In the context of the liturgy, music is more than just a musical sound; it has to express meaning. The process of liturgical singing - raising the voice to convey a sacred text - deserves some attention. We will also examine the steps in beginning to sing a particular text in church.
Sing words, not just notes
Think about reading a letter aloud to a friend. You don't worry about the individual letters on the page; the skill of reading enables you to pronounce each word, even if the rules for spelling seem complicated. (Of course, if you don't know how to pronounce a word, you may have to look in up in a dictionary, or ask someone else!) You don't read each word at exactly the same pace, or the same pitch; and even within a sentence, your voice changes naturally to distinguish a question from statement or a command. And as you pass from sentence to sentence, or paragraph to paragraph, you will use pauses of various lengths, or changes in the intonation and timbre of your voice, to relay the meaning of the whole letter.
The same applies exactly to singing. A singer who is focused primarily on musical notation, or on "hitting the notes" in the right order, may not reach the point of actually conveying the meaning of the words being sung. Even in instrumental music, it is the tiniest nuances of playing that separate a dull performance from an inspiring one. To be a cantor (or even a competent singer) it is important to learn to use these "pointers" in your voice to direct and lead singing that incorporates meaning and spirit.
This does not mean that you ignore the printed notes (although a skilled cantor who really knows the chant tradition may be able to dispense with them; this takes years of constant practice). It means that it is you, the singer, who must combine the musical sound with the words being sung in a way that works to convey the text.
Sing prayers, not words
This is especially important in liturgical singing. We are frequently singing to God, but in way that expresses, teaches, and reinforces patterns of life that we are struggling to make our own. We are doing so "against the grain" of fallen human nature. It is vital that our singing be not just meaning, but actual prayer.
One important step that is often omitted is to read and ponder the words we are going to sing, beforehand. Make each psalm, hymn or response your own, and match it to the music in a way that beautifies it and makes it accessible to those who will hear or follow your singing. This may take study; it will certainly require active intent on your part. No matter how well sung, a text is not a prayer until the heart of the singer is involved in the singing.
At the same time, it is important to note that we should not be adding our own emotions to the text, or "play acting." Instead, make the text an actual prayer, and allow the Holy Spirit to do the rest. Your job is to convey the meaning of the text, not just your own interpretation of it.
Preparing to sing
Here is a procedure to follow whenever you will read in church, or lead the singing.
At home, well before the service:
- Go over what you will sing. Look up any unfamiliar words, and practice reading it aloud.
- Choose a melody for it if you have several choices.
- Mentally walk through the service, singing each part in order.
- Use tools like paper clips or sticky notes to ensure you can follow each point of transition in the service book or booklet. Mark the text if necessary wherever there is a point you need to remember.
Then, when you are in church, make sure your materials are at hand and properly organized. If they are on a cantor stand, they need to be at a height where you can see them easily without tilting your head downward (which cuts off the flow of air); in some cases, it may be better to hold your book or sheet music up where you can see it more easily.
Make sure your voice is warmed up, and your posture is correct. Stand up straight!
When it is time to sing:
- Select a comfortable starting pitch. Unless you are the only one singing, it has to be a pitch that the congregation can sing easily, too! The starting pitch may also be influenced by the range of the melody to be sung - that is, whether it goes above or below the starting pitch, and by how much.
- Determine the tempo, or speed of the singing. This will depend on the type of hymn, the melody, and the needs to the service: for example, if a chant will accompany a procession, it has to be matched to the amount of time involved.
- Breathe before singing. Air has to be flowing before you make a sound!
- Hit the first note cleanly and accurately, then concentrate on using the melody to express the meaning of what you are singing. Good articulation will help you express the meaning of the text; the resonance of your voice will enable others to catch the spirit of your singing as well as the meaning.
If you are assisting the cantor, or singing with the congregation, you may be waiting for the cantor to begin. You can use this time for prayer, and also imagine (or sing to yourself, silently) the beginning of the next part of the service, to reinforce it in your memory and make sure you can lead it when necessary.
It is a good idea to occasionally record your singing and listen to it AFTER the service, to help you identify places where you are doing well, and points that need improvement.
Exercise: chanting on a single note
One good way to begin learning to chant words and texts is to begin with a Psalm, such as Psalm 103 (here is an excerpt), and chant the psalm on a single note. This will let you practice conveying meaning with your voice, without worrying about the details of a melody.
Step 1: Read through the text. If it is divided into "sense lines", notice how some of them go together to form a particular thought, while some lines contrast with the ones that precede or follow them. Use a pencil to mark the major divisions ("paragraph breaks"), linked thoughts, and contrasts.
Step 2: Look over the steps above for singing in church. Remember to read the psalm out loud!
Step 3: Start chanting the psalm on a single note. If your breathing is good, you will be able to maintain your starting pitch. (If you run out of air, you will sing flat, or with a dropping pitch; if you are too tense, you may sing sharp, or with an ascending pitch.) Sing as long as you can without tiring, or to the end of the psalm.
Now repeat the exercise. Arrange to record your singing this sing, and listen to the results. If you have access to a keyboard instrument, or an electronic substitute such as a smart phone app, use it to find your starting note and ending note. Over time, try to keep on one pitch, with good expression, while chanting an entire psalm!
If you have problems reading aloud...
Try reading stories aloud to children. (If you don't have children in your home, borrow them, or become a storytime volunteer at your local library!) With children, it is often easier to tell if they understand the story you are reading. Pay attention to how your voice combines words to form sentences, and show how each sentence relates to the next, and to the whole story.