Best Practices for a Gregorian Choir

It is easy for a choir to become focused on technical details and social interaction within the group. While these things are fine on their own, it must be remembered that the purpose of the Gregorian choir is to chant liturgical prayers. The liturgical choir must be developed with this in mind. It is not a concert choir or early music performance group. It exists for the purpose of singing liturgical music in its native context. There should be some awareness of the meaning of the prayers and this also improves performance. 

The following advice is the result of my own experience in directing a Gregorian Schola for 5 years, and discussions with other directors of Gregorian Scholas, as well as training postulants for a religious order in the art of chant.

It is advisable to have rehearsals start with a prayer and end with a sung dismissal such as ‘Benedicamus Domino’ or ‘Ite missa est’ these are well established traditions. Proper choir discipline, especially during the liturgy, should be fostered as well. The liturgical choir is performing what was originally a clerical function, it is a stand in so to speak for actual clerical singers. In the USA choir lofts are common and since the singers cannot be seen, casual behavior and lack of decorum has a tendency to creep in. This common and major pitfall should be guarded against.

The purpose of these articles is not to teach the technical methodology of chant performance. That being said, often for the leader or performer new to chant, the question of the different schools of interpretation comes up. At some point you may be told you are doing things wrong that your performance does not reflect the latest scholarship. You must have an awareness of priority’s. What matters most is that the music is sung prayer, liturgically appropriate, and in good taste. Start by thoroughly learning the traditional “Solesmes Method” of singing chant. For good or ill it is the performance standard and when properly and fully implemented will cover the true priority’s. Once you are a competent established group you can, if you want to, introduce performance practices which reflect the latest theories of the musicologists. But do not forget the true priority’s you are a liturgical choir, in the here and now, not an experimental early music group pretending to be in a theoretical 10th century. Gregorian chant is a living tradition not something from the past, it is for all times.

Here is an example of a typical rehearsal some of the terminology may be foreign,  once you have learned how to sing chant you will understand better. 

1.      Opening Prayer

2.      Review of something already known.

3.      Learning of new music,

a.        Start by reading the text together as a group, If you can read it together you can sing it together, correct any errors in pronunciation.

b.      Optional- sing the text together on a single note.

c.       Briefly discuss the meaning of the words.

d.      Solfege the melody (sing the pitches on the do, re, mi note names).

e.       Optional- many choirs, especially when new to chant, count through the rhythm together.

f.       Sing the words with the melody

g.      Alternatively for d-f: solfege a phrase or sub phrase then sing it with the words, go on to the next and when finished sing the whole piece. This works well once a choir is fairly experienced.

4.      Review music learned last time: improvement of rendering, correction of errors and reinforcement of difficult areas.

5.      Sung dismissal (from Mass or the office ‘Benedicamus Domino’ of ‘Ite Missa Est’)

6.      Social time if desired.

Other pitfalls and General advise

Reliance on a piano or other instrument is another potential pitfall to be avoided, it is work initially to learn solfege, but the value is immense. The piano in particular being that it is a percussion instrument contributes to a lack of legato in the singers. The chant should be fluid and reflect the rhythmic shape of the text.

It is beneficial for new chanters to be exposed to the sound of good chant performance. Recordings are now, thanks to the internet, widely accessible as well as helpful for the individual choir member in reviewing music on their own.

There are transcriptions of chant into modern notation. Don’t use them. Learn to read real, square, Gregorian notation. It’s really not as difficult as it may seem at first. Modern notation is inferior for conveying the interconnectedness of the melody and text and natural grouping of notes. The singing of speech will be clunky and lack nuance.

When teaching minimize as far as possible unnecessary technical terminology.

The biggest loss of time at rehearsals is singers looking for (or loosing) music. This problem is worse if you have loose paper printed off rather than books. I don’t know of a solution to this, I suspect it has been the bane of choir directors for hundreds of years.

The director or leader should learn to conduct the music (Gregorian chironomy). This is a difficult skill to learn. If it really isn’t possible it isn’t strictly necessary, but will be of great benefit in uniformity and conveying the greater rhythm. If one can direct then one can influence the phrasing and tempo. Always there should be care to avoid singing too slowly, this kills the chant and contributes to the belief that chant is boring and depressing. Singers are much more likely to drift into singing flatly rather than sharply, in this case make the motions of conducting more lively. In the more rare occurrence of singers singing to quickly and loudly, make your conducting more restful. 

Do have fun just keep the priorities in mind. If you need to disobey the advice in this installment as a temporary measure, to get off the ground, go ahead. Just please do make it temporary, in the long haul the crutches will keep you hobbled.

The goal of this series was to explain what Gregorian Chant is, why it’s important and give practical guidance on reintroducing it into the public worship of the western Church. Those goals have been accomplished and so this completes this particular series.

Article by Ben P.