Conducting chant
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 448
    The schola I sing in uses the semiological method of interpretation, and the director (who is self-taught and has studied with various teachers, but is not a conservatory-trained musician) conducts us using gestures which I find easy to follow. But when I asked what his method was for conducting he said he just invented it. It keeps us together, in any case (six people).

    When traveling I met a director at a church in another city who used the Solesmes method, and he gave me a tutorial in how to sing that way, and how to do a sort of pushing-pulling motion with ones hand to conduct. I was able to follow along but found it not at all intuitive. That said, not sure the method I know well was intuitive in the beginning, but I've been doing it for three years, so it's ingrained.

    Based on a couple other instances of singing with unfamiliar groups, though, I find generally following someone's waving hand - as long as they wave in time with what they are doing - seems fairly straightforward.

    I found a couple of very old threads here, but didn't resurrect them. This one, for instance, showed a very unusual style of conducting that strikes me as 'too much information'...but it seems fruitful, so that's good.

    The actual question: Are there techniques/schools/methods of conducting gregorian chant? Does anyone here use a particular method for particular reasons? Or are most people just inventing whatever works? Why or why not? Does it depend on what kind of choir you are conducting (kids, amateurs, etc.?)
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  • I use a method which I more invented than learned, albeit by watching videos. The singers have only ever said it is easy to follow and useful. Someone described it as "painting the neumes on the air" and I guess that's pretty accurate, since I direct a pretty close (if idiosyncratic) reading of them. The main thing is musical interest and sonic unity, and what I do works for that. The singers are young adult amateurs.
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 814
    This is something I have to get good at. The new pastor at my church likes chant and wants to work toward having a weekly chanted Mass. Hopefully, at the Colloquium, I will gain the necessary skills and confidence to finally start the chant classes that I have been wanting to start for the past few years.
  • Your conducting of chant (and, frankly, of anything with singers) partly depends on the singers, their skill, interest and other factors. If you have a choir which can recognize arsis and thesis in what you do with your hands, well and good. If you're waving your hands as you were taught in the colloquium but your choir doesn't understand any of what you do all the technical perfection serves to make tired arms and agitated air and choir members, but not helpful conducting.
  • madorganist
    Posts: 615
    Carroll's Technique of Gregorian Chironomy is available on this website.
    https://media.musicasacra.com/books/chironomy.pdf
    Personally, I subdivide more frequently and use more arsic gestures than recommended because my schola tends to drag. Dom Cardine's Direction of Gregorian Chant might also be of interest.
  • To reiterate what others have said, and what I think is the most important point: Chironomy is a means, not an end. Its purpose is to lead, guide, and provide direction to the singers. As far as I'm concerned, this means that there is not one single "right way" to conduct chant. It will depend on your interpretation, your comfort level, your singers' experience level, and what everyone is accustomed to. I've seen everything from pure, simple arsis/thesis to theatrical comically large motions to jarring jabs at each note to subtle and nuanced chironomy with a single finger.

    With that said, I did a little introductory video a few months ago to provide some thoughts about how I conduct chant, which is definitely related to the methods and ideas discussed in Carroll's Technique of Gregorian Chironomy referenced above by @madorganist. Again - I'm not suggesting my way is the "right" way, but it gives you something to look at and think about in video form, which is often easier to relate to than just the written word when considering such motion-intensive tasks.

    Video at https://youtu.be/aKypoLvnEfI

    Beyond the basic introduction in the video, I do quite a lot more nuanced conducting in the real world. When the choir loft is full, I conduct chironomy with both hands. I'll often use my left hand for dynamic direction. I conduct adults and children the same way; I see no need to condescend or simplify for them... they often pick it up more intuitively than the adults! When I'm sitting at the organ, I'll occasionally through a hand up to conduct if needed, but more often just provide some subtle direction with my head as needed.

