How to teach Gregorian Chant to beginners and advanced beginners
  • I'm the current schola director of our Latin Mass Community in Cebu, the Philippines (and its director too) and I'm having difficulty on where to start on how to teach Gregorian chant to the schola. My skill level when it comes to chant can be described in the following:

    -if given a hymn, I can sing the notes perfectly after 2 tries
    - I can solfege (in between beginner and intermediate level)
    - I don't memorize the names of the different kinds of notes in chant
    - I don't have background knowledge in the history of chant (though, I have two members in the schola who have far extensive knowledge in that aspect)
    - I don't know how to conduct chant haha

    Given my limited expertise (I honestly wish someone far better than me can take my place hahaha), how can I start off to help my schola improve in Gregorian chant? And which aspect in chant can I learn to help improve my ability to sing?

    Any kind of advices/criticisms are humbly and happily appreciated :)
  • Singing exercises with Gregorian notation PDFs would be very much appreciated :)
  • MarkB
    Posts: 1,033
    I recommend buying the book Laus In Ecclesia. I don't know if the abbey will ship internationally, however.

    I also recommend this video series:
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 2,044
    I also recommend Laus in ecclesia. You can register on their website to get access to the lessons as taught by Fr. Bachman, the choirmaster, himself. The audio exercises are also available as mp3s.

    If international shipping is a problem, write to the abbey (email works too). A bulk order for your schola would make it possible for them to send books.
  • My concern is that maybe the other resources taught by Clear Creek (which is a Benedictine Monastery) are taught in the Solesmes Method. Our schola sings according to the Vatican rhythm. Would it be a problem?
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 2,044
    Well, yes, that's burying the lede a little bit, although I think that people should be familiar with the Solesmes method… that aside, I think that the neume identification required by Laus in ecclesia is worth it. You don't have to know all of the distinct possibilities for groups of neumes, but having a common understanding and vocabulary in your schola is essential, and Laus in ecclesia drills that. You should find a way to make flashcards, which would be possible with Anki, as you could make flashcards that have pictures.

    Work on solfège; Laus in ecclesia does a lot of solfège, but you can learn elsewhere. I personally benefit from the Guidonian hand, although really, because I'm not good yet at mutating the hexachord (that is, when you get to La and need more notes, so La becomes Re), it's hard to use outside of mode I and IV where you don't have a lot of high notes and of course in teaching the hymn Ut queant Laxis.

    As to conducting… I'm partial to Mocquereau's chironomy, but the person to ask would be Jeff Ostrowski, since he prefers the Vatican rhythm, and he probably should put up a video as "how to conduct chant according to the Vatican edition" is an important question if you advocate for it over the Solesmes editions.
  • Lincoln_Hein
    Posts: 129
    I think that the most important thing before anything else is to ensure that they are able to sing in straight tone in perfect unison in Latin with the proper pronunciation and respecting the tonic accents and cadences (with "ralentando", "mora vocis", before every punctuantion mark like colon, comma, semicolon, more ralentando in colons than in commas).

    Furthermore, the Vatican preface is quite flexible in relation to the rhythm of the music, but it is important to ensure what is there, if you want to follow what it teaches most essential in Dom Pothier's method: 1- the new impulse of the voice at the beginning of each neuma as a kind of grammatical accent; and 2- "ralentandos" ("slowing down", decreasing the speed and increasing the duration of notes) greater or lesser depending on the subdivisions of the bars (quarter-bar, half-bar, bar, double bar).

    Each neume is like a word in this method if it is a melismatic song and therefore it is necessary to respect both the initial impulse of the neume and the melodic arc with the highest note being accentuated, as if it were a Latin word.

    I think that regardless of which rhythmic method is chosen, the singing only flows well when the choir knows the melody almost by heart in terms of pitch and also the pronunciation of the text.

  • Lincoln_Hein
    Posts: 129
    I think the best way to conduct in the Pothier style would be to divide the music into measures of two, three and four beats (with the first note of the neume always being on beat 1 and in sufficiently long neumes the highest note being on beat 1 or 3 ) and using circles with hand that mark beat 1 with a descending movement (downbeat), never marking all beats with this movement but trying for the arc to cover the entire "measure".

