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CNP Feedback - Chironomy

Q. Dear CNP:

I'm studying chant and hope to begin a small schola at our church (our new pastor is supportive). I have a lot of musical knowledge and experience directing choirs but can't seem to answer one simple question: How do you direct chant?

Searching for an answer to this question, I contacted a couple of retired music directors I've worked with over the years:

Retired Music Director Interview #1
Q. "Is directing chant hard to do?"
A. "It's called chironomy, let me spell it for you: C-H-I-R-O-N-O-M-Y, and it's not easy. It took me over a year to learn to direct it. I wouldn't take it on by yourself. I'd call the diocese."

This now appears to be harder than I thought.

Retired Music Director Interview #2
Q. "Is directing chant hard to do?"
A. "Oh no! The notes go up and your arm goes up. The notes go down and your arm goes down. Arsis! Thesis! It's easy!"

I've got the arisis-thesis concept but that's about all I've got.

Additional conventional (and unconventional) studies:

  • Watching a schola frame-by-frame during a Tridentine Mass broadcast on EWTN, trying to connect the director's motions with the music. Was the director singing with the schola? Confusing.
  • Watching scholas on YouTube clips. While this seems silly, it's been informative but I still can't connect the dots. Some of the choirs don't have a director at all...?
  • Reading books on chant, searching for the perfect, "Here's How to Direct Chant" chapter. Surprisingly, this subject is often not included in these books, or, if it is, the instruction is either vague, or heavily diagramed and overwhelming.

Do I need to know chironomy to start a small schola at my church? Does anyone need to direct the schola at all? Please help!

Up in Arms

A. Dear Up:

Please do not be discouraged. Directing chant, called chironomy, is both an art form and a skill. Think of it like cooking.

There are chefs who attend the Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America and study meticulous details of expert culinary technique. They know precisely the best way to chop an onion, to bone a chicken and to concoct the perfect Béarnaise sauce. They are to be admired for what they do and their food will be appreciated by anyone lucky enough to taste it. If we have the good fortune to be able to watch them as they cook, we can probably pick up a tip or two about our own cooking.

However, that doesn't mean that the rest of us should starve because we somehow "can't cook like the experts." All of us, to some degree or other, can cook. Many will never progress beyond the basics, but that doesn't mean we can't lay down a tasty meatloaf.

It's the same with chironomy. We'd all love to attend seminars at Solesmes, France, and learn with the experts exactly the proper way to mold our hand movements to the intention and direction of the chant. This is not likely to happen, though.

On a basic level, a schola should have a director, who not only chooses and distributes the music to be used, but assists in the vocal performance of that music. This director should lead rehearsals, establishing in the singers the proper method for singing chant (good vocal production, pure vowels, relaxed tone). In performance, someone (a "cantor") needs to begin the chants, that is, to sing the incipit up to the asterisk. This could be the director — having one person start takes care of pitch and tempo agreement, since it's all in place when the full schola begins. The director could indicate the schola's entrance with a hand gesture. Beyond this, with good rehearsal, the music will sing itself. The director can and should indicate cadences (perhaps with slight ritards), indicate breath lengths, indicate swells in the music and relaxation points. All of this can be done quite simply, with minimal gesturing. The purpose of a "chant director" is to allow the singing to happen easily and naturally, not to pull things artificially from the performers. Scholas are not marching bands.

So, all-in-all, start rehearsing and singing with the schola. Grow in your "directing" skills as they grow in their singing skills. Be patient with one another, make beautiful liturgical music for the Lord, and accept a "beginning schola" for what it is.

And, by the way, when can I stop by for some meatloaf?

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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