Vocal Pedagogy for Psalm Tone Recitation
  • I recently had a very frustrating rehearsal in which I was teaching two of the Coverdale psalms set to Gregorian tones. I pounded out notes and vocally exhibited line by line each psalm for an hour and a half. The choir must have sung the psalm tone a few hundred times by the end of rehearsal, yet singers were still out of sync in declaiming the text, flubbing the pointing, and failing to sing with subtlety. Has anyone else experienced this frustration? How does one go about teaching this? I thought that brute forcing this by repetition might be possible, but people tend to get frustrated when you have them sing the same 5 notes over and over and over again twenty times in a row!

    There is a certain fragility to the musicality of psalm chanting that I am finding impossible to teach, no matter how often demonstrated. Part of me wants to think that people just aren't concentrating hard enough on the proper technique, because the melodies are deceptively easy. Or maybe you have to grow up steeped in this stuff to understand what the right sound is?
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 224
    Can they chant it to a simpler tone, e.g., tonus in directum? If not, they won't be able to render a more difficult psalm tone.
    Can they chant it recto tono? If not, they won't be able to employ the tonus in directum.
    Can they speak it together in rhythm? If not, they won't be able to sing it recto tono.
    Are they comfortable with the text? If not, they won't be able to speak it in rhythm.

    Are they accustomed to this kind of singing? If not, start very slowly and modestly, with a little bit of text they know well (maybe 1-2 verses and a Gloria Patri), and teach them to sing it recto tono with sensitivity to the rhythm and to the appropriate silences.

    When teaching a new group to use a psalm tone, my first goal is recto tono. If a choir cannot sing a text well recto tono, they can't chant it to a psalm tone or a through-composed melody. But even to do that, individually they have to be comfortable with the text (and Coverdale, though English, is not everyday speech). And they must be able to listen and adapt to one another. To do it well takes experience with the same group over a period of time.

    I advise you to keep your aims modest, stay away from the piano as much as possible, and switch gears in your rehearsal at or just before the point of frustration (preferably to something they know/do well).

    Psalm tones are a very natural thing in themselves, but to people who are not accustomed to using them, they can be mystifying. To most people, there is speaking on the one hand, and there are through-composed, metered songs on the other hand. Psalmody is somewhere is between. And yes, there is something about growing up with it. That is why it takes 1-2 generations to securely change the musical culture of a parish. Of course it is quite possible to teach it to adults, but if it is an unfamiliar genre and they are not independently motivated, it takes more time and care. Be careful about driving a choir too hard.
  • Beautiful, @JonLaird.
    Thanked by 1JonLaird
  • Are they looking at notes when they sing? For some reason, I have learned that some people learn better by just memorizing a gregorian melody. Sometimes if they are experienced with music that has timing, when they see gregorian notes without timing and squares on lines that they cant understand they get confused. Also, although I do not like the ward method in general because it tends to be to mathmatical, at least in teaching people how to sight read it is valuable even for adults.
  • Thank you, JonLaird!

    This is a simple and clear framework that you suggest, and very helpful.

    Thanked by 1JonLaird