    So you could use something similar to Mocquereau's chironomy, but ignoring the theory of arsis and thesis and ictus and thinking more about a “global melodic gesture” that encapsulates the entirety of each neume with a single gesture of the arms and hands rotating in spirals.

    In musical rehearsals with slow tempo you could use the gestures of modern conducting beating all times of each "measure", maintaining a continuous pulse, even with the continuous variation between two-, three- and four-beat measures

    Little by little you can find a mixture of the two approaches (spirals similar to chironomy and modern conducting) with a gesture that reflects more the phrasing and some more important points of melodic-rhythmic emphasis or cadentials.

    At first, you can practice conducting the choir with the choir singing in a straight tone and marking the Latin accents with "downbeat" movements, studying where to place the secondary accents that occur on syllables that are not grammatically accented.

  • I'm glad this subject of Pothier-style conducting has come up. It's really not discussed very much. I believe the fact that Mocquereau (Ward, too) gives such clear instructions for conducting and parsing the rhythm is a big part of why his method became so much more widespread than Pothier's.

    There's a whole chapter on chironomy in Dom David's book. He was a close associate of Pothier and frequent opponent of Mocquereau and should be considered to be promoting the strict Pothier method. One of the things I've been thinking about doing for a while on CCWatershed is posting a translation of that chapter. I don't know if there's any interest at all in that sort of thing; Jeff has posted lately to the effect that most people don't bother reading the longer articles on CCW. Maybe it would be a good summer side project, but I have a lot of other things I'm writing and working on!

    Anyway, what @Lincoln_Hein says above is pretty close to what Dom David describes, although I would add a couple of caveats. In general, these are features of the method that one might assume come from Mocquereau but actually are also part of Pothier. First, for Pothier, the four-beat measure is also in some practical sense two two-beat measures. One can see this already in Les mélodies grégoriennes. So you would still want to subdivide larger neumes into groups of two or three notes, just as in Mocquereau. Second, the idea of arsis and thesis is central to Pothier's approach. Arsis comes before thesis, and the Latin accent, marked with intensity (probably more intensity than for Mocquereau, which is one of the chief differences) is on the arsis of the word. Thus the accents should be conducted not with a downbeat (i.e., a thesis) but a upbeat gesture (i.e., an arsis). The only other change I would suggest is that the idea of a "continuous pulse" is somewhat different from Pothier and David. As far as I can tell, they wanted more variability and flexibility in tempo than Mocquereau as a matter of theory, although perhaps the differences aren't so great in practice.

    I'm attaching David's chironomy guide to the first Kyrie of Mass 8, which illustrates a lot of this. The groups at the top show "rhythms," which are modeled on Latin words and which are more or less akin to Mocquereau's higher levels of rhythmic division. The shaded graph shows variation in intensity (i.e., dynamics). I find the chironomy diagram at the bottom especially helpful to grasp the different approaches, since it's very different from Mocquereau even though it uses a lot of the same gestures and the same ideas. There is more to unpack here.
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  • Lincoln_Hein
    Posts: 129
    Thanks, Charles!

    I like to alternate between upward and downward movement in the accents, depending on the melodic context and an overall structured rhythm - with a somewhat different understanding of the Latin accentuation than Dom Pothier; and this may have influenced the way I proposed a possible way of conducting the music.

    As a native Portuguese speaker I tend to interpret Latin stressed sylables in a similar way to Portuguese stresses (but also similar to Italian): primarily accents of intensity and because of intensity generally more elongated syllables too. In Brazilian portuguese, generally in each sentence (or in long enough part of a phrase) there are three main accents: one towards the beginning of the phrase which is relatively low (in melody), one in the middle towards the end which is more acute and a rhetorical-oratorical climax, and finally an accent which is lower in the natural melody of prosody and works as cadence. Every word has it own stress in a microrythm; but when the whole sentence is pronuciated there is hierarchy between the stresses, and almost always the last two types of more important stresses - the climax of the sentence and the cadential one - are elongated in duration.

