ARLIER today, our Las Vegas correspondent wrote an exceptionally helpful article that provided practical tips for enhancing the quality of your chant. If you haven’t done so already, please read Andrea Leal’s Troubleshooting Your Gregorian Chant.
Read it? Good.
These sentences towards the end of Andrea’s article immediately inspired me to write the “spinoff” article you’re now reading:
This would also be a good moment to remind you that Gregorian chant is first and foremost a prayer. Read the translation so you know what you are praying, and even spend time contemplating it ahead of rehearsal. I often look at my propers while I am cooking dinner, and I also try to look at it for a minute or two before going to sleep at night.
I had to chuckle because I’ll often sing through the propers for the upcoming Sunday as I’m making my famous slow-cooked scrambled eggs for Friday dinner (hint: use tarragon, cream, and the lowest burner setting). I agree wholeheartedly that any time is a good time to fit in some chant study. But as Andrea also mentions, we can’t really know what we’re praying unless we’ve contemplated it first.
If you’re trying to form a deeper connection with the text you’re chanting, I hope these three tips will help:
1. Go to Dom Johner
Dom Dominic Johner published The Chants of the Vatican Gradual in 1928. It remains one of the best resources for understanding the “story” behind each of the propers throughout the liturgical year. Sometimes Dom Johner waxes poetic; other times he’s more technical about the musical contents of each chant. But he’ll always provide perspectives you haven’t considered. My printouts of the propers are riddled with little markings that summarize Dom Johner’s commentary from throughout the year.
Dom Johner wrote in German—but don’t worry. In 1940, translators at St. John’s Abbey published an English version of his book. The good people at Church Music Association of America (CMAA) have made it available as a free PDF document.
2. Go to St. Robert Bellarmine
Have you ever noticed how many psalms we sing at Mass? For some Masses, every sung proper is taken from a psalm. We always encounter at least a few.
It can be daunting to sing psalms when we’re not fully confident that we understand them (nobody, after all, has a perfect understanding of every line of Scripture). My advice? Just take it one psalm at a time. Remember that we’re only singing a few verses of any given psalm at any given Mass. And while we want to understand verses in their proper context, we don’t need to study all 176 verses of Psalm 118 just to be able to sing a few of those verses.
If you’re feeling scholarly, I highly recommend St. Robert Bellarmine’s A Commentary on the Book of Psalms. The good saint goes verse by verse and provides extensive exegesis for the dedicated reader. You can read this entire book online.
3. Start on Monday
If you’re like me, you appreciate having one day per week where you sing little, if at all. But you also hate to lose a day of preparation for the upcoming Sunday. So why not make Monday your official day to spend time with Dom Johner, St. Robert Bellarmine, and any other sources you like to use to help you understand the propers for your next sung Mass? I’ve found that if I don’t make a point of doing this work on Monday and instead plan to “fit it in” during the week, I end up rushing the task and not enjoying it. Another benefit is that if I get a good grasp of the texts on Monday, they can continue to seep into me all week long and make my Sunday singing that much more prayerful.
Tell yourself you won’t actually sing in this prep session—you’ll simply sit and ponder the text. You can also look over the contours of the Gregorian melodies, noting the high points and peculiarities.
OK, you probably can’t refrain from at least humming! I never can. But I think it’s extremely constructive to have a light vocal day as you focus exclusively on the spiritual side of what we do.
Notice that nothing I’ve recommended in this article involves actually opening your mouth and singing. It’s a singular joy to make music, but as we all know, it’s the behind-the-scenes work that makes our rendition of the music truly special—all to the glory of God and the edification of His faithful.