Sunday, October 07, 2012

Unison or SATB Ordinary usage strategies?

For just over a year our primary Schola has led the singing, really the chanting, of the Mass of St. Therese of Liseaux by Fresno composer Royce Nickel (available at Corpus Christi Watershed.) Royce's Mass uses traditional note values, but it became obvious that the quarter note functioned much more sucessfully as a punctum, and that their were "semiological" concerns that would be resolved through  examining the phrasing and declamation. Though we function very well as a going SATB concern, there were many issues to consider about introducing the setting at only one Mass out of about fourteen English services scheduled among our four parishes. We do not have pew pockets, we use OCP's BB/Unidos-United Missals racked and picked up and after Masses, and creating a Mass leaflet seemed impractical. And, of course, we knew that the acquisition (or not) of the Glory to God would indicate a general acceptance. So we opted for the unison chanting of the soprano melody for all movements.

For almost a year, and for the first time in twenty years I functioned as a "cantor" at an "epistle side" ambo close to the choir, with perfect visual access to the schola, organist and congregation, as well as the celebrant. And as much carping and harping about "animateur gestures" by songleaders, I used a sort of combined method of chironomy, intend to both provide the congregation with visual anticipation of the ascension and descension of melodic phrases, as well as phrasing,  cadences, etc. It actually worked quite well and I'd say we started clearly hearing the folks clearly within a month's time.

But now that we've entered the second year (more or less coinciding with the school year) we've had the consistent choral forces to render the piece in SATB. So, I traded places with my wife for the last three weeks. She mentioned to me today, though, that despite the congregation being fairly fully actively singing hymns (you can see them below next to the "S" designation) she thought that they shied away from the usual solid block of sound on the heels of the choir, and ascribed that to the difference of having a soprano cantor versus a baritone/tenor. And, it can't be discounted that whenever we sing a more involved hymn or piece in SATB, it is somewhat expected that the congregation relies as much upon the unison choir as it does the organ, and there will be a drop-off in volume.

Has anyone else experienced these circumstances? I know the issue of male v. female "lead voices'" effectivenss has long been debated. But as many of us are moving towards Jeff Ostrowski's "Sherwin Mass," or Mueller's "MR3," or the Bancks' setting, what strategies did you think worked best to encourage acquisition and then consistent response for these more demanding, but congregational settings?


Adam Wood said...

As loathe as I am to suggest gender-preferences for Liturgical roles, my experience has generally been that, in the cases when a "song leader" (or "cantor" with a small-c) is needed, a mid-range male (low tenor, high baritone) voice seems to be the most effective in terms of supporting the congregation and encouraging them to sing. I think it's psychological- a soprano voice makes people think the song is too high for them to sing.

When I was doing that sort of thing regularly (High School) I definitely noticed that my home congregation sang much better when I was "at the mic" than they did when the (at-least) equally talented female cantor I was on rotation with. In my youthful egoism, I wanted to attribute this to my superior abilities, but after awhile it became clear that this was simply not the case.

Tito Edwards said...

Could you add spaces between your paragraphs? It would enhance some people's reading experience.


Mr. C said...

Thanks, Tito. I've been reminded since grad school that my avoidance of "The Elements of Style" combined with my propensity for stream of conscience babbling is too dense for popular consumption.
I'll make that better effort.