    In an accentualist-rhetorical method (which I consider the easiest and most practical, although I consider a mensuralism with agogical and dynamic nuances to be the most authentic and most aesthetically interesting), when in the melodic context it is interesting to lengthen stressed syllables (or the last note of the neume of stressed syllables or the highest melodic note of stressed syllables) I often prefer to consider it as what Cardine calls a "hinge note"/"pivot note" (I don't know how this is translated in the English version of "first year of Gregorian chant") - as a synthesis of downbeat and upbeat, thesis and arsis. Even in some cases of an accent such as a "source note" (which begins the melodic movement), I tend to consider a crescendo in the note as a kind of synthesis between thesis and arsis (which begins thetic).

    I also follow the following rules in an accentualist aproach: 1- if the accented syllable in isolated note is lower in melody compared to the unstressed one that follows, I usualy make it longer in duration and with intensity and weight as if it were a first note within a modern measure; 2- If the note or syllable before the accented syllable is higher pitched and the following is a certain cadence, I make a special effort to make the accented syllable more intense and work as a rhythmic landmark (I really hate the way everyone sings "re| >gi-na >cae|>liííí >lae-ta|>réééêêê" accentuating the last syllable with a certain intensity and duration instead of "re|>gí-na|>caéee- | lii lae|>tá-re |a le|>luuú-|iaaa " ). 3- always the tonic syllable is accented either by the higher melody, or by the longer duration or by the greater intensity, or a combination of these factors : if melodically it is lower, the accent has to be compensated in another way and if in addition to being lower in the melody it only makes sense in the context as being fast, then it needs to be especially emphasized in the pulse with intensity and as a downbeat. 4- Only when the stressed sylable is long enough it can be in a "arsis" of the measure instead of "downbeat" if the context needs 5-due to the context, sometimes it is the highest note of the neume or the last note of the neume with an accented syllable that I lengthen or both. 6- the lengthenings can be as the "episema" of solesm style or as "dotted note" in solesm style, depending on the context. 7- in music with a more syllabic style, the accent of certain words is adequate enough if it is a downbeat without lengthening, even if it is lower than other syllables (in these cases, the melodic differentiation usually occurs in border with the previous and the following note, both higher than the accented syllable, the change to the lower note and intensity is enough to distinguish the accent as an accent and not something without rhythmic weight).

    Generally, when I start to study a song from the Gregorian repertoire with my students, the first thing I do is: "declaim the Latin text imitating a slightly angry Italian person, including the hand movements". Then I ask them to slow down the recitation a little and reduce the emphasis a little, and then I ask them to sing it in recto tono fluctuating the dynamics (singing "crescendo" increasing the volume in accents and "decrescendo" in other parts; and also with acceleration and deceleration of the tempo).

    In portuguese chant the aproach is similar: but instead of a "slight angry italian person" I start with asking a solemn declamation "similar to what would be if God was speaking with a powerfull voice commanding a miracle to happen".
  • Lincoln_Hein
    Posts: 129
    Also: in the "regina caeli" I hate the stress everyone puts on "a" of "quia" (qui|>aááááá ' quem) and prefer "|>quiii-a|>quem me-ru|>ís-ti por|>taaa|reee" with a triplet on "quem meru" and without any breath or pause before "quem". The whole phrase sounds like a 6/8 meter |pause qui (quarter note) -a (eighth note)| quemmeru istipor| ta (dotted quarter) re (dotted quarter)|

    And if you want you can add an episema on "quem" emphasizing precisely the resurrected Christ.

    If translated into English the usual way of singing the latin would be " be|>caaaaauuuuse who you has deserved to ca|>rryyyyyyy" In portuguese "porqueeeeeeee quem merecestes carregaaaaaar"

    and I think this ridiculous in latin, english and portuguese (in Portuguese it doesn't sound so bad because the infinitive of the verb "to carry" "carregar" is accented on the last syllable and usually "porque" is stressed on "que").
  • MatthewRoth
    Posts: 2,044
    Well, because isn’t that ridiculous in English; lengthening, and therefore giving it the character of an accent, is fairly common. But I understand why quia would be annoying, though I’ve just come to live with it and have picked my battles elsewhere (e.g. we do not add a mora vocis in “suscipe” on -pe in Gloria XI.
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