Dynamics in chant
  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 303
    We have been using Mass XVII all through Lent and I noticed that the singers were increasing the volume a bit in the Hosanna sections of the Sanctus. They did it quite naturally, and I liked the effect. It didn't seem excessive, but it was noticeable. However, we have now had a complaint from someone who maintains that chant should be sung at a uniform volume.
    Any comments, please?
  • Number one rule of working at the parish is that someone will complain about everything.

    Historically speaking, I suspect that there is no dynamic change in chant. In practice, I bet that choirs have had a tendency to increase dynamics and tempo to exciting texts (like Hosanna!) since the very beginning of time.

    That having been said, my personal opinion is that a director has the right to direct his or her choir to sing musically, including some variations in volume and tempo.
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 46
    My un-scholarly opinion is that chant is the most naturalistic music we have in the West, and the instrument it uses - the human voice - is itself naturally dynamic.

    Also, it makes sense to me, since chant is music, to sing it musically. Dynamics is an unavoidable part of that. In my limited experience it's more typical to pay attention to the rise/fall inside a single phrase, but I don't believe there's any essential difference between shaping one phrase and shaping a group of phrases as long as it feels natural, tasteful, and not abrupt - I can imagine that easily getting out of hand. A little here, a little there.
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  • dad29
    Posts: 1,686
    The text drives the music. ALL of the music, including dynamic, rallentando, etc.

    Put another way, the music illuminates the text, including dynamic, rallentando, etc.
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  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,659
    It is unthinkable that every last neume should be sung at the precisely identical volume.
    This would be impossibly boring, as boring as monotonic speech.
    Like speech, chant is language.
    It breathes and expresses itself just as speech does.
  • noel jones, aagonoel jones, aago
    Posts: 6,521
    Any time that a note is sung longer than others it will crescendo in a live environment, whether it is sung or played.
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  • JoeM
    Posts: 26

    Here, to is a principle to which there can be practically no exception. This simple device, as musicians themselves have noticed, contributes greatly to giving the chant a religious character, so much does it imply the effacement of the person, the self, before Him to whom and for whom one is singing.

    But if should be understood that I refer to lightness, not to weakness, the two are very different. Beware especially of singing a top note mezzo-forte like a soft murmur. This top note is usually the true centerpoint, the keystone of the edifice, towards which everything tens. It should, therefore, be approached with a crescendo,as if it were to be sung with strength. It is only at the precise of moment of emission that the voice, instead of attacking it loudly, harshly, materially, alights on it with gentleness and with some restraint, while allowing it to retain its full mellowness.”
    -Dom Joseph Gajard, The Solesmes Method, (Minnesota, Collegeville, 1960)

    Even though Dom Gajard beautifully elucidates us about the singing of high notes softly, it is very difficult for most singers to accomplish. This is because of an out of balance registration. Due, usually, to a lack of development of the upper register. Singing a “hooty” sounding 5 note scale on the “pure falsetto” for a few minutes a day for several months can help to correct this problem. One should not sing in “pure falsetto” for more than a few minutes because it can be the cause of vocal fatigue.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 232
    This is like saying that, because there are no printed dynamics in Renaissance music, there should be no gradation of volume or dynamic at all. (God forbid we even know what volume to start at, in that case!)

    Or that, because there is a printed metronome marking in a score, the performance must be equally metronomical.

    Hogwash! A typical exaggeration and distortion of an essential truth - that is, that chant does not feature any massive dynamic changes in the manner of Bruckner or Mahler. But to abhor what is merely a very musical performance, guided by a deeply felt sensitivity to the text, is deeply misguided.
  • M. Jackson Osborn
    Posts: 6,659
    There are, to be sure, quite a few people who sing their chant every note of equal value and of uniform volume - and then they wonder why nobody likes chant.
    Their poor people, understandably, don't like what they heard, but what they heard wasn't chant!
  • donr
    Posts: 940
    And then there are those who sing chant like Captain Kirk from Star Trek speaks when he is in a tough situation. It can be very hard to listen to. If it is sung speech it should not be theatrical speech but the way you talk or at least discuss things regularly.

