So many things were wonderful about the trip to Chicago for Chant Intensive. It is hard to know where to start. I guess, first and foremost, since obviously I am not getting this commentary out while it is still news, I guess I would like to encourage others who want to improve on their knowledge and understanding of chant to plan to attend the course next year. Especially for anyone who thinks he or she may be called upon to direct a schola at some point, this instruction is invaluable. How I wish I had been able to learn this stuff - oh - maybe six or eight months ago...
If the course had been offered last summer, I would not have been ready for it. I'd still have learned a lot, of course, and been a bit farther along than I was when I began directing the schola, but I think I was able to get more with a little more experience this year.
What particular points did I take away from the course?
1. The necessity of learning, using and teaching solfege. This basic understanding of the diatonic scale and its use in sight-reading makes learning new chants so much easier.
I can remember last summer at the colloquium getting very tired of trying to sing the chants in solfege. I really could not see the value in it. I had developed my own 'cheat' system of sight-reading whereby I mentally thought of a key signature (assuming the four lines of the staff were the bottom four lines in a modern notation staff) and happily sight-read with ease. The main problem with this is the fact that my system was virtually impossible for me to teach to others (even those with a fair amount of standard notation experience). They just couldn't get it. Solfege may not be second-nature to most modern notation note-readers, but they can all understand it and get used to it with a little practice. Beginning note-readers do far better with this than trying to understand modern notation.
2. I learned so much more about the understanding of the various modes. The organization of them, the ability to hear the difference in the modal scales and a more clear understanding of them only came about for me this summer.
3. Chironomy training that is so essential for leading a schola was made so much more clear.
I had seen the basics of it in use last summer during the colloquium. I had also read about it in various chant books I have in my (ever-expanding) library. I had even tried to figure out how to direct simple drills with the arsis and thesis concept. I was not really very successful. I always simply fell back into my own simple method of directing, somewhat loosely based upon the directing I had been used to seeing while singing in choirs over the years...
The ability to see some actual rules to use in determining whether a grouping should be arsic or thetic was so very helpful. I have, since coming home, marked up many chants I already knew well with the directing notes. And yes, I have even practiced directing (no one present to direct, of course) here at home. I don't think I would have made too much progress along this particular path without having someone really show us how.
Picture the way our entire gathering of forty-some attendees all gathered around our teacher, Scott Turkington, in front of the chapel that faces Lake Michigan practicing our chironomy. We looked a bit like a tae- chi group out doing our exercises.
4. We learned the actual rules that exist for determining rhythmic groupings. Rather than just having to guess at what 'seems' right, we have actual rules!!! It had never been explained so clearly to me before. What's more, the most crucial of the rules are all printed for anyone to use in the back of the newly published Parish Book of Chant (p. 175 for anyone interested).
5. The method of teaching new chants using a combination of the various bits of information is something I will use.
Whenever we began learning a new proper during the workshop, we began by marking all the rhythmic groups according to the Solesmes method. The groupings of twos and threes and the insertion of understood rests at full- and double-bar lines helps tremendously in gaining familiarity with the chant. We also sang the chant in solfege... knowing where those half-steps are is crucial for note-reading accuracy... it is hard to miss when singing solfege. Then we would often sing the chant by the rhythmic numbers. This helped us to concentrate on the rhythm (and also gave our poor, unaccustomed-to-solfege brains a chance to rest). We would often go over the text, assuring accurate pronunciation... and finally put it all together text and notes.
I was quite astounded at how quickly the group learned new music using this method.
I'll probably think of several more really great things that I had never learned (or had the sense to absorb) before this summer... but, for now, these are the things that stick out for me. As I mentioned, I think I got more out of this course after gaining a year's worth of familiarity with the many standard chant hymns, ordinaries and propers that we used in our schola. It made the learning process much quicker for me this summer than it would have been for me as a complete novice.
I think this course offers so much possibility for those who may be thinking about starting their own schola somewhere... to have this foundational knowledge will make a huge difference in the world of Gregorian chant in the liturgy.