Teaching Chant
  • Dear All,

    I am wondering if anyone has any suggestions on the following concerns I have with our Nuns when they sing in Choir. We are 13 sisters and of the 13 we have 2 strong singers, 3 semi strong (can hit notes but sing from their throats and are not strong by themselves). In addition we have 2 Sisters who are deaf and 2 who are tone-deaf.

    My major concern is three of the above sisters (1 of the deaf, and 2 tone-deaf sing extremely loud- they overpower everyone else in the choir and cause a lot of wrong movements in the chanting of the psalmody by leading the others astray. We have mentioned many many many times to them, personally, and in a general way in Chant class to listen to the ones who know how to sing and to not be louder than the others. But most of them say, "I know- but in the moment I cant remember... or, I dont realize I am getting loud). We even have tried accompanying the psalms with organ to help- but it seems it still does not help. They do their own thing.

    Does anyone happen to have any suggestions on how to break these habits or techniques to form better habits. I am at a loss at how to improve our choir until we can fix this problem. Thank you.

    Sr. Marie
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • Kathy
    Posts: 5,501
    This question reminds me of the story recounted in a book called An Infinity of Little Hours, about a Carthusian novitiate. A trained musician entered the Charterhouse and was impressed by the apparent discipline of descending a half tone with every Psalm. Of course that was just gravity working on the chant, lowering it, but it was so consistent that it seemed deliberate.

    I wonder if it might be possible to re-train the ears of the tone-deaf? I did this for some children in my schola who had developed bad habits. Of course adults have more difficulty, but with time, progress might be possible.

    Also, sometimes what appears to be tone-deafness is actually an unusual range that can't blend in with the octave that is chosen for the choir.

    And maybe there is a medical solution for the deaf?

    I always tell my students that the most important part of the body for singing is the ears.
  • @Kathy Unfortunately the deaf sister does have good hearing aids as well as a microphone but she still has a lot of difficulty. I do believe people who are tone deaf could be trained but its a matter of how. I would be interested in knowing what you tried for children.

    We also do have some range issues. I have two sisters who insist that they are altos but when they are off key they sing higher... so I am almost positive they are in reality sopranos that have never been used to hearing themselves sing high.

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  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,411
    I imagine it is very difficult to get professional voice trainers in a monastery. A free Android app called Nail the Pitch would let people see what note they are actually singing. (no doubt there are other similar tools)
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  • JonLaird
    Posts: 245
    Barring a medical condition, "tone-deaf" adults can learn to match pitch, providing they are willing to (1) work at it and (2) not sing everything that the full choir sings. Here is what I have done with a handful of singers:

    1. Figure out their comfortable speaking range. One way to do this is have them start talking, and interrupt them by singing a note in their speaking range. From there you can figure out a comfortable range to begin with them.

    2. Tell them: "I'm going to sing two pitches, and each time I do that, I want you to sing them back to me."

    3. Sing sol-mi in their speaking range, on a neutral syllable. They will sing something back, probably not what you sang to them.

    4. Sing back to them what they sang to you (don't tell them you're doing this). Ideally, they will sing the same thing again.

    5. If they sing something different, repeat #4 until they sing exactly what you have just sung (which is what they just sang).

    6. Once they do that, they have matched pitch. Let them know that they did, and tell them that they were able to match pitch some of the time, and that if they are willing to work with you, they could learn to improve.

    Singing back what they just sang to you seems like a gimmick, but it works. What I have found is that repeated work in this exercise over a period of time with a willing singer will reduce the amount of time it takes for them to match what you sing.

    A few other notes:

    -Then there is still a long and difficult road ahead -- matching more difficult intervals, adding text, stretching out of the speaking range, not to mention vocal basics such as breathing and tone etc. The singer will likely need to sit out most things at first. One can learn by experience various techniques during rehearsal for getting them back on point when they get tonally "lost."
    -A person who cannot match pitch and is not willing to follow instructions to get there cannot sing in a choir, because (as far as I know) there isn't any "secret" way of leading them in to matching pitch. They have to know and accept the fact, and be willing to work.
    -Nobody, in my opinion, should ever be labeled "tone-deaf." Rather, it should simply be said that they are currently not able (or are working on improving their ability) to match pitch sufficiently.

    Of course, being a convent choir brings various advantages and disadvantages as far as this procedure is concerned. So you may need to adapt this procedure to your own circumstances. I pray, however, that you are blessed with willing learners.
  • Edifying, John, and inspirational.

