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“Learning to chant” vs. “learning to sing” – or, do you learn to play Mendelssohn or do you learn to play the violin?

I’m working through the recently-released Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide with members of my choir. Part of the motivation is to try to make them a little less intimidated by “the squiggles”; I’m also curious to see just how well the book actually works as a textbook for people of a range of musical backgrounds, everything from basically zero up to a degree in music education. It’s an interesting exercise; we’ve only had two meetings thus far, but I’ve been surprised by the level of willingness to participate. We’ll see where it all goes.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary. I’ve got more to say about that trip, but among other things, I sat in on a couple of the chant classes taught by their new permanent Byzantine chant instructor, Dr. Grammenos Karanos (also credited as providing the “academic oversight” for the Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide), and I also got to sing in the left choir for a few services. Dr. Karanos is doing some nice work, and as somebody who for the time being attends an Antiochian parish, I’m really happy that there are twelve Antiochian seminarians there right now who are benefiting from his efforts.

Something that I’ve wondered about in recent months is the relationship between learning Byzantine chant and learning, more generally, how to sing. To put it another way — I’ve encountered people who can read the notation, understand the modal theory, can do this, can do that, but what they can’t actually do is sing terribly well. This is by no means the rule — I also know cantors who can pretty much sing whatever you put in front of them, whatever the repertoire, whatever the notation, whatever the style — but there does seem to be some kind of phenomenon of “learning to chant” without any additional context of “learning to sing”.

There are some, I expect, who might argue that that’s not only okay, that’s preferable. I’ve heard a counterargument that goes something like this: Byzantine chant isn’t only music; there’s an ethos and a spirituality that goes along with it, and you have to learn the technical end of it within the context of that ethos and spirituality. Otherwise, if you come in with a musical education that you’re figuring out how to “apply” to Byzantine chant, then you’re always going to be approximating what it’s supposed to be rather than actually chanting the repertoire the way you would have if you had just received the tradition from the ground up without preconceived notions or grafted onto an existing set of musical concepts. Notation, vocal technique, performance practice, modal theory — it’s a whole package that you have to receive as a whole package, preferably by imitating the psaltis at the parish you grew up at from young age rather than by doing things like going to classes or learning from books. Conservative imitation starting as child. Any other way is really departing from the tradition.

Now, there are parts of this that I can see. The more I force myself to sing off of scores written in neumatic notation, the more it is apparent to me why transcription into staff notation can only ever be a halfway measure at best. If you’re trying to write in every last bit of ornamentation that you want somebody to sing using staff notation, your score is going to get really busy really fast. Intervals become problematic. And, to be honest, at least speaking for myself, there’s a “look and feel” issue, where the psaltic notation is a good visual cue that you shouldn’t sing this the same why you might sing Mozart.

Vocal technique becomes a trickier matter, however. There are people who are 100% “natural voices”. They’ve never needed a voice teacher, they’ve always instinctively known how to use the instrument that they have to great effect, and they can use it to do whatever they want. I am not, emphatically not, one of those people. Singing has been a 100% learned skill for me. I have had to solve a lot of vocal problems, and often the worst trouble I’ve ever been in vocally has been when my teacher has said, “Sing it like this,” and has me imitate him/her. I’d say that as I have gradually learned some of the things to do and things not to do with the Byzantine repertoire, what has changed the least has been the fundamentals of how I sing; I breathe the same way, in general I produce my tone the same way. Musicality and phrasing are still important. Projection, placement, and resonance is still important. (Incidentally, here I might say that I question the characterization of the proper Byzantine vocal quality as “nasal”. I’ve sung next to people who insist that it’s “nasal”, but to my ear, they’re not singing nasally. They’re singing brightly, with a good deal of pharyngeal resonance, but that’s not the same thing as “nasal”. Nasality is often a poor shortcut in solving resonance problems, so it seems to me necessary to make this distinction.) What’s different is a matter of doing less rather than doing more. For example, vibrato becomes an ornament, a choice to be employed judiciously, rather than where you’re living all the time. Nonetheless, it’s still important to drop your jaw and raise your soft palate on higher notes, it’s still important to keep your tongue forward, it’s still important to keep your vowels in line, and you still have a passaggio that has to be negotiated properly. I don’t think those issues magically go away just because it’s Byzantine chant, and I don’t think, unless you’re one of those 100% “natural voices”, you’re going to figure those things out instinctively by standing next to your psaltis starting at age 5.

To put it another way, if you want to learn to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, you first have to learn to play the violin. You don’t just say, as somebody who’s never picked up the instrument before, “I want to learn the Mendelssohn violin concerto.”

Anyway, the point I’m making is that I think it’s probably necessary to learn to sing as a component of “learning to chant”. That said, I grant that there aren’t a lot of voice teachers out there who are equipped to teach vocal technique in a way that’s obviously applicable to a chant context. Somebody who wants to learn to chant probably is going to feel like their time is wasted on the 24 Italian Songs and Arias book, and Joe NATS Voice Teacher isn’t likely to have the slightest idea what to do with an Anastasimatarion.

