Monday, April 12, 2010

What Bad Chanting Sounds Like

After 11 years of chanting and singing in choirs, it has become clear to me that if you are a chanter, singer or choir person there are three things that should govern what happens at the kliros or music stand:  Beauty, orderliness and comprehensibility to the listeners.  If any one of these three are missing, we are not fulfilling our ministry within the worship of the Church. Just like the priest and deacons, we are part of the liturgical ministry of the Church. When we are blessed to sing and chant, just like a priest, we accept some responsibilities AND some limitations in our participation in worship.  We do not sing to feel good about ourselves, we sing to benefit others.  We are no longer "free" to sing as we please (or sometimes as we are able...)

There is nothing more distracting in worship than singers who don't know when to drop out because they are crashing and burning on a piece, chanters who do not know where they are in the service and are shuffling papers, books and music, chanters who mumble or can't read, or "choral chanting" where people don't sing a piece "with one voice" and it becomes incomprehensible mush to the congregation.  The rule of thumb should be: a piece should be done in a way and to the degree of complexity that it can be done beautifully and understandably.  If that means one person sings it, so be it, until someone else can learn it well enough to do it in a way that is not distracting.  Don't let your kliros sound like this

16 comments:

Discourse said...

Agreed!

Donna said...

Hmmm I would, overall, and basically, agree, of course, since what you say makes perfect sense (I sing in the choir at my church as well). I would add, though, one more thing to the list of things that should "govern what happens at the kliros or music stand": charity. I say this as someone who terribly, terribly struggles with it herself. There are times when the three things you mention (one or all of them) are absent from the kliros (or, in my case, loft), and as a choir *singer* at least (as opposed to a director), there is often nothing you can do about it. The healthiest and least harmful response in these cases, other than continuing to sing as best as you can, to the glory of God, is to forgive the choir, yourself chief among them, and try to be at peace so worship can continue, for yourself and others. I only mention this because, as I said, while ideally those three things you mention would be in every choir or group of chanters... they often aren't :( and in those situations, a fourth thing is needed, in my experience anyway.

So much easier said than done though... Forgive me.

Mary said...

Donna,

as a fellow choirmember, I heartily agree with what you said. If I can keep my mind in prayer instead of thinking about what those around me are or are not doing, that is all that I can do. (Besides hoping that my fellow choirmembers & director also forgive me for what I'm doing/not doing. :-) )

Silouan said...

That goes also for parishes where texts get read in unison, like the Pledge of Allegiance.

All together now: "I believe in one gomble homble ighty, maker of hammenern anna vall things visinisimizzible..."

nothinghypothetical said...

Sometimes I must repeat to myself, "There is only one correct pitch, whatever the priest says it is." I don't have perfect pitch, but I know what an F is.

Of course, we have an interesting dynamic. Our priest tends to go a bit flat on longer stretches, our deacon (classically trained) goes sharp and our choir director insists on making both of these obvious to everyone by using a keyboard to re-pitch almost every song correctly.

I have bad days and I'm still new to this (only a recent covert). I admit there are times I can't keep up with all the rapid and still unfamiliar words, strange notation and voicing in a song so otherwise simple as "Let God Arise".

Of course, for a bass (the only one) I can get away with fudging and frankly even rewriting my part if I want/need to. Much of what we sing isn't written down anyway, so like a Protestant acapella devotional song there's plenty of play for harmonizing. The one thing I stick to is anything where the part is written explicitly and the parishioners have copies of the music. Such messing around would be very disruptive (even though I don't know if they can read the music, I don't take that chance).

VSO said...

Oh man don't even get me started! There's a reason I sing for Catholics other than the money, they (and westerners in general) have a clue with regards to music. Unfortunately I don't live in Denver otherwise I'd go to St. Augustine's with Msgr. Mangels. Now THERE'S a priest who knows music! I never even open my mouth for own parish anymore, I just get tired of having to sing EVERYWHERE I GO.

Anonymous said...

Make it clear, make it beautiful, and DON'T make it about you.

I read fairly often, and I have a pretty powerful bass voice, so I have to dial back. Man, the temptation to make it about me is huge. I think I generally succeed, but I catch myself in flourishes that I probably wouldn't do except they're so darn fun.

s-p said...