    Thank you.
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  • My experience as a visitor of many convents and monasteries is that those that have very good singing also have voice lessons.

    For the rest, most places I visit have two kinds of singing - one being the hours or office, which is sung by all, and some sing very well and some not so well, but all sing or recite in turn as required, and if some are a bit out of tune or the voices don't blend, that's just life.

    The other kind of singing being for the Mass or special occasions (Christmas concert, et cetera) in which the choir is only those with better voices, and they rehearse daily to prepare that music.

    As a singer and formerly shy person, I'd add one other tip to the better ones in Jon's post: many people who 'can't sing' are very tense and have no air flow (perhaps trying too hard to sound pretty, or because they are timid and afraid of making mistakes). Learning to relax (using arm and body movement can help) and breath in and out freely and deeply (say, with vocalizations and breathing exercises) can help a lot in breaking that 'itty bitty voice' habit. I think women and shy people tend to suffer this problem more. It does require some space where one can make mistakes and sound silly and make noise just to learn how the body works. Kind of like learning to ride a bike requires many experiences of crashing into things and falling over to figure out where the balance point is.
  • Yes my opinion is that they are not really "tone deaf" but uncomfortable with a note range that they are not used to hearing themselves sing in... These are really good tips. I am trying to do everything I can to help them but it is a difficult task in a Monastery- ie. time to practice and realistic goals.
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  • Hello Sister! I will bookmark this thread for future reference!

    My sympathies from my own experience. We had a challenge where one or two lone singers on one side of choir had to contend with an elderly Sister, deaf with hearing aids, who "sang" all over the map -- if the psalm tone went up, she went down, etc. Eventually the superior had mercy on the choir and asked Sister just to mouth the words. It makes a big difference.

    On the other hand, sometimes it is possible to have a historically good singer, who held up her side of the choir, become less and less able to hold pitch due to advancing old age and health problems . . . totally unaware that she is dragging everyone down. We are having recourse to the organ, regretfully.

    Monastic choirs are usque ad mortem. No firing volunteers. "Till death do us part." It doesn't have to be worthy of a recording (if only!). Charity is of prime importance, in the human relationships involved; yet sanity also has its own demands, when we have to sing the Office so many times a day.

    Didn't Dom Marmion call the Office truly "a sacrifice of praise," and the monastic life, "the antechamber to Heaven"--PURGATORY!

    (Just in fun. I wouldn't trade this life for anything in the entire created universe!) Yet it also takes fortitude for us who have been given this charge to try and make progress, or do something helpful for the Sisters and the choir. CatherineS, if only we could find someone to help us with singing! It doesn't seem possible, so we do what we can.
  • @MonasticChantress Sister, you have completely marked the dot! I love what Blessed Marmion says about the office- I think you are referring to "Christ the Ideal of the Monk". It is definitely a means of sanctification for everyone involved- singers and "non"singers alike! But hopefully at the end of all we will as John of the Cross reminds us, contribute to the chiseling of each other to make a great work of art in the achievement of union with God (Cauteras). Community life- the greatest penance- the greatest Joy.
    Thanked by 2CHGiffen Bri
  • francis
    Posts: 10,709
    Here are some tips:

    Matching Pitch requires Dialing Down and Dialing In...

    1. have EVERYONE sing as soft as possible. Many times going off pitch is because people want to sing forte... this is pitch sensitivity... my phrase is always 'blend with your friend'.

    2. sing in the ear of a single person who struggles. Do this privately one on one.... SOFTLY! have them try to match pitch.

    3. Do this excersize over and over and over.

    Starting low: Do-Re-Me-Fa-Sol-Fa-Mi-Re Do. Each note is a quarter note and take it at 120bpm. Then ascend a half step and repeat the excersize until you do a good half an octave. Then reverse the chromatic ascent to descending. This must be done softly and really get everyone close to each other (shoulder to shoulder)... do this in a semi-dead acoustic, and then move it into a live acoustic. Show them the difference between the two, the pros and cons. Have everyone stand in a semi-circle when doing this. LISTENING TO ONE ANOTHER IS AN ART, and blending is the result!

    4. Divide and conquer... never put two pitch challenged people next to each other... put really good singers on both sides of the one needing help.

    5. NEVER EVER show frustration or disapproval. This is a long term project. As long as there is a bit of progress from week to week and month to month, it will all come together. Be consistent. Keep doing this over and over and over.