Keeping pitch in chant - a useful discovery
  • Hugh
    Posts: 178

    As many will know, for the last few weeks in the EF, the Sunday Introit has been "Dicit Dominus". Despite our best efforts, we, a mixed choir singing unaccompanied chant, have been finding it fiendishly difficult to maintain the pitch on this piece. Yet it is important to do so, not least because the range is quite wide, so there's not much wiggle room before it starts to sound growly on the lower notes.

    After a bit of thinking and personal testing over a week or so, I tried something different on Sunday last. Fa occurs very frequently in "Dicit Dominus". Normally I just give the "Do" note to the cantor (in this piece we set Do as C). Instead, at practice, I blew the Fa note (here F) quite long and loud (about 5 seconds), and asked the choir to 1) listen carefully and "lock" that sound into their memory and 2) whenever they came to a Fa note, to remember as best they could that blown note, and use that for the Fa note they were to sing, rather than extrapolating to Fa from whatever pitch they happened to be singing at the time, as one normally does.

    I'm very delighted and relieved to report this proved a total success, both at practice and during Mass (I blew the note a little more softly at Mass, but still for a good few seconds)! After singing through the whole Introit Antiphon, and the Verse and Gloria Patri, and the Antiphon again, I blew the F note: we had not budged even the smallest microtone. What is more, the whole piece, which usually is something we don't look forward to because it is so hard to sing well, sounded almost unrecognizable, it was so bright and attractive: I could feel the choir actually relishing it, rather than just looking to get it over and done with. (This showed to me yet again how important it is to strive to keep the pitch in unaccompanied chant pieces.)

    I've had no formal training in music whatsoever, choral or otherwise, so this "trick" might be something that is common knowledge amongst the cognoscenti. But if you, like me, are struggling with this piece, and haven't heard of this, I encourage you to give it a try. My guess is that at the very least you will stay on pitch for a lot longer than you otherwise would.

    The next big test will be the "Crux Fidelis" on Good Friday, another piece that sinks - and understandably so, given its massive length and range. Yesterday, rehearsing by myself, I tried it with this trick again. I chose to anchor it on G as La, as that's quite a prominent note in the piece. I sang through the whole piece with all the repeats, coming out the other end about 10 minutes later. The La hadn't budged. Encouraging!

    Anyway, FWIW.

  • Jani
    Posts: 386
    Since we sing almost exclusively a capella in my parish, I use that same trick - plunking various notes on the piano to see if we are straying. It's heartening to see that others use the same technique!
  • I get around it by accompanying chant with the organ using soft flutes at 8' and maybe adding 4' for the antiphon. Some groups are better at holding pitch than others.
    Thanked by 1SamuelDorlaque
  • Hugh
    Posts: 178
    Very true, MH - organ can be a necessary recourse, especially if a group is chronically unable to hold pitch. But there's no substitute for unaccompanied chant when achievable, and all the flexibilities of rhythm which are available when freed from the dictates of an accompanying instrument. Which is why I'm so pleased to find this solution for the occasional difficult piece. Also I think it's good to work at keeping pitch. Relying on the organ (say) can, if one is not careful, lead to aural laziness in the group, as well as carelessness in dynamics.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    If you see unaccompanied chant as an ideal, you may have pitch problems. Fortunately, I never saw it as an ideal, so I do as hartleymartin does.
  • I'm not a purist either and find sensitively accompanied chant to have an otherworldly beauty all its own. Yes, it fills in the harmonies that unaccompanied chant so mystically implies, but I don't think that's a crime. It's just a different and equally worthy way of rendering the text, as long as it doesn't take over. But come to think of it, Cochereau at the organ of Notre-Dame "took over" when he accompanied the chanted ordinary, and that's a thrill of its own as well. There's room for all sorts of ways to do chant, as long as the text is being prayed and not lost.
    Thanked by 1SamuelDorlaque
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,301
    If you see unaccompanied chant as an ideal, you may have pitch problems.


    That's a weird statement. One's ideals don't cause the pitch problems.

    You might say:
    IF you sing chant unaccompanied, you MAY have pitch problems.

