Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

I dream of chanting

Human loves are cyclical, and now, after a dry spell of several years, my great enthusiasm is the making of music.

Before I went to college I was quite musical. I had regular piano lessons over the course of twelve years, and studied viola for three years as a teenager. My family sings all the time, and not badly, either -- my sister, in particular, has been carrying off honors and winning vocal competitions for a few years . When I went to school, however, I stopped practicing my instruments, and I stopped singing, mainly because I lacked the confidence to sound less than polished in such a public setting. My one semester of voice class was an experience so utterly confusing that I came to the conclusion that I had no talent whatsoever.

Several factors have contributed to make me more confident musically: having the privacy of my own house in which to experiment and just be silly; having acquired a violin and (more importantly) a fine piano, and falling in with some young friends who are enough like my own family that I feel comfortable making merry music with them. And after a number of years I'm finally starting to assimilate what my voice teacher was trying to pound into my head.

Right now, my huge source of motivation is the proposed schola. I have been spending every spare minute learning chant. I listen to chant. I lurk on sacred music sites looking for advice. I have downloaded the Graduale Romanum. I dream about singing (no, literally). The basic, more hymn-like chants have been easy to learn, especially as I can already read neumes and can sight-sing. Not so easy is Ad te levavi, the Introit for the first Sunday of Advent. I wonder if some chant you have to hear to learn -- I finally had to find a recording and follow along before I could understand the vocal line. Perhaps part of the problem is thinking in terms of "tune". Chant follows its own internal logic, and that doesn't necessarily bear any resemblance to the logic and patterns of other forms of music.

Maybe some of you music types out there can give me some pointers. When I figure out how to post recordings, I'll put up some of my efforts for critique.


HilbertAstronaut said...

Yay, new chanters!!! :-D

1. Don't use the piano to learn the chant melody -- use the violin. The percusssive + decay piano sound is not what you want to have in your mind when you sing chant. Plus, the tuning is all wrong ;-P

2. Yes, chant does have its own distinctive rules, but learning them pays off quite rapidly, because certain motives tend to recur frequently in certain modes and situations. This is called "centonization":

and it makes learning a new piece go faster. You'll first observe this at endings of propers -- for example, a lot of the mode 7 Alleluias have a similar ending.

3. Feel free to post your efforts, or you can e-mail them to me if you're shy :-) Post a comment on my blog to ask for my e-mail address.

mrsdarwin said...

Thanks, Hilbert.

I've used the piano a bit, but I've found that a tin penny whistle my brother gave me seems to do the trick a bit better. I try not to play through the chant, but only use the whistle when I'm stuck and need a pitch.

Most helpful, though, is hearing someone else sing the chant. :)

Dad29 said...

I'll start by making the suggestion that you read Chant notes as though they were Western. WIth the "DO" sign on the top line, that would be key of D major; with the FA sign on the third line, it is key of F major.

Lousy analogy, but extremely practical.

Assuming you know how to read all the compound notes (bottom up!--think drink!) and the rhythmic marks, the next trick is to speak the Latin. SPEAK. Not slow, not fast, just speak.

OK. Now you have the MM for a punctum. The notes with the horizontal episema over them should merely blossom a bit more than you allow a punctum to blossom--that is, they 'mature' slightly.

ALL is linear! Each two- or three-note group is part of a larger group, which is part of a larger group, which is ...until the end.

When you're singing it correctly, your body will begin to move slightly, with that almost indescribable rhythm which underlies Chant.

Chant is sung lightly: GKC's "angels can fly because they take themselves lightly" fits Chant singers, too. A very little rise in volume on held notes (to get to the next group/phrase), and of course, the piece begins very softly and ends the same way.

Roger Wagner, KCSG: "Sing it as though it were MUSIC!!" applies at all times.

Ad te levavi....lift your eyes, as the score lifts--then lower them again, in humilty, as the score lowers.

You'll get it, but it may take a few months to become integral, and it's never "instant get-it." But it grows, and grows, and grows on you.

HilbertAstronaut said...

I thought about posting recordings for the Feast of the Transfiguration -- I made a recording of the Alleluia (Candor est) which wasn't half bad -- but didn't get around to figuring out how to post sound files to blogger. Got any ideas on the technical aspects of that?

mrsdarwin said...

I hear that Blogger can handle uploading sound files, but I couldn't figure out how to do it, so what I did was to open a free Podbean account ( and upload my files there. Then I just linked to my Podbean podcast page on the blog here. A bit time-consuming at first, but not too difficult.

HilbertAstronaut said...

Eh, I was lazy and just posted the files on a spare home page. You can see them at:

-> "Demonstrations"

Let me know if you have troubles hearing the sample --


mrsdarwin said...


Very nice indeed! I was glad to haer you sing Ad te levavi, since hearing it sung clearly by only one voice helped me find my own mistakes (of which there were more than one, I'm sad to say). Next time I won't record at 11 PM...

You can hear my Ad te levavi here:
I posted it higher up on the blog here, and a few kind souls have left helpful comments.

Jeffrey Tucker said...

Here is an excellent essay on rhythm. Many many more resources at

mrsdarwin said...

Thank you, Jeffery. I'll print that off and read over it before our next schola practice.

HilbertAstronaut said...

Haha, I'll probably annoy some of the Solesmes purists with my rhythm ;-) Anyway, it's fun to hear you sing different pieces -- I should try out that Podbean thing, rather than fill up my friend's web server with MP3's.

One critique I might make is that you sing a bit slow sometimes, and hold some of the longer notes longer than necessary. Of course, people make the opposite criticism of me sometimes ;-)

Your voice is really nice for the chant. I'm glad to hear you sing -- keep it up!!! :-D

Anonymous said...

Mrs. D, I applied some reverb to your "Ad te levavi" and sent it to your gmail account. Enjoy, Pes

Antony said...


I'm not sure if reverb is a Hilbert space, since I never made it to diff eq's, but I've done the same with your audio file and would be happy to pass it along.


mrsdarwin said...

Thanks, Pes. The acoustic makes a significant difference!