Singing Chant

Did you know that not just anyone could sing chant? That a monk had to sit in the choir until he had inculcated both the meaning and substance of singing chant?

Though Contemplatives might call this Grace, God, or the All of the Everything That Is: the truth—from a physiological perspective—is that the ear is the means by which chant is learned.

Monks don’t sing like classical singers, their vocal abilities having little to do with personal expression, chest resonance, singing “forward” or into the “mask.”

No. Monks are after something else.

To put matters simply: It’s all about the head.

That’s what you hear when you sing chant well.

No, we’re not talking classical head voice, which is meant to carry to the back of the hall and is its own art. That is a separate study, one that finds its basis in the chest—as does all classical singing.

Range isn’t the point either.

The chant voice is unitive and of one substance, giving both listener and singer the auditory impression of coming from nowhere and everywhere all at once.

Singing Chant well is being inside a Fra Angelico halo. You breath, open your mouth, and it appears around and in your head.

Does the body feel lifted up? Most definitely. Is this a strain? Not on your life. In fact, singing chant is at once restorative, meditative, and recalibrating.

There is a vibration that reaches the heart: a vibration that seems to come—again— from the head.

(Head in Heart, which recalls the Jesus Prayer of Orthodox monks.)

There is also the odd feeling that the breath holds the singer—a purely subjective, numinous sensation—which is quite different than the sensuous feeling one can have (and should have) while singing opera.

Tomatis wrote about Chant is his books (The Conscious Ear comes to mind) and used it in his Listening Training methodology, finding that it had a calming effect on the listener.

I confess to not liking singing Chant at first. In fact, it took me a long, long while to “understand” how to sing it. Now? My observation is that the ear must be fully open and reflectively guide the muscles of the body. Yes, I could describe what happens in the body, but this wouldn’t guide you until your ear was ready to receive the information—though I have dropped a few hints.

No, I’m not trying to go woo-woo on you. Far from it. Singing Chant is a learned behavior that doesn’t require a deity any more than singing Tosca requires a soprano to be real murderer (she kills Scarpia after all).

Therein lies the different between art and science.

My advice?

Go sit in the Choir.

"Salve Regina" Chant Umbrian Serenades, Paulo Faustini, tenor; Stephen Schall, baritone; Daniel Shigo, bass-baritone. Recorded at Chiesa di San Francesco, Montefalco, Italy, 2011.