    But then, you may have pitch problems when it is unaccompanied, also.
    (Though these might rightfully be called "choir problems.")
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,091
    If singers are trained NOT to sing under the pitches they hear (which is a real problem), and if they have a good acoustic and LISTEN to the ambient sound coming back to them from the acoustic and kindred singers, they are much less likely to go flat. Unfortunately, all too many singers, when given a pitch, begin singing under the pitch ... due largely to inadequate breath support and to becoming accustomed (through previous habit) to thinking their own voices are on pitch when, in fact, they are not. Singers need to LISTEN to others and the acoustic surrounding ... but especially to themselves.
    Thanked by 2Gavin SamuelDorlaque
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886

    That's a weird statement. One's ideals don't cause the pitch problems.


    Of course they don't cause pitch problems. But typical forum idealism and contentiousness, frequently causes wars between the ideals held by forum factions. Also, the tendency of some to take any statement and parse and reinterpret it beyond belief doesn't help, either.

    I find unaccompanied singing tedious to hear, if prolonged. A little is beautiful, a lot can be too much. It can lead to pitch issues in some choirs. I use accompaniment which keeps my singers from going into unknown keys - some of the ones they can drift into are certainly not known in this world. I, too, enjoy the blend of textures and harmonies when organ and chant are used together.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,091
    CW, generally I only find unaccompanied singing tedious to hear when it is poorly sung. On the other hand, well sung unaccompanied chant and polyphony, far more often than not, are both pleasing to my ears and uplifting to my soul.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    I have left concerts at intermission when all the singing was unaccompanied. I like good singing and enjoy it as much as anyone, but there comes a point when I don't want to hear it anymore.
  • Hugh
    Posts: 178
    CharlesW, you must be thanking Providence you weren't placed about 800AD, then (as I do...because I would have missed out on Josquin & Palestrina, to say nothing of modern dentistry).

    "...some of the ones they can drift into are certainly not known in this world." Great line.

    I go with CHG - without prejudice to accompanied singing, there is a special place in my heart for well-executed chant and polyphony unaccompanied. Chant in particular: I was fortunate enough to spend a week at St Madeleine's, Le Barroux a few years back, and attended all the hours and masses of the day and night (including matins at 3.30am). Wall to wall unaccompanied chant sung with ease and expertise. It was a bit like giving up salt in the diet - insipid at first, but after a day or two, a new world of flavours swam into my ken. Even though I love renaissance polyphony, I now think I could happily see out my days in a chant-only environment.

    Thanks for comments, CHG. I admit to my shame I've given no attention to breath support - ever; our accoustic is not great, and yet mostly the group sticks pretty well to pitch. (Perhaps they are correctly supporting their notes anyway). It's just a few pieces that catch us out pitch-wise. The ploy I described might be nothing more than applying your advice on the importance of listening exactly to a given note, and carefully repeating it with the voice.





    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    I am glad you enjoyed it - St Madeleine's, that is. I probably would have been fine in 800, since I would have had 9th-century ears. That makes a huge difference. Not to take anything away from chant, but some really beautiful music has been written since then. I like it all, if it is well-written and well-performed.
  • My view is to use whatever method works best (regardless of one's personal preferences which as we all know should be subordinate to liturgical considerations).

