How do I start chanting?

Gregorian chant is simple. Only two ingredients: breath (spiritus) and the Word (Logos). It can sound foreign to our modern ears used to metered beat (“one-two-three…”) and to instruments. Once we “reconnect” with our breath, it is no longer foreign. It makes sense.

We have been conditioned by our modern environment to look for sources of music outside of ourselves: musical instruments, mechanical beat, electronic widgets… To chant, first turn inwards.

1- Breathe. (Re-)gain awareness of your breathing. Do not worry about “not having an ear” (see more below). Focus on your breath. How? Three examples:

– Through meditative prayer, like the “Jesus Prayer” . In The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim advises, “as you draw your breath in, say, or imagine yourself saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ and as you breathe again, ‘have mercy on me.'” Another option is to say (orally or mentally) the whole prayer while breathing in and again the whole prayer while breathing out and yet another, to breathe in recite the whole prayer, breathe out while reciting the whole prayer again. One can also hold the breath for a few seconds between breathing in and out.

– Through voice techniques. For example, steps 1 to 5 recommended by this voice teacher are a good start: Ten-Steps-to-Better-Breathing

– East-meets-West: adapting yoga breathing to “centering prayer” . A combination of all the above cannot hurt.

To better understand this connection between breathing and chanting, first practice at home, alone, with a simple “mantra” on one tone (ex: “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me”, or “Maranatha”, or “Abba”). You can also try a daily devotional practice. Please also read “Chant and Time”. This relation to time is essential to chant.

The Psalm Tones are also a good easy way to start chanting.

Download and read this 2-page document Quotes from Lamperti and McRae to get valuable advice from two authoritative voice teachers about the coordination of the breath and the mind, and the obstacle of self-consciousness when singing.

More about hearing: if singing is not yet part of your weekly or daily routine, you may need to practice “matching pitch” at the beginning. This Video demonstrate how. Your ear will take only a few days to get (re)trained. Training your breath will take longer.

2- Come to Mass. That is where your second ingredient, the Word, will be found, in its original, oral form. If you are lucky, you may hear the Word chanted already… Click here for a list of the Southern California parishes where some chant is sung during Mass.

Consider also joining the Soli Deo Gloria schola.

3- Educate yourself about the “big picture” of chant. Chant is not old, it is ageless. Check out Books, books, books,… Consider listening to the Square Notes podcast on your drive to work. Read.

Some of us initially get interested in Gregorian Chant “negatively”, by rejecting other kinds of music heard in liturgies. Such outlook must change to convert this interest into chanting: negative comparison is incompatible with the inwards observation at the foundation of chant. Reading may help convert a negative attraction into a positive one.

If you feel you need an “academic” foundation, this 14-page paper is a great start: Reilly, Music of the Spheres. One quick look at the “Instructions on Music” emphasizes the “pride of place” that should be given to Gregorian Chant in post-Vatican II liturgies: Musicam Sacram (14 pages).

Finally, do not let anyone, including yourself, convince you that you cannot chant. Believe no “expert” who would say that it is “impossible” to sing all the Proper from the Roman Gradual at Mass. Several parishes in Southern California do it regularly, some with scholas comprising only self-taught musicians. Those who say it is “impossible” have just not tried.

Is not Gregorian Chant a scholarly discipline, a specialization requiring higher education? It can be. It can even be interesting. But it is not helpful to learn how to chant. First, breathe, chant with the simple tools you have (breath, words) because this is the way our ancestors did it. Then, only then, reading “the latest discovery of academia on the subject of chant” might be useful.

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