Friday, October 14, 2011

Getting Started on Chant

I was deeply touched by this testimonial from Susan Carroll of the I Cantori Vocal Studio:
At present I teach voice in my home studio and have a small schola of high school girls who have been with me for years. Recently, I was asked by the Friars at the Franciscan Monastery in D.C. if my schola - called "I Cantori" would sing once or twice a month at their 10 am Sunday liturgy and become the "regular" choir of the Monastery.

I accepted - of course - and consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to serve the liturgy in such a worthy setting with the acoustics of a (well-built) great Cathedral. 

Here' the point: Last night, in my living room, I took my new copy of the "Simple English Propers" in hand and had "my girls" (ages 12 -14)  around me to prepare for Mass this Sunday -- and began work on the Introit and Communio for the liturgy.  At previous rehearsals I had explained that we would be starting to sing the Propers and provided them (via email) with brief instruction on why, what and how -- along with a brief history of the place of the Propers in the liturgy.  I had also sent them links to the Watershed tutorials on Youtube,  and asked them to prepare the Introit and Communio for rehearsal last night - if possible.

However, I didn't tell them that they'd have to quickly learn how to read neumes or give them any hint that they were going to read the chants in Gregorian notation. Now these girls are dedicated and they have been singing various chants of the liturgy with me for years.  However, they are also incredibly silly, talkative, inattentive and all of that--AND, they are very busy, popular girls who are also athletes, actresses, big sisters, etc. 

I didn't have time to actually plan a detailed lesson for them - we had a good deal of music to rehearse; however, at the last minute I decided to read them the tutorial from the forward of the Simple English Propers as we carefully worked our way through the Introit. 

The happy denouement is that even with my lack of preparation, the little introduction in the hymnal for the Simple English Propers was perfect.  They were able to understand exactly what they were trying to decode, made notes right on their music (at my insistence) and sang the Introit with the purity of angels.  Once I gave them a little direction on how to interpret the simple loveliness of the unison line, singing with reverence and care to shape the chant as if they were singing the waves of the ocean (arsis and thesis) - they totally understood their role.  They quickly grasped the concept of the differences in the various neumes and remembered which notes had to be sung first and how to group the notes by twos and threes. 

Then, unexpectedly - within 5 minutes and two iterations of the Introit, I witnessed something very beautiful as they became less of a "choir" and more of a "schola."  What do I mean by that? Well, to me, it is the submission of the ego in response to something more beautiful, creative and powerful than oneself -- in service to the ultimate "art form" (for lack of a better phrase) -- the Sacred Liturgy.  The chant did what we know it is capable of: it introduced itself to them and taught them how to interpret it IN LIGHT OF THEIR FAITH. 

I guess what I'm trying to say is that although these girls are already open to the power of the liturgy and they do - for the most part - take their faith seriously, interpreting the Introit somehow matured their faith.  I could see it in their demeanor as they chanted and I could definitely hear it in their voices as they were careful not to overpower the delicacy of the "line" as they sang.  

It wasn't just that they performed the chants with clarity and a purity of sound - there was a humble honesty in their rendering - as if they were beholding an ancient, holy thing that they didn't quite understand - yet compelled them in some silent corner of their faith. 

I wasn't surprised and yet, I have to say that I was a bit shocked- as one is shocked when one's fervent but hopeless prayer is gently answered -- at the same time that we become aware that - to our astonishment! -- our prayer is in the process of being answered!  It was the shock of innocent faith to the disillusioned (me) that a prayer I've held so deeply in my heart of hearts could actually be answered - even though I had "secretly" lost hope.

Because for a holy moment in my living room - my girls experienced a transcendence that had nothing to do with how beautiful they sounded and everything to do with how reverent and faithful they sounded.  Does that make sense?  It has to because it's the truth.