Incidentally — as somebody with a voice degree, I had to do a term apiece of Italian, German, and French diction with no actual language comprehension; in addition, I also had to do a year apiece of normal language study of those languages. For me, then, it’s simply intuitive that learning Byzantine chant would involve some Greek and Arabic. Language study — diction and comprehension — is just part of the deal, and it has the extra added bonus of improving your ear and makes you more aware of how your apparatus is actually working while you use it. Yes, fine, there are those of us at English-language parishes who don’t understand why we as Americans need to learn anything in a different language, but there’s almost no musical study of any kind that doesn’t involve having to learn some kind of specialized vocabulary that isn’t in English. Even if you’re a Western musician, you need to know what diminuendo and pianissimo mean. If you sing Byzantine chant, you need to know what a kentemata and a petaste are.

I will say I like the “starting as young as possible” part of the “conservative imitation starting as young as possible” pedagogical model. If only there were some kind of model of a school that existed where that kind of thing was done…

Update, 6:28pmSomething I forgot to mention — amplification. Proper church acoustics + knowing how to sing = no need for microphones. My first semi-scholarly publication had to do with the impact amplification has had on both singers and listeners, and while I’d probably write the piece differently now 8 years later, my rather strong opinions haven’t changed. “Strong opinions” — as in, it shouldn’t exist in certain settings. This is where I have a certain sympathy for the guys who want to call electric lights in church a heresy; the trouble with certain kinds of technology is that it makes it too easy for people to do a bad job and have nobody notice. Church is one of them as far as I’m concerned. If the architect does his/her job properly, and the singer/speaker does his/her job properly, and the teacher of singing/speaking does his/her job properly, then there should be absolutely no need for “acoustic enhancement”.

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6 Responses to ““Learning to chant” vs. “learning to sing” – or, do you learn to play Mendelssohn or do you learn to play the violin?”


  1. 1 Ole Kern 19 March 2012 at 11:13 am

    Richard,

    What is your opinion of singers like Divna? I would say that my only issue with her is that she sings in a slightly “affected” manner that is just a little too soloistic for Liturgical music, but this is a relatively minor criticism – more of a nit-pick.

    I’m not sure if he reads this blog, but a Byzantine expert who you may know (and lives a mile away from me) doesn’t like her (Byz) music. “She doesn’t have the ethos!”, he says, which goes more along with your must-grow-up-learning-from-the-experts-at-the-chanter-stand comment. Of course, Angelopoulos heaps praise one her, but maybe that is just being polite and doesn’t with to share his true feelings.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 19 March 2012 at 12:14 pm

      I certainly wouldn’t kick Divna out of my choir. I know a Serbian guy who doesn’t like her, saying, “She croons. Real Serbian cantors don’t croon.” I will say that she comes across to me as an attempt for Orthodox music to have its own PBS Special crossover-type figure a la Sarah Brightman, which doesn’t exactly strike me as entirely necessary. The real question to me is, who are the women exemplars of Byzantine chant that women should be listening to?

      As regards Angelopoulos’ opinion of her… oh, who knows. Pavarotti supposedly publicly praised Michael Bolton’s album of opera arias, and talk about somebody who beyond doubt knew better.

      • 3 Ole Kern 19 March 2012 at 12:47 pm

        So yes, we both probably think he’s being polite.

        The example I’ve heard of for women chanters for Byzantine is Feyrouz.

        (Btw, I prefer “chant” and dislike “cant”. While I know it is just a language think, “cant” sounds too much like casting a spell – too pagan.)

        Do you want to share your thoughts more on the “ethos” concept?

        Defintely agree with not needing amplification. It is WAY overused in churches when it should hardly ever need to be used. I’ve often heard it used when it is absolutely unnecessary – good acoustics and good speaker/singer(s).

      • 4 Richard Barrett 19 March 2012 at 1:09 pm

        You mean Sr. Marie Keyrouz? I have heard criticism of her that amounts to overdoing the ethos in a very affected (or “pietistic”, to use a friend’s term) way. Hard for me to say.

        I prefer “chant” as a verb and “cantor” as a noun. “Cantor” is a perfectly acceptable English word that everybody in Anglophone Christendom with a chant tradition seems to use except Orthodoxy. Perhaps Orthodoxy has a lot of converts from churches that didn’t use “cantors”, and so “chanter” is the resulting nomen agentis form that is instinctively produced.

        In terms of the ethos idea, that’s not really my idea. I’ve heard that argument (or similar ones) expressed, and another word that gets used is “yphos” (roughly glossed as “style”). I agree that ethos and yphos need to be taught, but I will say that the “my teacher can beat up your teacher” mentality makes it rather difficult for people who don’t live anywhere near such teachers (hence why, in the end, I had to go to Greece).

  2. 5 Konstantinos 21 March 2012 at 10:41 pm

    You are on the right track. One of the most important aspects of learning the chant “from the outside” is understanding the different scores available and how to interpret them. Just as with any music, the hardest thing is to go from reading notes to singing (or chanting) music!


  1. 1 A curriculum proposal for Byzantine chant « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 14 May 2012 at 9:48 pm

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