    I suppose some people talk very straight and some are more exaggerated than others.
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  • Incardination
    Posts: 618
    However, we have now had a complaint from someone who maintains that chant should be sung at a uniform volume.

    WARNING: Rant follows.
    Typically, there is a reason why the one doing the complaining is not leading the choir in the first place, whether the complainer is a choir member or simply a member of the congregation. The correct response is "when you lead your choir, you are free to make those interpretational decisions in the way you think best."

    I've heard a lot of different concepts of chant in my time. First time I've heard that. I know there are some people who would argue (regardless of who is leading a given choir) "they wouldn't have done it that way in the XYZ century."

    A) For myself, personally, I'm not trying to do something as it was done in the XYZ century. Liturgy is a living expression of the Faith. I'm trying to do my best in the now. Period. Not after an ivory tower concept.
    B) For chant in particular, while there are different theories about what was done, there is more that we don't know than what we do (as with so many areas of human endeavor). I think it is particularly difficult to draw universal conclusions given regional differences. Regardless... refer to point A.

    The rant is now over, and we return you to regularly scheduled programming commenting. :)
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,139
    If it is authentically artistic and follows the spirit of GC it is probably human. I would absolutely discourage vibrato however.
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  • ViolaViola
    Posts: 303
    Forunately no one has attempted vibrato as yet.
    Thanks for these helpful and encouraging comments. We'll continue as we are doing, i.e. doing what appears to come naturally.
    I wonder if the original complainant was thinking that as it is Lent we should be singing in a suitably penitential, and therefore monotonous manner? (trying to be charitable here).
  • davido
    Posts: 166
    Vibrato is a natural function of relaxed vocal production and should not be hated on. A straight tone is a held tone.
    Conversely, an unattractive vibrato is always a sign of some technique problem.

    Keep in mind that Solesmes and Gajard are trying to NOT be opera. Their movement is perhaps more a reaction against bel canto (and bel canto poorly done in church) than it is an idea of their own. Thus the incredibly difficult technique he describes of a crescendo capped by a subito drop in volume. He wants musicality, but not the cathartic climaxes of romantic music with their implied sexuality.

    Just be musical with the chant: SING it and have fun with it. Keep in mind that you are singing it in the presence of the heavenly court, and you’ll probably avoid inappropriate excesses.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 232
    There is an obvious difference between vibrato and wobble, the latter of which is mostly what is "naturally" possessed. And there's absolutely nothing unhealthy about straight tone.
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  • StimsonInRehabStimsonInRehab
    Posts: 1,491
    I treat the unwritten dynamics of chant like the unwritten stage directions of Shakespeare. Just because they aren’t explicit doesn’t mean they can’t be gathered through context clues. And there’s a certain degree of “independence” as far as how you interpret it.
  • As choir Master, I have 2 remarks.
    - Three times in this Sanctus, you have the same motive (c-d-e-f-d-c). the accentuation is on the first c (longer note, used to "launch" the curb whose highest (f) is very light and aerial. There is no reason to sing the "Hosanna" louder than the "sabaoth".
    - Then, regarding the complaint, please consider it as suggested by Incardination !

    Enjoy next week !
  • toddevoss
    Posts: 70
    As a PIP, I am thankful for all the responses you got from other music directors saying "stop thief" to the complainer and giving musically sophisticated responses as to why this is incorrect. Because if chant is a monotone drone, it will never flourish. Beyond that, I think GC should be performed differently in a parish setting than in a monastic setting. The Solesmes style of chant is very beautiful but too ethereal (and difficult) for a parish congregation. That chant should be more dynamic - more "sung"- more robust. And no, not opera. But the following link is what I think it should sound like in parish: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yMCSIKmfo_o
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  • jcr
    Posts: 32
    I feel compelled to weigh in on the matter of "straight tone" which is a term (phrase?) that may actually mean several things. In many cases there are some problems with it. The most functionally efficient use of the human voice will always produce a degree of vibrato. However, this will not necessarily be the full Brahmsian or Verdian vibrato of the 19th century operatic variety. Certainly one would not want this sound in polyphonic choral music of the Palestrina/Vittoria era, for example. However, the singing of what is, I think, desired by the advocates of straight tone is a sound that avoids the excesses of the pseudo operatic singer whose vibrato encompasses a full tone or more and whose volume is often poorly controlled. The functionally free voice will have a vibrato that can be controlled. Unfortunately, many choral directors ask for a straight tone from singers who haven't the skill level to do this. The result is that the singers, especially sopranos, fatigue early and the outcome is consistent flatting. Listen and hear it for yourselves; it doesn't take too many measures of singing to produce this fatigue.

