Learning Gregorian Chant

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Interested in learning Gregorian chant?

Curious about sacred music?

Drawn by the beauty of liturgical chant and sacred polyphony?

We have gone through this process ourselves before, and we know that each of these questions attracts a passel of apprehensions along its wake. Bear with us as we share with you our own experiences when our interest in, our curiosity about, our attraction to Gregorian chant guided us to where we are now.

I like Gregorian chant. I would love to learn it. But I have no background in music. Relax. When we formed the choir in 2009, most of us were still college undergraduates. At that time, none of us was enrolled in any music program. Though many of us had various musical exposures growing up, some of us practically had no decent background in music at all. Patience, dedication, and perseverance, and a battery of weekend practices allowed those of us who at first could not vocalise the notes on a scale to eventually sing an interval. Punctum by punctum, we improved individually and as a choir. So, don’t fret. We have at least until the Second Coming to exercise our vocal apparatus and give glory to God in the process.

But I’m busy. How can I learn Gregorian chant if I don’t have time? Don’t worry. We are also busy. We are not telling you this to smother your hopes of ever furthering you experience in Gregorian chant. Rather, being busy is not at all a hindrance to appreciating or partaking of its beauty. Be not discouraged. Nolite timere, said the Lord [1]. Non abbiate paura, counselled Pope Saint John Paul II [2]. We were busier with schoolwork back in 2009 than we are now, and yet, by the infinite mercy of God, we still managed at the very least to learn the rudiments of chanting. None of us yet received any formal training in Gregorian chant at that time. We clawed our way through all the conceptual and practical uncertainties of the discipline, while fighting to meet deadlines in school. Now, we are working with different paradigms in chant execution, while meeting the demands of our chosen career paths.

Time ceases to be an obstacle if we stop thinking of Gregorian chant as a mere goal to attain. It is our patrimony, our inheritance. If we take the initiative to reduce our unproductive online activity—say, surveilling crushes on Facebook, streaming cat videos on YouTube, liking minimalist garnishing on Instagram—then perhaps time will favour our endeavours towards reclaiming a birthright that is ours. Levity aside, for most of us, Gregorian chant is our most powerful avocation. Sundays and great feasts, we gather in church to sing the immemorial chant that once edified generations of Catholics and produced many saints for almost two millennia. On ordinary days, we are analysts, agents, educators, and what have you. In our spare time, we try to further our understanding of sacred music.

Back in 2009, when we were rehearsing Attende, Domine in time for Lent, chant resources were still being set up. To some extent, life for us was more difficult back then if we skipped an actual choir practice. Now, there are tons of chant resources offered through various organisations and made available online through different social media channels. Make use of these resources, one of the few true good things we can access through the Internet. You may consult our Resources section for links to some of the most recognisable names catering to the needs of the struggling cantor in an amateur schola like ours.

Principles and concepts, and the paradigms they define, are naught if they are not exercised. Nothing can quite replace an actual rehearsal before Sunday. Here we want to highlight the supreme importance of training and practice. We encourage you to seek the help of a choir or any trained cantor in singing Gregorian chant. We understand that the odds of finding any in the archipelago, where Gregorian chant and Latin are pariah in the ordinary neighbourhood feel-good parish, are very slim. If you want us to help you, if you sincerely believe we can help you, please send us an email through our Contact page. We nevertheless beg you to be patient with us if we cannot place ourselves before the insurmountable obstacles that might influence our availability. Occupational responsibilities allow us only a limited number of free days in the week. Geographical difficulties, on the other hand, appoint us a limited perimeter to move about.

But know that we really want to help. Which is why we ask those of you who are interested and who can make the sacrifice to attend the Masses where we serve. An hour each Sunday is better than none at all. Personal sacrifices are at the very heart of our attachment to the Traditional Latin Mass and our dedication to Gregorian chant. It is the engine that drives the movement to restore the sense of the sacred in the liturgical life of the Church. It is often a thankless and isolating engagement. But we soldier on, knowing that in every summer and Christmas vacation we forgo, we are helping restore all things in Christ.

But I’m still afraid people will put me down if I sing differently. We understand these qualms, but in the end, they are pointless. So, we ask you again to relax. When we sing in the Liturgy, we do not sing to please people, or arrest and crystallise their admiration. We sing to assist them dispose themselves in such a manner as to worthily partake of the Holy Mysteries. The Liturgy is a learning experience. Pope Benedict XVI calls the Liturgy “a school of prayer” [3]. Saint Augustine considers singing well praying twice. Qui bene cantat, bis orat, goes the dictum attributed to the Doctor of Grace [4]. And liturgical chant, that is Gregorian chant, the chant proper to the Liturgy, in the words of Fulvio Rampi, ought to be “the Liturgy itself in chant” [5]. Learning comes in stages. Our imperfections will almost always cause us to falter at first, but there is absolutely no reason not to recover from this. Trusting in the Providence of the Lord, we get up and do our best not to stumble again.

We are not saying it is acceptable to just bungle every Sung Mass there be in the liturgical calendar, and simply reduce what appears to be a vapid commentariat into a mindless horde bent at demolishing our morale. Rather, it is better to receive these criticisms—whether or not people intended them to be such—as an incentive for learning, than as a motive for self-humiliation. Gregorian chant is not a performance. As a schola cantorum, we are not dedicated to the goals of a show choir. But people get carried away, especially if they think they are not getting what they think they deserve. In the recent past, our “indiscreet polyphonies” have inspired one person to downright describe us as “cacophonous”, and another, on a separate occasion, to label us as “the worst choir”. We survived these remarks and marched on, steeling our resolve, and improving our choral discipline.

A final word: The music proper to the Church is purely vocal [6]. This is not a teaching that is ours. Neither is it a product of our intellectual extrapolations. These are the very words used by Pope Saint Pius X when he touched on the topic of accompaniment by organ and other selected musical instruments in the Liturgy. Let us allow these words to sink in, and then let us consider the vast distance that exists between what Holy Mother Church teaches and what particular churches actually do. Helping close this distance, seal this chasm between teaching and practice, heal this vulnus, is both a privilege and a dear responsibility. We hope you can help us in this endeavour, and we hope as well to help you in yours.

[1] Mk. 6, 50.
[2] Pope John Paul II, Message for the Celebration of the XVIII World Day of Peace La pace e i giovani camminano insieme (8 December 1984): AAS 77 (1985) 162.
[3] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience (4 May 2011).
[4] Saint Augustine, Exposition on Psalm 72: PL 36 (1845) 914.
[5] Fulvio Rampi, Il canto gregoriano: un estraneo in casa sua (16 January 2013): Chiesa (2013) http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1350249.html.
[6] Pope Pius X, Apostolic Letter given motu proprio Tra le sollecitudini (22 November 1903): ASS 36 (1903-4) 336.