Prostopinije Performance: Chanting Beautifully and Well
Knowing the melodies and rhythm of plain chant is not enough to ensure that our singing in church is beautiful and effective. It's important for the cantor to know, and the people to learn, how prostopinije is meant to sound in practice.
The prostopinije "sound"
The essential characteristic of our plain chant is a sort of uplifting, heart-felt inevitability:
- it has a "natural beauty" which doesn't separate us from our everyday life, but enables us to present our concerns to God even as we take part in the liturgy of heaven
- it expresses the whole range of human emotions and makes them part of our prayer
- at any given moment, it should be clear "what comes next" in the liturgical singing; the exceptions only occur at the natural divisions of the service
The beauty of prostopinije does not rely on exquisite voices or technically perfect singing. Unfortunately, in our history we have sometimes gone to the other extreme, and accepted or even preferred a "village sound" in our chant that is harsh, nasal, and not a little off-key. While this sort of authenticity (especially if unintended) can have its own charm, it can also drive away newcomers to our worship, and convince experienced singers that their talents are unwanted. The solution is to cultivate GOOD singing that enables everyone to participate in our worship.
A light, smooth, connected sound
The ideal singing style for prostopinije is one that is light, smooth, and connected. This will allow the words of the liturgy to stand out, with only the slightest ornamention. Anything that draws attention to the singing itself should be avoided. We should not try to beat the words into the ears of others, but lift them up in an offering to God; in the process, we will come away from liturgy transformed by the Holy Spirit. At the same time, we should try to offer to God (and to each other) the best singing we can.
Musicians use the word legato to describe music in which the notes are smoothly connected, without intervening silence, and this is the way prostopinije should be sung. Each note is connected to the ones that come before and after. Consonants are clearly articulated, but vowels that carry the music, which should rise and fall from phrase to phrase as if a smooth line were drawn over the musical notation.
Every phrase (marked by bar lines) should be sung on a single breath, with enough air left over to sing the final note. When consecutive phrases form a sentence, the sound should continue with stopping; this is done by "stealing" a quick breath between phrases. (Experienced singers will have an easier time of this, allowing the rest of the congregation time to take a longer breath as needed.) At sentence divisions, the singing should indicate the end of one thought and the start of another; where a phrase is followed by a contrasting phrase, this too should be marked by the voices of the singers, something we do naturally when reading.
Look at the following sticheron from Saturday evening Vespers in tone 2:
Here, the first three phrases form one sentence. As far as possible, the cantor should sing that entire sentence without actual coming to a a stop, by holding the half notes on "Word" and "ages", grabbing a quick breath (not a noisy one!), and continuing on, then coming to a stop at the words "from the Virgin Mary." But it is not a full stop; after a pause of one beat, the singers take up the next sentence, pausing very sightly between the two phrases. There should be an increase of intensity (but not necessarily volume!) on the words "saves me", and the sound should die away on "from error."
When a series of hymns (stichera or troparia) are sung, they should be continued from one to the next. At the end of the last hymn, there should be a slight slowing of the tempo (ritard) and a swelling of volume (crescendo) followed by a dying away of the sound (decrescendo).
Like the melody, the rhythm of plain chant should be smooth, and the tempo even. There should not be a strong thumping "beat"; instead, the words flow smoothly, with either accents or syllables coming at regular intervals (depending on whether free speech rhythm or a processional rhythm is beng used). Syncopation – accents falling "off the beat" – only occur in a few places in the irmosy at Matins; otherwise, there should be nothing surprising or jarring in plain chant singing.
By tradition, we avoid "dance-line" triple meters, such as 3/4 or 6/8. In practice, this means that when an accented syllable is followed by two unaccented ones, we never try to sing all three with the same length; instead, the second and third are sung more quickly, or all three are sung with the same time value, pushing out the next accent by a beat.
The speed of singing, or tempo, will vary throughout the service. Prostopinije should never be allowed to drag; neither should the singing be rushed. It should feel appropriate at every point in the service.
A consistent pitch throughout the service
Obviously, the sound of chanting comes to a complete stop sometimes! Generally, this occurs at the "Amen" that concludes a prayer or litany, or the end of a set of psalms or hymns. The sound should come to a climax (in intensity, volume or both) and then die away. (The effect of this in a church with good acoustics can be truly marvelous.)
Each section of the service should be sung with a consistent tonic pitch, or do. Ideally, the priest's opening blessing should set a tonic pitch that continues to be used through the final "Amen" of the entire service. Of course, this may not be the case:
- some hymns may have to be started lower or higher in order to make them singable by the congregation
- the priest or deacon may choose a pitch that cannot be maintained for the whole service
The congregation (or even the clergy) may wander off pitch, usually by going flat; in this case, it is the job of the cantor(s) to keep the singing on key, by their example. In this way, the people can feel that the entire service, from beginning to end, forms a unified act of prayer and community worship.
The prostopinije tradition includes a wide range of melodies, and these should be learned and used by each congregation, in accordance with its abilities and those of its cantor(s).
There are also ways to vary the performance within each service; for example, singing can alternate between sides of the church or between men and women, providing an opportunity to listen as well as to sing (particularly when a hymn is repeated).
Most of all, the words of our sung prayer should express the meanings inherent in the text. Sometimes, of course, they may run counter to our natural impulses; for example, we may be encouraging each other to praise the Lord in the midst of profound difficulties. At other times, it may be easy to make the words of the liturgy our own. But in all circumstances, we should sing the words of the liturgy as if we mean them.
This doesn't mean that we should try to make the singing particularly emotional; instead, we should cultivate love, piety, and repentence in our lives, and let that show in our singing. To do so, we need to be liberated from paying attention to the singing, and instead concentrate on the song and its meaning.
To foster expressiveness and prayer, plain chant should have a feeling of inevitability. Even when a pattern melody is adapted to a particular text, it should be clear from the cantor's singing where the melody will turn next, and the people (who have internalized the melody) follow as if by instinct. See the article of Leadership to learn how this is done.
Achieving that sound
There is no secret to achieving the right "sound" for singing prostopinije; it follows naturally from:
- a desire and consistent attempt to sing well
- a knowledge of the plain chant melodies (which requires that they be sung consistently and predictably)
- familiarity with the liturgy and its meaning
- an experience of how prostopinije ought to be sung
So every congregation needs opportunities to:
- sing often
- learn to breathe and sing properly
- learn to pray, both personally and as a community
- experience good liturgy, and make it their own
Listening to one another, to our chant, and to the voice of the Holy Spirit is the first and most important step in acquiring this sound at our worship.
Note: curiously enough, one way to foster both listening and singing is to promote the use of harmony with plain chant – particularly the sort of natural harmony that can be sung "by ear" by the experienced singers in the congregation. These harmonies are part of our tradition, and serve to beautify the singing without suppressing the participation of the entire community.
- von Gardner, Johann. "Several Observations on Congregational Chanting during the Divine Services" (Liberty, TN: St. John of Kronstadt Press, n.d.). Two articles, originally published in 1969, which describe the congregational singing of prostopinije in Carpatho-Russia between the First and Second World Wars, based on von Gardner's own recollections.
More about aspects of prostopinje:
History - Styles of singing - Rhythm and tempo - Melodies - Learnng - Chant books - Singing the Services