HAT gives Gregorian chant that certain je ne sais quoi? When I first started singing Gregorian chant, I was surprised by two things. The first thing that surprised me was how simple it looked on the page, and how easy it was to sing, especially when it had been transcribed into modern musical notation. The second thing that surprised me was how the chant I was singing sounded so completely unlike how monks sound when they chant. I was singing all the right notes, roughly the right rhythms, and the right words. And yet, it didn’t sound like Gregorian chant. It just sounded like a random string of notes!
Today, 12 years or so after I first began learning how to chant, I am just starting to understand what I was missing. That does not mean I have all the answers, but there are a few things which have dawned on me. If you are having trouble getting your chant to sound like chant, let’s troubleshoot!
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- Are you trying to make chant fit into a precise tempo and rhythm?
The free flowing rhythm of Gregorian chant as it slows and speeds up can be hard to conceptualize if you have been constrained your entire musical life to reading time signatures and precise numbers of beats and rests. Singing with more than one person can be problematic in and of itself because you need to agree on how long to hold things out. A solution would be to just agree with everyone on how long to hold those notes out. But are you trying to make the chant fit into a precise rhythm where each note that looks the same is then sung the same way? It can be hard to wrap your brain around the fact that chant does not have a set tempo and the notes do not have a set length. Trying to make it fit into a set tempo will make your chant sound mechanical and automatic, and it will sound like modern music – not ancient music. And yet, that free flowing tempo can be a very hard thing to accept!
- Are you barreling through full bar lines?
Unlike modern bar lines, which simply divide one measure from the next and do not have any bearing on the expression of the music itself, Gregorian chant bar lines have actual musical meaning! So what do bar lines mean in Gregorian chant? Generally speaking, they function as rests. How long of a rest? There is no set number of beats (that pesky non-tempo issue again!) You would observe a minor pause at the full single bar line and a longer pause at the double bar lines. It is recommended to slow the speed of the chant down as you come to a single or double bar line, and then observe a pause before resuming the next part of the chant. This can be a little nerve wracking when you are in the middle of Mass and you know that you need to wrap things up. Sometimes you yourself feel rushed, and that can make this particularly challenging. But those pauses provide an authentic contemplative feel to the chant. The rules for observing bar lines can be found in this article about the Rhythm of the Vatican Edition.
- Is your chant choir relatively new?
This is something totally out of your control, but the amount of time you spend studying chant and singing with the same people affects your sound. I recently asked a chant scholar of great renown why the monks at Solesmes sound so amazing, and he said that it’s because they have been chanting the same things over and over, numerous times a day with the same people – for decades! It was a very good point. We must be patient with ourselves and our group. Remember when I said the fluctuating tempo of chant is difficult when you have more than one singer? Singing together with the same people for a long time means that eventually you’ll all be on the same page out of simple familiarity. You can think of your chant choir as a fine wine that improves as it ages. The longer time you spend together figuring these nuances out, the better you will sound. So never give up, and keep singing as much as you can together. You cannot control how long ago you started, but you can control how long you choose to carry on.
- Did you forget to sing phrases instead of notes?
It can be tempting just to “get through” a difficult piece of chant. You might be happy just to be able to sing through something without sounding like a complete train wreck! But thinking of the notes as phrases, instead of a series of individual notes, can help you shape the sound of the chant so that it has natural dynamics. Think of what speech sounds like. We make exclamations when we are excited, we speak more softly when we are cautious or sad. We don’t always speak in the same volume because we would sound like robots. So don’t sing like a robot, either. When you sing, you should get louder, get softer, speed up, slow down. Let the prayer and the music carry you and show you what to do.
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. It doesn’t take long to do this, and if you keep looking at it here and there, the meaning and the musicality of it will start to sink in.
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Hopefully, these tips will help give your singing a more authentic and beautiful sound. But since the above points are just a cliff notes version of things that can transform your chanting, you can find a full treatise on Gregorian chant rhythm here. I highly recommend making a study of it. This very website contains numerous scholarly articles on the subject! In the end, there really is no substitute for time and experience. But you can definitely help yourself by taking the time to study the many nuances of Gregorian chant.