I think it was St. John Chrysostom that said "Satan enters the Church through the choir". Indeed it can be a place for egos, judgmentalism, unforgiveness, vainglory, fastidiousness, etc. etc. No choir or chanter's stand has perfect people in it and there is always room for improvement. However, as with all public ministries it should be made clear to people when they sign up that this is a place where you WILL have to deal with your ego, your false self image, your shortcomings... in short, it is a place where you WILL receive not just musical direction, but spiritual direction also. It is not a place for people who want to do what they want to do at all times and who have thin skins and get their feelings hurt easily, even if they have talent. It is a place to learn humility and obedience and charity within community. It ain't easy, especially if you have a mix of varying degrees of talent in a choir and at the altar. "Charity" is not a license for people to not rehearse, show up and belt out the wrong notes and crash the whole choir and be a distraction to the whole Church. True "charity" corrects that in a charitable way for the sake of the good order of the Liturgy. A choir director is as much a "spiritual director" in many cases when trying to navigate people's "issues" and consequently HAS to have a close working relationship with the priest (who ideally understands the necessity of beauty, order and clarity of the liturgical music.)

As with everything else in the Church, there is the ideal and there is reality. And struggling with our realities toward the ideal with spiritual direction is what our salvation is all about.

Anonymous said...

I think it was St. John Chrysostom that said "Satan enters the Church through the choir".

Actually, that was our priest. And he kept looking over his glasses at me as he said it. Odd man......

We have a pretty good choir. We have our moments, believe me, but it is really a blessing to sing with such gifted people. Sometimes, it really is like the angels singing to the Lord of Sabaoth.

At other times, it wasn't me. Really.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and nothinghypothetical:

As a bass, your job is to rewrite the parts. Trust me, they weren't written for your range to begin with. And I can prove that regardless of what your range is.

If you're a deep bass, like me, that means dropping an octave any time you like. (In the Slavic tradition, it's a must). The music can sustain it, because harmonically it's really very simple. Despite the pants wetting that the newbies get (Like I got when I was a newbie), the music is not that tough.

nothinghypothetical said...

See that's the number one question, particularly on the cadences which make no sense ending up. There are some sections of the liturgy that are expressly written with low notes (parts of the Creed, the second set of "Grant this O Lord"s, etc).

However, there are a couple of parishioners trying to sing the bass, so if I'm the only one in the choir, I stick to what's written as much as possible. I don't want to confuse them.

Outside the liturgy our deacon stands with the choir and can sing either the tenor or the bass by ear. If he sings the bass, I drop down an octave. That makes for a full sound coming from just four people. The deacon does what the deacon wants and that's fine by me.

To my frustration the choir director has left it pretty much left what I do up to me. I would say she can't always tell me in advance what she does or doesn't like, but she knows it when she hears it (and lets me know).

Mary said...

s-p,

Amen, amen, amen to your above comment! In my parish, we are so blessed to have a priest and a choir director who are truly concerned with the spiritual well-being of the parish and choir, more than how beautiful (or not!) we sound. Obviously, we want to facilitate prayer, not hinder it, but the spiritual struggles I experience just from being a part of the choir can be great, and are of much greater importance.

Anonymous said...

nothinghypothetical:

You said that the cadences make no sense. That tells me that you have musical training. Indeed, they make no rhythmic sense sometimes. You're trained enough to deal with that. Work the problem.

If you are the only bass, sing it as written. The altos depend on you. Seriously. They need a solid tonal foundation to work from. I often have to squeeze one out that is a bit high for me at Vespers because no one else showed up, and that pitch gives the ocassional alto something to work with.

Mary said...

The liturgical singers and chanters have the responsibility of conveying the theophorus (God-bearing) poetry of the Church with spiritual clarity. Meaning entrusted to music is a fragile integrity that is easily injured by the emotional insobriety of singers. Thundering enthusiasm violates the sympathy of word and music and bruises prayer. The singers must humbly labor to anonymously integrate their voices into the iconic stream as one breath, one voice. The personalities of individual voices please only themselves when sounding forth above the company, but the praying people are not so charmed.

s-p said...

Beautifully stated, Mary. Thanks.

Mary said...

Excerpted from my essay, "Tongues of Angels and Men: a Reflection on Church Singing."

More ...

The theology of the Orthodox Church is embedded in her hymnography, and church singing is the primary instrument of its preaching, catechesis and evangelism. Sermons, Bible studies and church schools support spiritual formation, but this is not how the Church draws near to the soul; it is through the depth of her poetry, chanted and sung. In the tradition of God’s greatest poet, King David, the liturgical poets of the Orthodox Church have produced works that express the fullness of the Christian revelation. Among the best known hymnographers are Sts. James, Basil the Great, John Chrysostom, Ephraim the Syrian, Andrew of Crete, John Damascene and Romanos the Melodist. Church composers and musicians throughout the centuries have continuously molded and remolded the texts of these poet-theologians into aural icons that awaken our spiritual senses to receive understanding.