    I've never heard chant Propers accompanied by organ but its certainly allowable - there is in fact more musical flexibility with the Propers as the congregation is not involved in singing them so its up to the choir to try and bring them across as best they can - whereas with the Ordinary there is in fact less flexibility i.e the method to be employed should be the one that assists congregational participation the most - something that can be easily determined either by asking the congregation which method helps them sing the Ordinary more or simply recording the singing of the Ordinary with and without organ and seeing what has worked better. Despite what has been mentioned in this thread, there are important reasons for using the organ which have nothing to do with its ability to help musicians keep pitch, or creating "other-wordly" keys - they are both primarily musical considerations -the prime reason for using the organ in accompanying the chant Ordinary is 100% liturgical ie encouraging the assembly to sing the chant and hence enrichen the worship of God during the Mass - this is exactly what Pius X so dearly wanted. Its up to the musicians to work out what methods works best in their own parishes.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    Good points, rmerkel. But do keep in mind the EF/OF distinction. I work exclusively in the OF, so I don't really care what the EF folks do. They have a different set of expectations and rules. i may be one of the very few OF musicians in my city that actually uses Propers. You would be surprised how many Catholic musicians don't know what they are, or see no need for them.
    Thanked by 1canadash
  • Not to demean the ideal of unaccompanied singing, but realizing that at the time of Palestrina there were over three hundred portative organs in churches in the city of Rome, I accompany chant and motets quietly. It can make the difference between a
    confident or an uncertain performance, especially when you have a choir with "real jobs"
    during the day. We only have two hours and forty-five minutes a week to prepare each
    Sunday and Feast Day's full proper, either a Gregorian or a polyphonic ordinary and one
    or two motets. What we are expected to do in one month, university choirs rehearse for a full semester or more. So, with great respect for the ideal, we work in the practical.
    This past Sunday, the Palestrina "De profundis" sounded amazing; I'd wager that most
    of the people downstairs, for whom it made a profund impression, had no idea that it was accompanied. All the Best to each of you for offering Propers!
  • CharlesW, yes you're correct - I was mainly referring to the EF, not the OF. The real point I was trying to make (perhaps not so eloquently) was that the accompaniment of the organ in the chant is not something that should be left to musician's personal preferences as some of the contributors here have cited, because they are confusing the musical and liturgical aspects of the chant. The beauty of the chant is not there for its own sake, it has a very distinct purpose as the Church documents continually refer to. The liturgical aspect of potentially enhancing the chant via the use of the organ (and it depends on the acoustics, the particular congregation etc) is something that can be easily and **objectively** determined (it should have nothing to do with personal preference of the musicians, their particular take on the "tradition" of singing chant in Mass, or even what is in the choir directors "heart") - if musicians are serious about the liturgy, they will do their homework and work out what is best for their environment, and not rely on just what they personally favor- more often that not, there can be a gap between these two positions.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    Agreed, rmerkel. I think that what some here forget, is that there are many traditions of singing chant. The French, Germans, and English all did and do it differently. It isn't so much a matter of musician preference, but the fact that it was never the same in all places to begin with.
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • True CharlesW. A musical analogy might be Handel recomposing/revising sections of Messiah for different venues (there is no "official" version of Messiah). Similarly, I don't believe there is any "ideal" here either (I interpret "ideal" as nothing other than personal preference based on particular circumstances - it may be an informed personal preference, but that's all it can ever be). Hearing monks sing unaccompanied chant works perfectly for them (I've spent a week participating in the liturgies at Le-Barroux too and couldn't imagine it any other way), but that's not the same as a suburban church in a city with a congregation from diverse (and mainly non-musical) backgrounds whom you're trying hard to encourage to just sing the Mass as much as possible. Like Handel, we need to adapt our resources to the particular, and make use of any tools eg organ that may assist in this. This seems common sense to me, but musicians often live in a world decoupled from reality.
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    This seems common sense to me, but musicians often live in a world decoupled from reality.


    So very true! LOL.
    Thanked by 1R J Stove
  • Hugh
    Posts: 178
    These comments are all fine. Use of an organ to accompany chant if it helps the congregation to sing the ordinary more confidently goes without saying, and idealistic preferences shouldn't come into it. (Or better: the musician should factor the congregation's ability here and now to sing into his/her concept of the ideal.) Likewise for a schola/choir for reasons of maintaining pitch where it otherwise is difficult for that group. Our parish congregation (EF), with the choir at the back of a smallish church, sings the ordinary very well without an organ. But if it were not to, we would have no problem with using our organ to assist.

    In large venues like Chartres at the packed-out Mass following the Paris-Chartres Pilgrimage, use of an organ is well nigh essential as a reference point.