    We can elaborate on this sometime later, if anyone is interested.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,891
    Dynamics in chant should, it seems to me, follow the dynamics in speech. Chant is speech set to music. Just as speech is not free of expression, neither is chant. My own experience is that too many chant "experts" think God descended from heaven amid blazing trumpets and hosts of angels and gave us Solesmes. Not so!
  • jcr
    Posts: 32
    I was taught that the text and the rise and fall (arsis and thesis) determined the dynamic dimension to plainchant. This naturally grows out of a flexible and text oriented performance of the singers. When it happens, it' a magical thing and is most expressive.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,093
    God descended from heaven amid blazing trumpets and hosts of angels and gave us Solesmes. Not so!
    Sometimes, Solesmes not so solemn (Solesmes?).
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  • I have sat suffered through two hour rehearsals conducted by expert 'Solesmes method' choirmasters. In all that time much time and effort was spent on performing a salicus and other such niceties just so, without a word spoken about words, diction, and text.

    Unfortunately, I have, likewise, heard semiologist scholars spend an entire lecture or rehearsal refining the just so performance of quilismas a la Cardine and other such niceties without a word spoken about text, diction, vowels, consonants, or blend.

    I have sat through vespers sung by a 'schola cantorum' at a certain nearby co-cathedral
    in which every last word and syllable was sung at a mercilessly consistent moderately slow metronomic beat in an unyieldingly uniform volume for e-ve-ry-last-syl-la-ble. One-did-n't-know-whe-ther-to-laugh-or-to-cry - - - or-to-run-screa-ming-down-the-street..
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 146
    The majority of our small schola have classical voice training, so we don't sing in small voices and there will be a little (unintentional) vibrato on held notes. There is naturally some variation in volume due to phrasing, such as where the melody rises or at the ends of phrases, but never a deliberate piano or forte or crescendo/decrescendo. But there is a movement and expressiveness around the text (we use the semiological method). We don't sing slowly either. The robotic monotone version is not my thing, nor do I like the 'gently wafting voices in the mists' kind of style that makes one think of New Age relaxation music. I've never thought of chant as relaxing - it's (for me at least) prayer full of fire and ferocity. Most of it is psalms and the psalms are not dull and bland! So I think a level of energy and engagement and vibrancy is lovely, with consideration for the unison necessary, and the liturgical context (ie avoiding theatrics that would draw attention to the singer).
  • Imagine the following spoken as Jackson describes.

    To be, or not to be, that is the question..
    Whether 'tis nobler ……

    Or, try this:

    If ye love me, keep my commandments.


    Out! Out, damned spot!
    [examples could be multiplied]
  • Ralph BednarzRalph Bednarz
    Posts: 473
    If you look in he Triplex you will find some letters that indicate dynamics among the neumes. "f" frangor like shattering glass. There are more. It is important not to belt the final note of a phrase.
  • True, Ralph -
    That and more!
    Most people other than semiologists tend to pretend that the Roman letters do not exist - either that or that they are some arcane scribbles that couldn't possibly have a bearing on how a given passage is to be performed (or how they wish to perform it).
    (Chant a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago must indeed have been a colourful [if not downright exciting] affair - replete with 'word painting' that we would find astonishing.)
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  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 46
    Chris, yes, yes...I see it now...a black-box jeans-and-t-shirt monotone monorhythmic avant-garde Shakespeare production...

