How to Get Started with Chant

All the activity in the Catholic music world has inspired many people who have never been involved to think about trying it out. They been sitting in the pews for years, enduring the music or just tuning it out but not really considering trying to help. But the new Missal and all this talk of new kinds of music for liturgy has inspired them.

The first thing is to get over the intimidation factor. Most of these people do not play any instrument and they do not read any form of music. They feel like they lack expertise, which is why they long ago gave up trying to give pointers to the pastor or the hired musicians. They are outgunned and outclassed, they assume, and don’t have the wherewithal to take on the parish establishment.

(Actually, many priests feel this way. They worry that because they can’t play piano and can’t speak the puzzling language of musicians, they can’t really exercise any real authority over the music in the parishes, so they have to leave it to the experts. They fear the topic and worry that by dipping into it, they will be shown up. Truth be told, musicians often count on this and even try to manipulate these fears.)

Well, if you think about it, music in the Catholic Church was sustained for more than 1000 years by singers only (no people who play instruments) and none of them could read music because there was no music to read (the musical staff wasn’t invented yet). These 1000 years sustained the chant tradition by singing and listening, that is, learning “by rote.” So these people who consider themselves to be “musically illiterate” are in excellent company.

The great challenge of being a singer for liturgy is all about being able to declaim a text with confidence and pitch stability. At liturgy, there is only once chance to sing “Lord, have mercy” at the Kyrie or “Holy” at the Sanctus. These are the scariest moments for any singer at the Catholic Mass, the times when we fear messing up, the times when the heart bounds and the fingers get cold.

To sing these intonations again and again with confidence is the great challenge. The singing is exposed. The singer music break the silence, which itself is beautiful. Indeed, it is hard to improve on silence. You need a pitch your head and the first time you really vocalize that pitch is the very time when you must start singing “for real.” Will it be there? Will it sound funny? Everyone will be staring and you if you are up front, and that itself is alarming.

Fear strikes at the last instant. This is called the “choke.” It happens to the best. The more experience you have, the less chance there is that this choke will happen. The only way to gain experience is to sing and thereby risk messing up. But this must be done. Be ready to bury the ego and jump.

So how do you prepare? Do it in private spaces. Seize on the words “Lord, have mercy” and sing them to the pitch in the Missal, the first three notes of the major scale. Try it in the morning. In the shower. In the car. In your office. At home walking from room to room. In front of a few people, and then by yourself again. Do this 10 times whenever possible.

Experiment with different articulations, ways of breathing, volumes, and different starting pitches. Sing it in as many different ways as you can. Then settle on the one way that makes the most sense. Do that again and again. Try to become louder. Sing with the mental image that your blowing dust off a desk five feet away. Then imagine you are singing for a large concert hall. Pay careful attention to the way you begin, remembering that this is where the flubs occur.

In less than a week or two, using these approach, anyone can develop a competent voice for liturgy. Of course the conditions will change once you are in front of a hundred plus people but then you will at least have some experience to draw on.

Experienced singers will look at what I just wrote and think: this is crazy. Who can’t sing three notes? Well, experienced singers do look at it this way. But in all the teaching I’ve done over the last year, I’ve found that the ability to stand up and sing three notes without accompaniment, with a pitch that travels from imaginary to real in a instant, and to do it with strength and conviction – this is the hardest of all things that new singers can learn.

And guess what? Most singers in the Catholic church today cannot in fact do this! And this is because they haven’t tried, much less practiced. Instead they depend on the three great crutches of singers: accompaniment ooze to give them comfort, microphones to enable them to sing shyly with more breath than pitch, and sheet music to hide their face so they don’t have to look up and out.

If you can sing three notes in Church without these three crutches, you are will immediately be better than most all singers in the Catholic church today.

Most of the challenge is mental. But mental is a big deal when it comes to singing. In the backdrop of all of this stands the gigantic industry of recorded, professional music that trains us all to believe that music comes from tapes, iPods, iPhones, speakers in stores and cars, and only the most amazing professionals in the world would ever dare to stand in front of an audience and sing. If we believe that, if we go along with what the current culture of music production is telling us, we would never sing in Church.

But look what the Church is asking and has always asked. Every single parish is expected to raise up enough singers from within the parish to cover all the liturgical needs of the Church in that one microcosm. All the texts of the liturgy are to be sung by a local human voice or many voices.

What this means is that your parish needs you. It doesn’t need more karaoke stars or pop idols or electronically produced instruments. It needs human beings who are aware that they have been given a gift of vocal production and that they are being called to use that gift as an offering back to God. And this means: the voice alone. The voice alone must be capable of rendering all the sung texts of the liturgy.

This is the skill that must be practice and eventually mastered. You can start right now wherever you are.