    Once more, it all comes down to effectively and efficiently conveying the musical idea to the singers. Different methods are fine, as long as they achieve that end.
  • I agree that directing chant is an highly individual and very highly subjective endeavour. Of course, there are some basic principles which should undergird one's direction: a sense of chant rhythm, word rhythm, phrase, arsis, thesis, and nuance, etc. Communicating these may, however, take very different forms from very different trained musicians. (Untrained persons would do well to emulate trained ones!) This is akin to choral directing: that of an Anglican choirmaster will be very different (and achieve very different results - particularly in relation to nuance) than that of a Lutheran, the typical Catholic choirmaster, or that of a military chorus director.

    I very long ago, after studying numerous books about vaunted chironomy, concluded that they all were highly subjective discussions (complete with diagrams of circular and swirling arm waving) of their authors' experience and offered very little that was au concret or of universal value.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,494
    I, too, have seen the "trained" directors of chant wave their arms in circular motions. I wondered if their choirs just learned the music then ignored the director, who wasn't conveying much in the way of information. Standard conducting gestures would have provided much more actual direction for those choirs.

    Don't wave arms in circles? But, but...Guido of Poughkeepsie said we will perish in the flames if we don't do it that way. Is outrage!

  • Incardination
    Posts: 833
    I think the key that several posts have touched on is that directing music is a form of communication... and effective communication is something that constantly adapts and adjusts as needed based on who is "speaking" and with whom one is communicating. In my own experience I find that I periodically change what I do as a director and also the interpretation of a given piece of music, typically as the group changes.

    Of course (as MJO points out) there are basic principles to communication that apply somewhat universally in a given circumstance. In English, it is bad form to re-arrange word order while in Latin re-arranging word order can provide a new form of emphasis.

    Subjective communication based in part on the group one is directing with some foundational principles...
  • Charles,

    Is there a Poughkeepsie outside of upstate New York? I ask because Guido would have a family name if he were from Poughkeepsie New York, but not, perhaps, if he were an itinerant musician, theoretician, mathematician and historian in some other Poughkeepsie.

  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,494
    Poughkeepsie


    There's more than one? Who knew? There is also St. Edna of Pittsburgh.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poughkeepsie,_Arkansas

    Bonus point: the seat of the county in which it subsists is...Ash Flat. As in "men, your ash is flat".
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    I use the Bartolucci/Sixtina method: gesticulated, high velocity finger swirls while grimacing at the soprani voices and grinning at the buffo bassos.
    Ba da boom.
  • Carol
    Posts: 554
    As a resident of Dutchess County, NY I was shocked to find out there is another Poughkeepsie! By the way, we who live in Dutchess County do not consider ourselves as residing in "upstate" New York. We think of upstate as north of Albany. But Manhattanites think upstate is anything north of Yonkers.
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  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    Dutchess County is definitely not Upstate. Only people in NYC and Long Island think of the lower Hudson Valley as "upstate".

    Don't even get me started on Central New York and Western New York, categories unknown to Downstaters...or that it's a good two hour drive between Albany and the High Peaks of the Adirondacks.
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  • Carol, Liam,

    My apologies. As a native of Western New York,(growing up in the northern suburbs of Buffalo) I was taught somewhere along the way to treat everything that wasn't New York City or Westchester County as "Upstate" New York. I think it made sense because NYC was filled with crazy people, which left the rest of the state for sane folks.
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,232
    I'm with Chris on this one. As a native of Brooklyn, I drew the line at the northern edge of Westchester County, so that Dutchess would be at least slightly upstate.
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    I grew up on Long Island, but my sister was sent to a private school in Rhinebeck for a few years in the 1960s, where we learned that Rhinebeck was, pace our usage, definitely no where near Upstate*, which only began near Albany, and then my brother and his family have lived for decades in the Southern Tier and then Western NY, where this lesson was reinforced.

    * Being along a commuter rail line to NYC, it by definition could not be, as it was well within the metro area - that includes all of the lower Hudson Valley. And Downstaters don't appreciate that Albany is 40 miles closer to NYC than to Canada....
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Carol
    Posts: 554
    No need to apologize! I was amused by this take on geography. It reminds me of that New Yorker cartoon map of the US where the East Coast and California are enormous and the whole middle (the majority) of the country is minimized. Some could draw a comparison to our current politics, but I do not want to open that can of worms!!!

