep abreast of the latest.

But the lessons you learned at the Chant Intensive provide you with the essentials to get things going. Think of the Solesmes method as a framework – like the frame of a bicycle. The frame is designed and calibrated and pieced together for one reason – to allow the bicycle’s two wheels to turn at the same time, and move forward.

Chant Master?

Your next rehearsal is only two days away, and you want to implement what you have learned with your schola.

You will be able to do this – bit by bit - do not rush it. It will happen in time and on its own. The knowledge and skills you have acquired have not gone anywhere. But they do need time to grow and develop. Like a newly baptized Catholic, you are filled with the spirit – at least that of Dom Mocqueeau and the Solesmes method.

Don’t assume you will be able to recall, much less explain everything to your schola right away. Be prepared for a little backsliding from where you were when you closed your Parish Book of Chant on the last day of the intensive. It takes more than just a few days to internalize the treasures that have been revealed to you in class; and it takes weeks, months, if not years, to make them part of your own pedagogical repertoire.

Commit to two things every day

1. Keep up on your solfege. Whether you are in the position to introduce a work of chant to your schola for this Sunday’s Mass or not is irrelevant. Establish a habit. Take one of your textbooks – the Gregorian Missal, or the Parish Book of Chant, for example. Open it to any page and solfege through a chant or two. Even fifteen minutes per day will make a difference. Just make it part of your work day if you are music director. Or part of your lunch hour if you work elsewhere. Set this time aside for solfege alone. Do not take any calls. It is an investment in your own skills and in good liturgy.

2. Sing through the modes, all eight of them, at least once a day. Quiz yourself on their finals and dominants. Why not do this while driving to and from work? It is a lot safer than talking on your cell phone. It might look or sound strange to the police officer stopped to your left at the light, but it is unlikely that it will result in his issuing you a traffic citation.

Preparing to teach a chant

Even if you think you are new to the chant, you are more still more familiar with it than your singers are. You’ve been through boot camp and know the rules. They are looking to you to lead them. Do yourself and them a huge a favor by preparing carefully marked copies of the chants you will be teaching during rehearsal. Very important: go through all of the steps of learning a chant yourself before even thinking of presenting it to your singers.

Incomplete checklist

1.Mark the ictus. Remember the rules?

a. Ictus already marked.
b. Long note
c. Beginning of a neume
d. Count back by two
e. Last syllable of a word
f. First syllable of a dactyl

2. Count through the chant. Remember, twos and threes.

3. Solfege your way through the chant. First speak the do re mi’s, then sing them.

4. Never forget that music exists in time and time alone. Ignoring the rhythm is not a good idea.

6. Try to identify the mode without looking at the Roman numeral in front of it. Can you hear the final and dominant? On which note does the chant come to rest? Around which note does the melody circle?

7. Find a way to make note of the expressive neumes – the salicus, the episema, and the quilisma. Sing through the line, paying attention to the text as well and the rhythm of the Latin language - see what the music and these special neumes require in order to make a beautiful word or phrase. Take note of how the music illuminates the text, or vice versa.

8. Anticipate where you choir might need to breath. You know your own singers. Put breath marks on the copies you hand out to your choir – but do so in a way that won’t require your singers to compromise the rhythm of the musical line.

How much does my schola need to know?

Assuming you’ve been keeping up with your studies and are feeling quite confident to present a chant to your schola, remember that you will need to take your singers through a number of steps so they can sing with understanding, and beautifully. One reality is, of course, that you don’t have time to make each rehearsal a mini chant intensive. But here are some things your schola would be best off knowing:

1.The names of the neumes and how to sing them. Give them a handout to put in their folders, or post a chart in your choir room. You have to have a common vocabulary.

2. The eight modes. People need to be familiar with them. Don’t worry too much if your singers can identify their ranges, dominants, and finals right away. In fact, most of them will never be able to. What is important at first is that they have some sense of what the scale sounds like. Have them sing a scale up and down before starting work on a particular chant.

3. They do not need to know how to place the ictus right now. Your prepared copies will have everything they need to sing correctly. But they do need to know how to count the twos and threes. In time, the curious in the group will start asking more specific questions about the ictus and how it all works. This will be a great day for you, and a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone present.

4. They need to know that they must sing as a group. Make sure they understand that there is one tempo for the group. You have to see to it that the tempo is clearly established and felt by everyone in the room. They will sing and breathe together.

In time

You will be able to omit some of the steps in the process as your singers become more familiar with singing chant. And sometimes you will not have enough rehearsal time to go through each of the chants in the detail you would like. That’s reality.

But if there is a problem, it is never a mistake to go back and repeat one or two of the most elementary steps – think of it as a time for a musical confession and reconciliation. Tempos will be set straight, and other things that might not have been completely understood will emerge and work themselves out.

If you come to a trouble spot in a chant, take a break from singing the entire line or phrase. Deconstruct a phrase by pronouncing the Latin, or counting or solfeging – whatever is necessary. Then try again from the beginning of the line. If you get it right the phrase will take on a life of its own. It will sound mysterious and wonderful. But remember that rehearsing it is no mystery. It is just music, after all.

What about chironomy?

No need to concern your schola with chironomy right now. That is your job. If they understand the basics, they will respond to your direction and produce the sound you need. Look at your choir. Make sure the gestures you use are comfortable for you. Everyone has a different style. The best place to practice your chironomy? In front of a mirror.

Prayer a thousand times over

If you are disciplined in your approach to your own studies and your rehearsals, your schola, even in its very beginnings, will have confidence in their director - you. They expect you to know what you are doing. Likewise, you have the right to expect them to learn the basics. And the more they own what they do, the more beautiful the music they will produce.

They may be some who are not interested in learning more than just the basics. But having worked through a chant hymn, a few propers, or an entire setting of the ordinary, the majority will seek to make the chant their own. Their efforts are making a contribution to the prayer life of the Church.

It’s a little like the difference between buying bread at the grocery store, an upscale bakery, or actually learning to bake it yourself. Anyone who has ever been successful in baking yeast bread knows well the rewards of the struggle. The bread is fresh and hot and wonderful, and turns out a little differently every time. Best of all, you can make another loaf, or another thousand loaves, if you want to.

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