    Richard loves Richard; that is, I am I.
    Is there a murderer here? No. Yes, I am:
    Then fly. What, from myself? Great reason why:
    Lest I revenge. What, myself upon myself?
    Alack. I love myself. Wherefore? for any good
    That I myself have done unto myself?
    O, no! alas, I rather hate myself
    For hateful deeds committed by myself!
    I am a villain: yet I lie. I am not.
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,686
    Chant a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago must indeed have been a colourful [if not downright exciting] affair - replete with 'word painting' that we would find astonishing.

    Gee. Are you telling us that Chant is music, performed as such?

    That is precisely why anyone who attempts to sing or teach Chant without knowing the Latin (or at least having a very good translation available) simply cannot do the job well.
  • I agree with the basic thrust of what everyone is saying.

    Alas, the notion that chant is mono-volume is sometimes encouraged by recordings with so much reverb that the sound piles up to a single volume-level for the entirety of the chant. (If the reverb is artificial, there's no excuse; if it is natural, then good recording technique would tame it appropriately.)

    I have learned that when non-musicians (or inarticulate musicians) complain in good faith (and of course it isn't always clear that this condition is met), they often fail to express their point very clearly or accurately. In short, they are poor at articulating what (supposed) 'error' they are hearing, and even poorer at articulating a remedy (which is in general not their job anyway).

    For that reason, when somebody complains, I always try to understand what he or she might be experiencing but not expressing clearly, and then whether it is something that is in need of repair.

    In this case, I'd put an experienced ear in the pews and ask whether there is any unattractive abruptness or general over-doing-it in the dynamics. If not, then carry on...
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  • I've also noticed that on just about every performance I have heard (live or recorded) which is 'accompanied' by the organ, that this accompaniment has the tendency to flatten out the volume of the chant so that it becomes monotonic or almost so - not to mention 'euthanise' the chant's rhythm to a molasses-like flow. The result is a saccharine parody of once red-blooded chant. Proponents of accompanied chant like to say that the organ isn't heard and is just there to support. Well, of course, if it isn't heard it can't very well support and isn't needed in the first place!; further, it very well is heard and keeps the chant at a more or less uniform (straight jacketed) volume and tempo.

    This all makes no difference to those who love to accompany chant. For them the chant just isn't chant unless it's accompanied. For them something is missing if they don't get to hear and/or perform their favourite accompaniment style. Consequently, the chant mustn't drown out the 'unheard or 'unobtrusive' accompaniment.

    Of course, there are those who like to point out the history of 'accompanied chant' - you know, serpents and all that. I imagine that these instruments had the same quietening effect on the chant as do modern organ versions. Everything that was done at some point in history isn't necessarily commendable. We are supposed to be restoring chant with the help of modern scholarship, not rehashing the ways in which it was debased and corrupted in past centuries.
  • toddevoss
    Posts: 70
    "It is important not to belt the final note of a phrase." Yes, but (outside a monastic setting where it can "fit") I think the opposite extreme of the final note being almost a soft whisper is not ideal either. At least in a parish setting where the congregation is also joining the chant. Generally, this guy (he has several rehearsal videos on youtube) is my "ideal" of how Gregorian chant should sound. But I am not a trained musician so I am very interested in what this group thinks of this performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PF0z7-AifmU
  • CatherineS
    Posts: 146
    I really like more fluidity. The example above feels unnatural and stiff to me. Here's a different kyrie, but in a style I find much more singable, or song-like. Your mileage may vary. https://youtu.be/9FN9JZgJUtM
  • Toddevoss,

    Sing musical phrases. Sing them musically. That will mean, as I suggested earlier (or in another thread or something) a natural acceleration in some phrases, a natural unwinding near the end of some (even most) phrases. It will also mean that some texts are sung more declaratively and others more mellifluously.

  • dad29
    Posts: 1,686
    toddevoss, Chris GZ has it. Some of the music--particularly the long melismas--can be thought of as 'filigree', a light & decorative addition to the meat/potatoes of the basic melody. Thus, the 'filigree' is sung differently than, say, the "...et unam, sanctam, Catholicam,..." of Credo III.

