Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Perfect Chant Workshop

A main issue in the struggle for improving Church music today concerns pedagogy. In order to teach anything, you have to know where you are starting from. You have to have the right objectives, the right tools, and the right method for getting from here to there.

Where are we starting from with regard to Catholic music? So far as I can call, there are essentially two classes of singers that make up the overwhelming number of people providing liturgical services today: a comparatively small (even tiny) number of people who can sing the chant that the General Instruction speaks of, and then there is everyone else. Everyone else has not been given the opportunity. Mostly their singing lives have consisted in showing up at rehearsal and liturgy and duplicating the melody line of contemporary hymns or Mass settings that they hear on the organ or piano. Unplug the instruments, unplug the microphones, take out the pop-dance meters, and what are you left with? Fear and hence silence. This description applies in nearly every parish save special ones that have had an emphasis on real singing and excellence in music

This is the reality, and we must deal with it. For all the regrets that many Catholics have over their local music programs, they do need to understand that fixing the problem is not merely a matter of passing out new music, getting a new hymnal, or hiring a new organist. The problem goes much deeper: the singers are not prepared to upgrade. It is just not possible to sing the usual repertoire one week and switch to the Graduale Romanum (the body of chant that applies to the Mass) on the next week. There are pastoral problems with that plan, yes, but, more fundamentally, the singers are not prepare technically or temperamentally. Many of us have concluded after years of workshops that this plan of action makes for interesting continuing education classes, generating unfulfilled longings in some and confusion in others, it does not actually engage in the singers in a real-life parish situation enough to make a fundamental difference in the life of a parish.

Well, all of this is to report the results of a wonderful workshop I was pleased to be part of in Lansing, Michigan last week. I can honestly say that it was the most effective workshop I’ve attended. The singers where almost entirely of class two that I listed above: good singers who had never really been asked to use their voices before to sing, really sing, plainsong in a parish environment. They were perfectly capable of doing so but did not know it, since the parish was like most every other: defaulting week after week to accompaniment/metrical conventions. There are several elements that came together to make this a smashing success.

1. Marketing. This workshop was billed as a workshop in English chant. The critical word here is English. Most people have never heard of that but the idea is intriguing. It is the great missed opportunity after the Second Vatican Council. In this time of change, it seems worth revisiting. And for many people, taking the Latin of the table eased the mind. It’s wrong but the truth is that modern Catholics fear Latin; they don’t that they don’t understand it, they will miss pronounce it, that it is too hard, and it is not pastoral. I don’t agree with a single one of these points; I’m merely drawing attention to the reality. People will come to a workshop on English chant whereas they might be marginally nervous enough about Latin to cause them to think about something else to do that day. English is not threatening in the slightest. Moreover, a workshop billed as English chant makes it clear that the organizers do not have a extremist agenda and that the music that people learn might actually prove useful, even immediately. Sure enough, there were two and three times the number in attendance than were expected.

2. Materials and tools. For the first time, we actually do have English chant resources readily at hand. Most fundamentally, we have the blessed Missal chants of the forthcoming Missal. They are normative. They are in the celebrant’s book. They will be in all the pew aids. They are free to download and distribute. They are easy, solemn, beautiful, and standardized for the whole English-speaking world. This is an incredible gift! We’ve never had anything like this before. It’s true that there was English chant in the old sacramentary but it is was typo ridden and buried in the back of the book so that no one could even see it. It was also not as good. In addition, we now have another blessed thing: an in-print book of chant Mass propers in English for the full liturgical year. The Simple English Propers are also free online. They have Psalms for the full liturgical action. They are beautiful and solemn and easy. They are fantastically well aligned with the spirit of the Missal chants. Finally, we have sources for Psalms for the Responsorial Psalm. Again, they can be downloaded. If all goes well, we will have Arlene Oost-Zinner’s in print in the not-too-distant future. These are solemn, beautiful, and, again, free to download and distribute. These are all the tools that one needs to transform a liturgy! This is an amazing thing, and completely new.

3. Organized pedagogy. If you are going to sing authentic Gregorian chant, there are three hurdles: learning to sing free rhythm plainsong, reading a four-line staff with neumes, and dealing with language. This workshop took two elements off the table first and dealt only with the first issue, using the Missal chants. This took a good part of the morning. People were singing for the first time. I explained the purpose of this style of music and its place in history and current Catholic life. We sang all through the new Missal music. I can tell you this: the singers were completely enthralled. They had never experienced anything like this before. Truly it is like flying for the first time. It is glorious. They discovered that great truth is the Church has long taught: the voice is the primary liturgical instrument. Then the afternoon sessions came, and here the focus was on the propers. That meant dealing with a four-line staff and neumes. I sat in the back and watched with amazement at how Arlene was able to teach this entire group how to navigate pitches and scales and read them off the page. It took little more than one hour, and everyone was not only singing from square notes; they were loving them. We continued to sing and sing, using the Missal chants as a main example and moving on to the Psalm and to the propers sung in English. At this point, the remarkable thing happened. I took the men and we learn the entrance and offertory chants for the day. Arlene took the women and here was the key: they turned to the Latin Gregorian communion of the day, and learned in in about 20 minutes. Incredible right? Right. But here is the key: the group had already learned plainsong, had already learned to read neumes, so it was just a matter of adding that one final element of the language. Were people upset to learn Latin at an English workshop? On the contrary. The joy and exuberance was like nothing I had seen in any similar event.

4. Clarity of scheduling. The workshop only lasted six hours. It began at 10am and ended at 4pm, with 90 minutes for lunch. That is not a big investment of time. The morning had its focus. The afternoon had its focus. Then we were done. It was six of the most exciting hours of musical instruction these nice people had ever experienced. Not one singer was left behind. They stayed with the program from start to finish.

5. The absence of performance pressure. In most every workshop I’ve been part of, the event ends with Mass at which we sing what we learned in the day. Sounds reasonable, right? Well, it turns out that there might be a number of reasons why this is not a good idea. People get really nervous for live liturgy. They do not sing as well as they might. Because the music is new, mental flake outs are common. The parishioners in the parish might be confused. Then you have a problem: the culminating event becomes the disappointing event. So this workshop took a different route. We did a demonstration liturgy, a practice run-through. People were still nervous but not as much, and mistakes didn’t have huge consequences. We were all in this as learners. It was beautiful, fun, and inspiring.

But let me tell you about the final thing sung at this event. This was the communion chant. I had my doubts that the Gregorian could really happen after such a short period. Then the women began to sing. Jaws dropped across the entire room. It was beyond-belief beautiful. They sang it so well, and they were so very happy. Keep in mind, this was Latin Gregorian chant - a very complicated piece. No one here had ever done anything like this before. And yet there it was in its full glory, as marvelous as a professional recording but even better because this was done after just one day of teaching. Everyone left with a sense of total excitement. But note here what happened: the workshop billed as English chant ended up putting on display - with heighten prominence - the true Gregorian chant of the Church. That was the final piece! Even people who claimed not to like Gregorian came away practically swooning!

I pass all this along because this experience can inform workshops going forward. It all reminded us of that television show Restaurant Impossible that transforms failing restaurants in two days. This was Liturgy Impossible, and the experience was nothing short of delightful. We even talked about doing a series called Liturgy Impossible. This can work.