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Chanting the Psalms 8

Continuing our blog through Cynthia Bourgeault’s Chanting the Psalms, we now come to the more practically oriented second part of the book. Chapter 7, “Finding Your Voice” addresses a major obstacle some face in adding psalmody to their program of spiritual formation: reticence about their singing voice. Sadly, North America is well on its way to becoming a nonsinging culture. To be sure, there are some exceptions to this. Baptists, particularly in the South, still largely have age-graded choirs, and some churches can still belt out the congregational hymns with gusto. (Our church had an old-fashioned hymn-sing just last month.) Still, most church folks who love to sing gravitate toward the choir, and many of the rest assume they are somehow absolved from the responsibility of participating in the church’s hymnody.

Bourgeault laments how much of this general reticence is derived from childhood experiences where people were made to feel inadequate about their musical talents. She writes,

I suspect (at least I hope) that there may be some special corner of hell reserved for such grade-school music vigilantes. for the damage done is not just to our instrument of musical expression and exploration, but to that of spiritual expression and exploration as well. (75)

With this in mind, she makes some starting affirmations:

  1. Your real singing voice is beautiful. It is closely connected with your authentic self, “which is nothing less than the glory of God written in you as your being” (77).
  2. Proper singing is not so much a matter of adding on (volume, vibrato, etc.) but taking away: the strain, constriction, and anxiety.
  3. Working with your voice is a great way to deepen the process of self-inquiry, “exploring the material of your essential being and the blockages and constrictions in your personality” (78).

From here on, Bourgeault’s accompanying CD is absolutely necessary. The various psalm tones, antiphons, and such discussed in the text are all performed on the CD so the student can pick them up by ear. The first track is a basic vocal warm-up, which leads to chanting the first eight verses of Psalm 134 in a simple monotone.

In chapter 8, “Suzuki Psalmody,” Bourgeault unpacks the basics of a very simple form of psalm-chanting. She introduces two simple psalm tones (i.e., “tunes”) on a basic step-up, step-down pattern, which she identifies for the musically illiterate as a major second and a minor second. She then introduces what she calls the Anglican tone (“because it has the flavor of contemporary Anglican plainsong,” 90) and provides a slight variation thereof. All of these tones are demonstrated on the CD.

As the chapter title suggests, Bourgeault’s goal for us is to learn the basics of chanting by ear, without getting bogged down in the musical notation. Far more important is to bring the right-brain, intuitive, and emotive parts of the self into play, and this can be short-circuited by the visual cues of psalm notation, which engage the more mental, analytical parts of the brain.

It is important, therefore, for beginners to spend some time at this point:

My recommendation, then, would be not to rush too quickly through this chapter in a desire to get on to more “advanced” material. Take this most recent psalm tone [i.e., the Anglican tone], which is a beautiful, serviceable workhorse, and chant through the entire Psalter, allowing the pattern to become deeply ingrained.

In this chapter, Bourgeault also introduces organum, a medieval form of harmony. Although she calls this another “Suzuki” exercise, I must confess that it requires more musical acumen than I possess to find a note a fourth below or a fifth above someone else’s note. Put me next to someone who knows what he’s doing, however, and I’m sure I could join in.

Next: Part 9

technorati tags: chanting, cynthia bourgeault, psalms


  1. wow – this sounds really right – she repeats what I have told my students when I was a teacher of singing. Bravo for her. What ambition for a book. Tongues has a similar impact – and one can sing secretly (or loudly when walking in traffic). You remind me that I am not deaf or dumb – in this visual written culture, sometimes I forget.


  2. D. P. says:

    It is a very ambitious book, as you will see in greater detail in the next couple of posts. Well worth the investment, in my opinion.


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