    Or look at Kyrie XI. The melisma on "e" of "Kyrie" and "Christe" should make you think of a chickadee flitting towards, and returning from, Heaven, not of the Russian Army tramping through Hungary.
  • toddevoss
    Posts: 70
    Yes - CatherineS - I appreciated and really enjoyed your counter-example. Oddly, not because I found it particularly "more" song-like or singable. It is difficult for me to articulate it. I found it a "blend" of song-like and monastic-type dynamic. Sorry - best I can do.
  • toddevoss
    Posts: 70
    Dad29- thanks that is helpful (as was Chris). And yes Kyrie XI is a good example because I am familiar with it. Flitting is better than tramping but remember we PIPS tend to wear boots and have trouble with our wings. :-)
  • Hoping not to appear mean, the example given by toddevos illustrates beautifully (if a negative can be 'beautiful') the chant style and accompaniment that I was referencing in my most recent comment just above about accompanied chant.

    Catherine's example, on the other hand, illustrates one of a number of approaches to chant performance which are exemplary. I suppose the next stop after Catherine's example would be a mild (or perhaps not mild) version of Marcel Perez. Either of them is commendable. They are so alive, so expressive and replete with movement.
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  • Toddevoss,

    If you can get today's Propers, consider a few points.

    1) In the Introit's first phrase, "Quasi modo geniti infants, Alleluia", there are many repeated notes. To sing this unmusically, treat each one of those repeated notes identically.

    2) In the first Alleluia, the repeated parts in the Alleluia (in the jubilus) should not be sung as if each note has an ictus. Any leap of a 5th (and they're all over the place in this Alleluia) is the equivalent of bringing out the trumpets as a way of showing that this is important. Neither pitch should be hammered in the 5th. The word praecedam is almost entirely in an upper register. To sing this as if one were chiseling away at a granite surface would be to do an injustice to it. Ideally, I think, it should be all sung on one breath.

    3) I tell a voice/theory student I have not to "climb" to the higher pitches, but to soar.

    4) The word "Alleluia" can be treated in many different ways: in the Communion antiphon, for example, the first alleluia after "fidelis" begins on an ictic note in a group of three; the second alleluia begins on a non-ictic last-of-three (a weak up-beat).

    IF we sing these without sensitivity to these little differences, we take a beautiful, colorful collection of pieces and render them black-and-white and less beautiful.
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  • CharlesSA
    Posts: 69
    MJO describes well part of the problem I have with accompanied chant. It does seem to snuff out efforts at singing the chant with expression. For example, I spent 15 months at Clear Creek; I am rather musically sensitive and thus would struggle in almost every musical/choral setting...but by the time I left, it was rather striking, the difference between their accompanied and unaccompanied chant. I don't know if their unaccompanied chant was much more expressively sung, but on the other hand, the accompanied chant (only the Ordinaries of the Mass, Ferial Vespers, Festal Lauds and Vespers, Sunday Terce preceding High Mass, and some little hours on Solemnities) definitely seemed overshadowed by the accompaniment - and to my (admittedly overly-) sensitive musical ears, distracting. All unaccompanied chant was a huge relief, and had a different "feel" to it. The organ accompaniment overpowered the chant - and this despite the fact that the Clear Creek way of accompaniment is, in my estimation, a "conservative" or more unobtrusive method than most.
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  • Charles,
    I've never been to Clear Creek, so I'm asking a question I don't know the answer to, already.

    Was the distracting or overpowering part the fact of the accompaniment or the manner in which the accompaniment occurred?
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  • StimsonInRehabStimsonInRehab
    Posts: 1,491
    There have been plenty of examples posted on this site demonstrating how accompanied chant, even for propers, can be done unobtrusively as well as artistically. Tasteful registration and humility are key.
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  • CharlesSA -

    Since you have been at Clear Creek in the last few years you may very well know Bro. Brynach (Sawyer) Sellers. He has been active teaching music in Houston and is/was a member of Walsingham. He is very gifted musically (sings tenor and alto/counter tenor) and reportedly piqued the interest of the musical establishment at Clear Creek for some desired advice, leadership, and tutelage. If you have met him you know him to be very devout and a sterling fellow. Just a few months ago he returned to Clear Creek with intent to remain there.
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 46
    Toddevoss, to add to the other comments about that accompanied chant video, I would suggest to the perfomer to 1) separate the roles of organist and cantor and 2) not to double the chant line with the organ as you can see his right hand doing.