    Another place can be in the divine office sung in a parish, especially where there are long psalms. I say that reluctantly, because my own experience over the years of lay people singing the office is that they sing the psalms much, much better without the organ, in terms of keeping together, especially at the beginnings and ends of verses, and at the pause, as well as delivering the arsis and thesis of the verse which makes psalm singing so, well, "pleasurable" (for want of a more dignified term). When the organ is playing, one immediately detects them slacking off in these departments. Understandably so, because their mistakes are covered up, so less embarrassing, and the arsis/thesis has less of an impact (or none at all), so they just stop striving for that. But, when it comes to a psalm such as In Exitu (tonus peregrinus), which can drop through the floor after a dozen verses, use of the organ to keep pitch is about the only way to go with a congregation. (I notice that on a few recordings, St Madeleine's and other monasteries use an organ accompaniment to their psalmody, when in their actual day to day singing it is absent. Keeping pitch?)

    My original post was about ways of keeping pitch with unaccompanied chant and the delights that stem therefrom, not about how one ought to sing chant unaccompanied come hell or high water! Use of the organ, however desirable in many circumstances, does not come under the head of "ways of keeping pitch with unaccompanied chant". Thanks for all the helpful commentary, though, and let a hundred flowers bloom, (including the fragile little flower that is unaccompanied chant, please!).
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Thanks Hugh - yes, the topic did veer off as tends to happen on this forum often- my comments were really in reply to other's comments as well as your own re the use of the organ. I'm glad to know you've thoroughty examined this issue in your parish and have objectively come to the conclusion the congregation do not wish the organ to accompany the chant in your liturgies.
  • Hugh
    Posts: 178
    Thanks, RM. To be honest, though, I don't know what our cong. itself prefers as a whole re. organ and chant. And I don't know what I would make of its verdict, anyway : some of our choir's most unsuccessful efforts (objectively speaking, I can safely say) have attracted the most praise from congregation members, God bless them! All I know is that visitors (including other choir directors and a few bishops) have commented very favourably on the standard of the congregational singing of the Ordinary, and when I can listen out from the choir loft to the cong. singing (eg in the Gloria it's cantors/all alternating throughout) I usually hear a healthy sound.

    Your comments appreciated, and keep up the good work. Hey, maybe we'll meet at Le Barroux some day!
  • Hugh - thanks, I think it depends on how you define success - from the choir-centric point of view e.g believing you have sung well and perhaps receiving praise from a few members of your congregation or success from the overall liturgy's perspective ie singing well and making efforts to maximise opportunities for the Faithful to take part in the singing of the Mass. There are also other ways that congregational input can be important e.g. you sing an Ordinary (say) that's too difficult for the congregation to sing, or too fast for them- if that happens, you know at least liturgically you're losing, irrespective of the high quality of the music.

    In my view, from what you've said, I feel its difficult to access anything here as you have nothing to compare to. The singing may be "healthy" from the unaccompanied chant, but possibly it may be healthier with the accompanied chant - you've admitted you don't know the answer, so perhaps (if feasible) it may be worthwhile finding out. Only then, it seems to me, can you really arrive at a just conclusion as to what is best for your particular situation. All this hinges though on your pastor agreeing to this of course - he may very like like things just the way they are, and no amount of convincing may dissuade him from that.

    I hope to visit Fontogmabualt on my next overseas trip (God willing) and would love to compare with Le Barroux. Thanks for your comments as well, and apologies again at the topic swerving off on tangents.
  • Hugh
    Posts: 178

    Very good points, RM, which I'll ponder. Totally in agreement, and no apologies necessary - there were great comments made by many "off topic", so it's all worth it. I love this site!
    Cheers.
  • stbenedict
    Posts: 4
    On a recent visit to the monastery of St.Peter's at Solesmes, the pitch of the reciting note was maintained by an extremely soft note played on the organ situated at the west end of the church, probably an enclosed 8' flute. It was barely audible, did not intrude and did it's job of maintaining the monks'pitch.
    benedictus
    Thanked by 1Continuousbass
  • PaixGioiaAmorPaixGioiaAmor
    Posts: 1,473
    It lives.
    500 x 333 - 44K
    Thanked by 3mrcopper chonak BruceL
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    I have threatened to give the pitches on the large trumpet in hopes parts of my choir might actually hear them. ;-)

    I have maintained pitch using a very soft spitzflote with the shades closed. It works.
  • It lives indeed.

