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Saturday, June 28, 2008

The EnCHANTment Project - WEEK 1

A diverse group of 30 people, of varying ages and nationalities, braved the cold last Saturday, from 9am to 12.30pm, to learn Gregorian chant at St Augustine's Church, Balmain.

Four workshops are being sponsored by Juventutem in preparation for the group's big WYD08 event on July 16 - a chant masterclass by US Gregorian chant expert, Scott Turkington, followed by Vespers with Cardinal George Pell.

The first lesson began with a prayer. Then teacher David Molloy played the well-known Do-Re-Mi song from The Sound Of Music. The Do-Re-Mi scale (known as the So-Fa System) is used for Gregorian chant and for homework we have to memorise it forwards and backwards. Also, we learnt some of the history from our textbook, "Square Notes Workbook In Gregorian Chant" by Sister Judith OP. We were also given photocopies of early manuscripts made by monks – before music notes had been invented – where they drew the hand movements of choir masters as various swirls and arches at various heights to indicate the tune.

Other points included:

+Gregorian chant is named after St Gregory because he was the first person to standardise it.

+"Do" isn't as in "Doe, a deer" – it's as in "Do-minus." "Re" isn't a drop of golden sun, it was the first syllable of "Resonare".

+Chant notes are square because they were drawn with quills.

+There are many technical terms, including punctums, neums and porrectus.

+Always soften the final syllable of each sentence so the sound dies away ("mora vocis").

+You have to roll the "r" in Latin otherwise other Latin speakers can't understand it.

+Alleluias and consonants shouldn't be punched out and sung like Pavarotti – keep the words soft and smooth.

We practised a few rounds of Do Re Mi, then had a break for tea with jam and bread. Plus some freshly baked scones with cream.

In the second half, there was an emphasis on singing the chant by placing emphasis on the right words so it's a meaningful prayer. "There needs to be internal participation – bubbling out," Molloy said.

"Think about the words when you're singing to keep your mind and heart engaged."

It's preferable to sing in old churches because the resonance smoothes out the flaws.

"Buildings constructed in the 1970s and 80s with low roofs, carpet, and cork tiles on the ceilings suck up the sound so the choir have to wear microphones.

"People feel more comfortable singing in older churches where the building is like an extra instrument and helps the choir sound its best."

He says it's a mistake to think Gregorian chant should always be slow.

"It can be sung fresh and brightly. The things that slow chant down include taking breaths and the congregation. It's important to lock in the rhythm to counteract that.

"You have to fight against letting chant get slower and slower."

Then we finished with a prayer and adjourned to the nearby London hotel for lunch and further discussion, which included a debate on whether it was better to drink plain water or hot chocolate when preparing the voice for further choir practice.

After lunch, the experienced choir members returned to the hall to do several hours of rehearsal for an upcoming ordination.

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