Dynamics of the Parish Schola


If you have been following this series you are familiar with what Gregorian Chant is, and why it’s important. Let’s suppose you want to get involved with reintroducing it into your parish. How do you get started? The details on getting chant reintroduced at your local Sunday Mass will vary greatly depending on context. Every situation is different. Regardless of the individual situation, one thing that must be done is to form a Choir or Schola to sing the chant. Let me mention right now that getting the current choir to switch over to chant is probably not realistic. Parish choirs are typically made up of volunteers, if the current choir is singing Eagles Wings and Gather Us In with tambourine accompaniment it’s because they want to. If you are the director or Pastor you may be able to get the current choir to sing some chant and you may pick up a few interested singers from the current choir, but to do things right you need a fresh group.

To form a Gregorian Schola (choir) three things are needed.

1. Singers
2. Someone to lead them
3. Training for 1 and 2

Singers- Anyone with at least an average voice and a willingness to learn will be fine. It is not necessary that these people know how to read music. A difficulty can arise in the different vocal ranges. While ideally you want a minimum of 4 persons with compatible ranges, the reality may be different. But as long as the will and some rudimentary ability is there, you have something to work with.

Someone to lead them
- Since Gregorian Chant is different from most other types of music, getting a director is not simply a matter of finding an experienced choir director or church organist. Most trained and experienced musicians do not have experience with chant. The person who will lead will need to learn as well. The traits a potential leader should have are:

• A good musical instinct.
• Leadership skills.

Training- Unless they have a good amount of past experience with Gregorian Chant, everyone will need training. There are many options and resources available. The leader should acquire the knowledge and skills to train the ordinary singers (it is also beneficial for the singers to receive training from other sources). Sources of training include self-study, workshops and conferences and getting help from those who are experienced. There are many workshops and conferences available, I will include a list at the end. I would also recommend reading at least a couple of the instructional books available. Attend one or more of the opportunities for formal training. If possible, locate a knowledgeable experienced person to learn from and ask questions. Check with Latin Mass communities Monasteries etc. within driving distance of your location. People involved with Sacred music are usually friendly and willing to help others get started. The person in charge of directing the Schola needs to be able to interpret the music and get a unified, beautiful rendering out of the singers.

How does one put these elements together to get started? The logical first step is finding someone to lead. The potential leader should then learn the basics of chant. Once this person has reached the point of knowing the basics of Gregorian notation (what the clefs are, can figure out the notes)
and can pronounce Church Latin reasonably correctly, singers can be recruited. The group should start with simpler things like benediction hymns and Mass ordinaries. Meanwhile, the leader should continue learning and teaching basic technique.

Once the singers have learned to pronounce Church Latin reasonably well, have learned the basics of Gregorian notation and have learned a few simpler chants to a reasonable level (one of the ordinary settings from the Kyriale and a few other simpler things such as hymns) they can begin tosing at Mass. How this is done will depend on circumstance.

Extraordinary form – There are 2 options for providing Gregorian Chant to a Traditional Latin Mass.

The first is the Missa Cantata (sung Mass), in which it is necessary to sing the entire Ordinary and Proper of the Mass. The problem is that a new choir will not have developed the skills to sing the full Gregorian propers as they exist in the Roman Gradual. These are complex pieces of music and generally are only used once a year. Mother Church has provided a solution, however: it is permissible to sing the texts to psalm tones, or if necessary even, recto tono (on one note). There are several collections of psalm tone propers; a list is provided at the end of this article. Polyphonic settings can be used as well. As the skills and experience of the Schola develop the full Gregorian chants should replace these stop gap measures. Too often in the past they were treated as an end point rather than a bridge to a fuller implementation of chant.

The second option is to sing Latin hymns at low mass. This can be done if the Missa Cantata is not possible for whatever reason. As our goal should be sung liturgy rather than singing at liturgy, hymns at low mass should be viewed as a stepping stone only.

Ordinary form –The ideal standard to be pursued is high or sung Mass. This ideal is quite different from what Joe-local-catholic is used to. The proper of the Mass is virtually unknown in the typical parish and is substituted with hymns. I don't think most of us realize how radical this is; imagine leaving out the readings or substituting something else!

The big hurdle in introducing chant into the local Novus Ordo Mass is ideological opposition from certain persons in the pews, and possibly the clergy. Opposition may be to the Latin Language or Chant as a musical form, or both. In my experience showing what the documents say usually doesn’t change the minds of those who say “Vatican II got rid of that”. Be charitable, pray and navigate the situation as best you can.

As far as actually getting started, the Ordinary form is quite flexible; you can start by introducing part or all of the Mass setting you have learned from the Kyriale. You can use some Gregorian hymns at the offertory or sing the Introit (Real or a simplified setting) as a prelude. Sung responses can be introduced right away if the priest is willing. The idea is to acclimate the parishioners to the sound of their heritage and grow as a choir. You can incrementally introduce the propers and other parts over time, or after a few months with some catechesis you could introduce a full blown Novus Ordo High Mass. You should encourage the people to sing those parts which pertain to them in Latin as requested by the documents of the Second Vatican Council. The communion antiphon and offertory chants usually allow enough time to also have a short hymn if people are attached to hymn singing. If Latin is an issue there are vernacular chant settings of the proper and ordinary. There are also simpler English chant settings for choirs not yet ready for the fuller ones.

This presumes of course a pastor who is at least passively supportive. If he is not, you can still form a garage Schola if you know enthusiastic and interested people, and look for opportunities to use your gifts. At the very least you can chant Compline or some other part of the Divine Office once a month together.

Once it is up to speed, a young and confident choir can probably only handle a High Mass about once a month, and after a few years of experience more can be added.

Sources of formal instruction

Church music Association of America - offers a week long ‘chant intensive’ as well as an annual week long ‘colloquium’ http://musicasacra.com/events/
Catholic University of America- offers a Gregorian Chant Practicum http://music.cua.edu/wardmethod.cfm

The following occasionally offer opportunities for instruction

Clear Creek Abby
The Institute of Christ the King
The Fraternal Society of Saint Peter
Fr. Columbia Kelly

Instructional Books

Gregorian Chant Master class by Theodore Marier - this is an excellent introduction and includes an audio CD with examples and explanation of each lesson.

There are also books in PDF format available here http://musicasacra.com/literature/

And here http://www.ccwatershed.org/library/

Psalm tone Propers