    As it is, the performer is letting his voice follow the lead of his right hand, the freer instrument following the mechanical. Rather the mechanical should follow the musical, should follow that which breathes, in this case quite simply his own voice. So if he were to sing while someone else played organ, the organist could attentively listen for all the little speed-ups and slow-downs that a voice running up and down naturally does,

    Now I appreciate that he does try to dynamically sing the line, sort of. It gets a little louder and softer here and there. But doing that while plodding onward with one unchanging rhythmic value is like turning the wheel of a parked car. You'll change direction if you start moving, but until then you're stuck where you started.
  • madorganist
    Posts: 511
    To reiterate what someone said early in this discussion: Chant is music. Sing it like it's music. For twelve minutes, set aside any notion of what chant ought to sound like, and compare these three recordings of Credo I:

    Which do you find to be the most musical? The most expressive? The most beautiful?
    There's a good chance your answer is the same for all three questions. None of these ensembles simply hammers out notes; there is nuance and finesse in each of the recordings, but they don't sound identical in terms of interpretation. It doesn't sound like the same choir singing in a different acoustic, switching to a different style of Latin pronunciation, or penciling a few extra rhythmic markings in their books.
  • Mad -

    Though your Solesmes selection is nice, I did notice that the monks at Solesmes tend to scoop, especially at ascending intervals and at the beginnings of some phrases.
    Too, the chant, while quite moving and alive, is generally a bit too sweet - it hath about it a romantic penumbra.

    My vote is for the choralschola at Einsiedeln.

    The Turco, while always good, suffers from an unfortunate acoustical environment and comes across as rather harsh.
    In a better acoustic it would be very good.
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  • toddevoss
    Posts: 70
    Thanks for all the replies - very educational and helpful to the extent I could understand them. Videos are most helpful. I do have a question since the focus shifted a bit to unaccompanied vs accompanied with a seeming consensus "thumbs down" on accompanied chant. I would assume that "parish chant" is accompanied in the normal course for the ordinaries where the congregation joins the chant. Is that incorrect?
  • dad29
    Posts: 1,686
    Rather the mechanical should follow the musical, should follow that which breathes,

    That should be "Accompanist 101". What organist/pianist would DARE 'correct' a solo singer, assuming the soloist is competent? One might disagree, but always follows!!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,891
    Yes, but one can make sure the solo singer doesn't darken the door at your place again.
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  • Toddevoss,

    Most of the Ordinaries are simple compared to the Propers, and so accompanied Ordinaries make more sense than accompanied Propers.

    Dad 29,

    I completely agree!
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  • CharlesSA
    Posts: 69

    For me, the distracting/overpowering thing was probably a little bit of both, but really it is just an intellectual struggle. To me it is better to understand the chant in itself, and in my mind it is impossible (or at best, very difficult) to hear the chant as it should be heard when there is accompaniment - no matter how the accompaniment is done - because one's ear is then drawn more toward the harmony than the melody and text itself. It seems accompany/harmony is nothing more than a concession to our modern ears - chant is beautiful in itself and does not need any "ornamentation."

    Regarding the manner it is done at Clear Creek, as I mentioned above, it is actually done in the least unobtrusive manner which I have heard. It is not extremely loud (though still too loud for my preference, and was objectively so when I had to stand right near the organ in choir), and does not focus on tons of chord changes, keeping changing bass notes to a minimum - so in short, compared to some other methods, not extremely distracting to one's ears. (Yet, again, too much/distracting for me personally.)

    MJO - Yes, Br. Sellers entered Clear Creek his first time 3 1/2 months after I entered my first time. He is on his third try; I also gave it three tries! - As did someone I entered with the very first time, who just left this past week for the last time. Anyway, yes, definitely very musically gifted. I do not know what he has been like the past three or so months since he (re-re-)entered. His first two short periods in there were during my second stay there, and we certainly had a few short conversations about our musical struggles...haha. Definitely a good guy - I hope he is doing okay. In any case, he has lasted longer this third time than either of his first two times. :)