    Liam is correct. We pay for being so close to the city in terms of the cost of our anti pollution gas additives and some sort of a property tax for having the trains come up to Dutchess County.
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    Then again, if you live on Staten Island, all of the rest of NY State (including most of Long Island, save Brooklyn) is "upstate" (Montauk is north of White Plains and the Tappan Zee Bridge...and as far east as Napatree Point in RI*).

    * Good geography trivia question: with how many other US states does New York State share a border? People almost always forget Rhode Island...the east end of ultra-exclusive Fishers Island is about 2 miles from formerly exclusive Napatree Point (the lovely former residences of which were washed out to sea in the Great Eastern Seaboard Hurricane of 1938).
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 814
    I can drive for two hours and still be in East Texas.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    I can drive for two hours and still be in Boston.

    Mr. Elliot Livingston: "Why haven't we met before?"

    Miss Charlotte Vale: "The world is small, but Boston is big."
    Thanked by 2Carol CharlesW
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 814
    Yeah, but I'm doing 70mph, not stuck dead in traffic.
    Thanked by 2Carol CharlesW
  • Carol
    Posts: 554
    I just came back from Texas a few weeks ago and I drove on I 35 from Dallas to south of Austin with 18 wheelers surrounding me on all sides. Driving less than 70 mph is not possible and it was terrifying!
    Thanked by 3Liam CHGiffen CharlesW
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 10,494
    I can drive for two hours and still be in East Texas.


    Understand that. People look at Tennessee on the map and it looks like distances would be short. They are from North to South. But east to west, it is around 500 miles.
    Thanked by 2bhcordova CCooze
  • A Texas rancher was researching farming practices in various European countries and was asking a German farmer about the size of his farm and its variety of produce. Then the little German farmer asked the Texan how big his ranch was. The Texan said boastfully, 'well, I get up at three o-clock in the morning and drive for three days and I'm still not across it'. The little German farmer smiled and said, 'Yes, I had a car like that once'.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,014
    That happens in northern New England, too, which is part of Appalachia, too; iron out Appalachia, you get lot more terrain to cover. Even in central New England, while Massachusetts is small, it still takes 5 hours to go from Provincetown to Williamstown - in light traffic without even going through Boston.

    There be natural obstacles...the indigenous peoples figured out the efficient routes over the irregular landscape, European traders and settlers followed suit. It's always worth remembering the principal portage routes of an area when considering settlement patterns. The house at the corner of my block that was built in 1702 and hosted General Lafayette in 1825 was built on the bend of a native footpath laid out before European contact, which ran along a winding low point through what would have been a forest dominated by immense white pine trees.
  • .
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 448
    There's a fascinating book I once read (title forgotten) specifically about the old trails in New England. If I recall, Broadway was once part of the indigenous footpath that went from the tip of Manhattan to what's now Albany.
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 448
    Is there perhaps a conducting method that incorporates the gestures made when pushing overhanging branches out of the way and swatting gnats while hiking a rough trail through the Appalachians...?
  • Incardination
    Posts: 833
    Arsis and thesis. Arsis and thesis. :)
  • ...swatting gnats while...

    I've seen some chironomy that was indistinguishable from swatting at gnats.
  • jcr
    Posts: 77
    The standard conducting gestures used by orchestral and choral conductors (at least most educated ones) are often too metrical in concept for conducting chant and much polyphony. There are some old books that one might find in Catholic College libraries that explain chironomy fairly well. As a conductor who drilled for a long time to develop a technique, I have found it possible to loosen up on the standard patterns and analyze the chant melodies to determine accented pulses. Everything will work out in groups of two or three. One can then conduct either with a beat for each group or for each neume depending on the rapidity of the movement.

    One other comment. In general conducting gestures should not be horizontal toward the singers or instrumentalists. Such movements are difficult to see and interpret properly. For help with conducting technique I highly recommend Brock McElheran's little manual called "Conducting Technique". It is excellent and offers numerous ideas to help clean up the technique. I have been conducting for well over fifty years and I still am striving to clean up my own technical act. A good general rule is this: eliminate all extraneous gestures. If it doesn't mean anything, don't do it. None of us will live long enough to completely achieve this, but we can improve a great deal to our and our choir member's benefit.