Monday, January 05, 2009

Chant Class, Day One

The sunny campus of the University of San Diego was teaming with people carrying Gregorian Missals this morning. No one wanted to be late. These are all attendees of the CMAA’s first-ever Winter Chant Intensive, taught by Scott Turkington.

The group gathered to day is varied - organists from New York, choir members from northern states and the Midwest, a good number of religious, and, and unexpected number of people from the San Diego area – from a diocese only newly discovering its affection for Gregorian chant and traditional liturgy.

After a brief welcome, the week of intense study began at 2:00 pm sharp, with chant master Scott Turkington asking everyone present to make a personal commitment – right off the bat: a commitment to learning solfege, the system of notation that is the key to unlocking the melodies of the Church’s treasury of chants. He also asked them to make a commitment to learning how to sing a musical phrase – beautifully.

Those who’ve already made these commitments know that this is a commitment for life, and for the life of the liturgy. The first ever CMAA Chant Intensive course was held in the summer of 2008 at Loyola University in Chicago in the week preceding the Sacred Music Colloquium. Graduates of the Intensive, fifty in number, have taken what they have learned and have founded new scholas. They are working in parish after parish around the country – making a difference – and have the knowledge, stamina, and devotion to the chant to make things stick.

Many participants of this near standing room only winter course are seasoned musicians. Others have little or no formal music education. Scott stressed that the latter group may be the group with the advantage here. Without a brain cluttered with theory and key signatures, a person can free his mind and let the chant in. There is room for everyone when it comes to studying, and moreover, singing Gregorian chant.

Scott tackled the neumes this afternoon – how does one sing those funny little square and triangular notes, not to mention all of the different combinations in which they occur on the four lined staff? He spoke about Latin and its accents, and their importance in relation to the Gregorian musical phrase.

Participants were actively engaged from the beginning – alternatively sitting and standing all afternoon - soaking in theory and singing Kyrie XI, Kyrie IV and other chants that will be sung at the closing Mass of the conference on Friday afternoon in Founders Chapel on the USD campus.

As the week progresses, Scott will be moving the group through those pesky issues of rhythm, the modes, psalmody, chironomy (conducting chant) – all with the aim of teaching those who’ve come to teach others to sing Gregorian chant beautifully, and with the aid of the Solesmes method.

Why did the CMAA take the risk and decide to sponsor an event like this in winter, and in San Diego, California? That’s obvious. Who wouldn’t want to be in San Diego with its palm trees, view of the ocean and charming neighborhoods in the middle of January? No snow. No icy highways. Here is a lavish indulgence for tired church musicians who have spent the last two months rehearsing their choirs for Advent and Christmas liturgies.

But attendance might have more to it than the need for professional development and a little rest and relaxation.

Beauty and truth are sweeping the country. They’ve arrived from the east and are moving west. They are inescapable. Is this the new gold rush?

I’ll be trying to live blog this event throughout the week.

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