    Singers maintain pitch using their ears, tuning to what they hear, and simultaneously knowing how to feel resonance in their own instrument.

    An organ played softly may not even be heard by the singers, and they may be tuning to each other instead, and wittingly or unwittingly ignoring the organ. Been there, done that.

    Then again, if a group of singers are always told (sometimes browbeaten into believing) that they can't sing in tune, and the soft organ that they can't even hear is not played, they may buckle under pressure of believing that they can't do it. Heard that, too.

    Very often, an organist thinks he is maintaining pitch but the choir is singing accompanied and out of tune. This may not be heard as being out of tune by most people at a distance.

    It never ceases to amaze me how much singing is a mental/ psychological undertaking. And how much average volunteer singers can be trained.

    Organist directors with a firm grasp of vocal pedagogy *and* an appreciative respect for the voices in their care are often able to rely on organ accomp less and empower singers to tune more.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886

    Singers maintain pitch using their ears


    I knew there was a problem somewhere. LOL. I have some folks who are getting older and are in the early stages of, if not hearing loss, hearing diminishment. I have to give them a little help from time to time.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • Aging ears is certainly an issue. They probably can't hear the organ too well either...

    All things considered, in that situation I think most people would prefer an "overcompensating" organ (loudly trying to cover bad tuning) to singers shouting over each other out of tune, trying to hear themselves and each other.

    Now we're getting comical. But this is life!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 9,886
    Sometimes they will not hear a fundamental tone as well as I would like. I find that adding a mutation such as a 2 and 2/3' stop sharpens up the tone and they pick up on the brighter sound.
  • Ben YankeBen Yanke
    Posts: 3,114
    Watch out on the flip side of accompanying pieces... one time I had the organist accompany the a group on a piece that they knew like the back of their hand but never sang accompanied. I told the organist to hold it to 8' and maybe 4' flutes, because they knew the piece well. It had the negative effect: not being accustomed to accompaniment, the singers went flat despite the organ. By the end of the piece, they dropped about half a step, ergo, every note was a minor second between the singers and organ.

    whoops.
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • PhatFlute
    Posts: 219
    Why make the organ soft like you are hiding it?

    Here are Phil's ideas:
    1) teach choir to sing it confident with no organ
    2) teach choir to sing it confident and use organ with intent (don't hide it)
    2) don't do the chant if they choir can not sing

    What else is there?
    Don't do chant if you don't learn it. Use organ to be musically and helpful, not to hid bad signing.
  • Ben YankeBen Yanke
    Posts: 3,114
    Just because you want it quiet and not overpowering the singers doesn't mean you're hiding.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 2,373
    To me there are two different kinds of organ accompaniment for chant:

    Support the singing - this is what I consider the basic accompaniment that most people know, like one often hears on recordings of Fontgambault.

    then there is this style of accompaniment - which I have used, and which I think has its place:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vzq6_IkqWrI
    Thanked by 1Gavin
  • Funny that this thread is resurrected on this day. I'm about to lose my organist for our EF Schola (He's going to graduate school in organ performance in another state), and I'm debating on whether to try to find a replacement or not. There is one organ student at the local university right now, and he's just starting to play. I have limited skill and experience, but could use this as an opportunity to grow. If I didn't hire another organist, we would do all of the chants a capella and I would play for Offertory Interludes, Communion after the antiphon, and postludes (no need for preludes since we move directly from Vespers into Mass).

    Our group has had some difficulties sometimes with the organ. I taught them several of the "double Alleluias" during Eastertide unaccompanied, but when it was time to sing with the organ, we all went awry. I think it may be due to my organist accompanying in more of a "French" style (many times his accompaniments can be very dissinant). Though yesterday we nailed the Communion Antiphon and his harmonization was beautiful. This makes me wonder if sometimes it is lack of preparation on my part that brings our little group down. Either way, I'm hopeful for our gradual improvement.