RISONERS AT ALCATRAZ were sometimes consigned to “THE HOLE,” and could remain alone (in total darkness) for nineteen days. One prisoner later recounted his method of keeping his sanity: “What I used to do is, I’d tear a button off my coveralls, flip it up in the air, then I’d turn around in circles, and I’d get down on my hands and knees to hunt for that button. When I found the button, I’d stand up and do it again.” This went on hour after hour, day after day, week after week. Why do I bring this up? Well, I certainly realize a choirmaster’s vocation can be difficult, with many obstacles to overcome. Yet, we should remember the many blessings we’ve received from God. Indeed, millions of people would gladly exchange their heavy crosses—such as extreme poverty, oppression, disabilities, and illness—for the (relatively) light crosses Jesus has placed on our shoulders. That doesn’t mean we should go looking for trouble. On the contrary, we should steal every good idea we can from excellent choirmasters. Today, I will present two ‘tricks’ I consider crucial.
Crucial Technique #1 • Needless to say, not everyone has spent years in a conservatory studying music theory. Nevertheless, one of the crucial ‘tricks’ when it comes to directing choirs is to select excellent harmonizations. Avoid harmonizations which are dull, stagnant, uninspired, repetitive, and utilize poor voice-leading. Currently, the best collection—and the most plentiful source—of hymn harmonizations is the Brébeuf Catholic Hymnal. The harmonies are beautiful, the voice-leading is pristine, and the vocal ranges are are comfortable.
The Spice Of Life • What is the “spice” of life? Variety is the spice of life. The Brébeuf Hymnal embraces multifarious harmonic approaches. Indeed, it even contains harmonizations for plainsong! Good harmonies often “go somewhere”—i.e. they have a structure which is interesting for the ear. Consider the following harmonization of Véni Creátor Spíritus. The SOPRANO (broadly speaking) ascends; therefore, the BASS descends in perfect stepwise motion, more than an octave:
Needless to say, the Brébeuf Hymnal did not “invent” this principle. For instance, this technique is a mainstay in the harmonizations by the LEMMENSINSTITUUT:
Failure To Explain • I was attempting to explain this to a friend of mine. She said: “Jeff, you should record these harmonies with human voices, to illustrate what you mean.” Therefore, with the help of Corrinne May, we took one of the plainsong harmonizations from the Brébeuf Hymnal and recorded it with human voices. See if you can hear the perfect descending stepwise motion in the BASS, contrasting with the ascending SOPRANO lines:
* PDF Download • CORDE NATUS EX PARENTIS
—This was created for choirs forbidden to sing in English.
“Extension” Scores • The musical score posted above is part of the “Brébeuf Extension series.” Basically, those are private scores created for my choir—using harmonies & texts from the Brébeuf Hymnal—sung completely in Latin, not English. I have tons of them ready to be released … but I need to figure out a way to post these online. My friends (Veronica Brandt, Matthew Frederes, and James Doherty) are helping me with this, because I’m no good with computers.
Crucial Technique #2 • I promised to give away two choirmaster ‘tricks’ in this article. The second is this: Always be flexible. Prepare a PLAN B … and a PLAN C and PLAN D. For example, last Sunday we had nineteen (19) choir members missing, due to illness and holiday travel. Therefore, instead of doing a polyphonic KYRIE, I asked the choir to pull out KYRIE II from the Père Daniel Kyriale. Here’s how that sounded:
A directive issued under Pope Pius XII says: “In general it is better to do something well on a small scale than to attempt something elaborate without sufficient resources to do it properly” (De Musica Sacra, 3 September 1958, §60a). The arrangement above—Corde Natus Ex Parentis—should only be attempted by singers who have good pitch and a certain musical “sensitivity.” In my view, amateurs should not attempt it unless they are willing to invest considerable rehearsal time. PLAINSONG, on the other hand, is usually less demanding—and it’s an excellent way to get amateurs singing … and listening to each other!