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A simple guide to singing Gregorian chant

© Hans Splinter | CC
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Anyone can sing these ancient melodies, with just a little practice.

In the halls of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, a part of The Catholic University of America, they have a saying: “Skills for life.” These three words act as a simple reminder that the musical abilities their students hone are an investment, one that can enrich an entire lifetime with beauty and joy. These skills may get rusty if unused, but music is much like riding a bicycle, in that you never forget the techniques, for they are embedded in your muscle memory.

Of course, studying at a music school offers some benefits, but one does not need formal education to learn to sing. In fact, a school for music is a relatively new concept to the world. For thousands of years people kept melodies alive by immersion in the music, attentive listening, and dedicated practice. These methods are still quite beneficial to understanding music, and we would like to offer some ideas on how to advance your own singing skills in your free time.

Step 1: Identify your vocal range

If you’re new to singing and you’re not sure what your capabilities are, there is a quick video on Youtube that can help you figure it out. The video will play the notes of a scale and ask you to sing along. Write down the highest and lowest notes that you feel comfortable singing, and at the end of the video it will tell you where your voice fits in to the standard voice parts: Bass, Baritone, Tenor, Alto, Mezzo Soprano, or Soprano.

It is important to know which voice part you sing so you know which vocal line is yours. A light, flexible Mezzo Soprano would be wasted on the low, repeating Bass notes and a Tenor can’t quite hit the high notes of a true Soprano.

Step 2: Listen to Gregorian chant

Before ever pulling out your sheet music or even singing along with recordings, it is important to acquaint yourself with the style of Gregorian chant. In this early form of music, a lot of the songs follow the same tropes and contain similar styles. The more you listen to music in the style you wish to sing, the easier it will be for your ear to pick out familiar patterns and this will make it easier you when you finally begin singing.

Saint Catherine Catholic Cultural Center suggest men listen through The Chant Kit by Jay Violette, while women might find a better fit with Sublime Chant by Kitty Cleveland. Be sure to listen to each track multiple times to allow your ear to pick up the melodies; you may be surprised to find that when you begin singing a tune you’re already familiar with that everything falls into place rather quickly. Listening to a lot of Gregorian chant will also help you to figure out just which tunes you’d like to sing.

Step 3: Find your sheet music

This should be the easiest step, because we are thankfully in the year 2019. Many people do not realize that most sheet music, especially of the ancient and religious varieties, can be found for free with a simple Google search. Since Gregorian chant is both ancient and religious, it shouldn’t be too hard to find any piece you’re looking for.

Musica Sacra has a large collection of Gregorian chants which are free to download.

Step 4: Listen to the chant again, but this time follow along on your score

You don’t necessarily have to be able to read sheet music in order to understand Gregorian notation. As one of the earliest written forms of music, it was made specifically for the untrained and those who were new to sheet music. Notes are mostly just there to mark the tone, without any distinct meter.

By now you should be familiar enough with the melody of the chant that following the notes while listening to the music can teach you a great deal all on its own. Written music is very much like a mathematical calculation, and once you understand the rules, singing a piece of music you’ve never heard before will seem like a piece of cake.

Need more explanation? There’s an excellent short video that describes the notation of Gregorian chant.

Step 5: Practice, Practice, Practice

Now you know the melody and you’re getting a hang of the sheet music, so all that’s left is the most important part of any musician’s life: Practice. The more you sing, the better you’ll be at singing. Your voice will become clearer and stronger with daily use and in a few weeks you’ll find yourself holding notes much longer and with greater ease than ever before.

There’s an old joke: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.” Well, we’re not sure if Gregorian chant will get you to Carnegie Hall, but with a couple more voice parts around you, you could find yourself in the choir at Mass. Give them some gorgeous Gregorian chant and they’ll thank you.

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