Recently I've had the privilege of joining an amateur Gregorian Chant choir. When I say "amateur" I refer to choirs with no paid chanters, and with few musically trained singers except (perhaps) the choir director. Manhattan is graced with professional scholas("chant choirs") which could easily get a gig at Carnegie Hall, but our venues are usually small parish churches. We never count on spectacular acoustics. From the get go, scholas are male only (at least in the most literal interpretation.) In our group, the chanting is taken seriously as a vehicle for worship; yet we do tend to socialize more than we should (eating too much at Coffee Hour ...)

We use the Liber Usualis as our service book. The Liber Usualis is the collection of chants keyed to the Roman Missal, or prayerbook used by the priest and other ministers in celebrating Mass. The Liber is designed to take into effect any possible musical need that might arise in a Catholic religious community. Our schola may use little more than 5% of the 1000 plus page volume in a year. Contemplative communities might use the settings provided for every liturgy of the year, while strictly contemplative communities (i.e. Trappists) might use expanded sets of liturgical books (graduals, martyrologies, etc.) offering even more options. After Vatican II many communities have given away or sold their Libers, replacing vernacular hymns for chant in their celebration of the Divine Office and Mass. All the Libers on store with our schola have been obtained from communities no longer using Libers in worship.

Liber notation is complex, and is frequently substituted with current notation to aid the chanter able to read music. Any simplification of a bizarre reconstructed medieval notation is beneficial, but only to those with previous training. Because our schola is amateur and mostly musically illiterate we tend to perfect most commonly used works of music, create a pat repetoire, and wing the the rest of the chants. Our director tries to lead us to the point where we can "feel" what the music sounds like rather than rely on his conducting or the first few notes he hands us to get us ready. Usually we grind our way through the first chant Introit of the day, groping our way around before settling in comfortably for the distribution of Communion (the longest stretch in which to perform.) Yet eventually most men can recognize at least one or two of the most common modes, or scales, used in chant. Armed with that new information, it's easier to pick up unfamiliar works and perform them almost immediately (albeit not perfectly.)

I think one of the reasons why our amateur schola survives is a love of performing the music for its therapeutic qualities. It's nice to participate in the re-creation of a very complex and somewhat ancient genre instead of hearing it on the CD player only, and there are very few things in life like the satisfaction of performing wickedly difficult music . Many of us consider practice one of the highlights of our week, maybe because it allows us to set aside inhibitions about singing in public and other social phobias. Many of our chanters are retired, chanting providing both a worship and social outlet, while I quietly whistle in the corner since I'm the youngest there by 10 years at least. But all of us, for some reason and in our diversity, have decided to come together twice a week to croak out 11th century chants when we could be watching TV (or in my case, sleeping.)

While chant is a very relaxing hobby (occupation? obsession?), the practice is usually couched within religious devotion. Though almost all men in our schola are of a Roman Catholic background, interest and degrees of participation in Christianity vary from man to man, and changes his relationship to the physical aspect of liturgy. While chant can and is frequently viewed outside religious ritual, it is difficult to divorce the self from the liturgical aspect of performance. It might (and is) hard to sing with your mouth what you may not be able to rationalize or believe.

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