When you use the Suzuki method to learn a musical instrument, you start right off playing by ear rather than by sight-reading. And so when I talk about "Suzuki psalmody," I mean learning to sing a simple Psalm tone by ear, without first having to master the more complicated musical notation that puts some people off.

In the last column, we began as simply as possible: learning to chant a Psalm on a single note, or monotone. Now if you get bored with that and want to try something a little fancier, you can move on to a very simple step-up/step-down arrangement, again entirely by ear.

In most modern Psalters designed for congregational use (that includes the Episcopal Prayer Book and Grail Psalms), you'll find about midway through each verse an asterisk (*) that marks the halfway point, dividing the verse into two half verses, known as versicles. To invent your own Psalm tone, simply step up on the last accented syllable before the asterisk, then step down again on the last accented syllable of the line.

Using Psalm 34 again, the first two verses would go like this:

I will bless the Lord at times*.   (step up)
  His praise shall ever be in my mouth.   (step down)
I will glory in the Lord;*  (step up)
  Let the humble hear and rejoice.   (step down)

Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord.*   (step up)
 Let us exalt his name together.   (step down)There's a general stylistic preference to put the step-up or step-down on the last accented syllable, and not to put it on a final word if i is "me," "you," or "he." So a few verses later, when the Psalm says, "I called in my affliction and the Lord heard me. And saved me from all my troubles," you would sing "the Lord heard me," not "the Lord heard me." It just sounds better. You'll figure out a lot of this by common sense.

Using this simple method, you can sight-sing virtually any Psalm in the Psalter. All you have to do is know where the asterisk is (if the version you're using doesn't have an asterisk, you can figure out where it goes from the punctuation of the verse and simply pencil it in). For those of you who know how to read music, the interval we're singing in this step-up/step-down formula is a major second.

But as we've seen already, Psalms have many moods and many colors. When the color of the Psalm feels darker or more serious, it may sound a bit "off" to sing it with this major-second formula, which has a cheerful, upbeat feeling to it. So here's a different formula: just as simple, but distinctly more somber in mood. It's called a minor second--a half step, rather than a full step up and down. And here in Psalm 130, a very serious and earnest Psalm, is a good example of when you might want to use it:

Out of the depths have I called to you, Oh Lord,
  Lord hear my voice;*
Let your ears consider well the voice of my pleading.
If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss,*
  Oh Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you:*
  therefore, you shall be feared.
I wait for the Lord, my soul waits for him: *
  in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
  more than watchmen for the morning,*
  more than watchmen for the morning.
Oh Israel, wait for the Lord:*
  for with the Lord there is mercy.
With him there is plenteous re-dem-ption,*
  and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
Here's how it sounds.

What about staying on pitch? Virtually every monastic community struggles with exactly this problem. Some resort to accompanying their Psalms with an organ or guitar, but most prefer the bare sound of the unaccompanied human voice and will go for that at all costs, even if the pitch slips a little. I've visited some monastic communities where the cantor (the person who leads the Psalms) will put the Psalm back on pitch after each verse, and I've been in other communities where they all slowly slide downhill together. The important thing to remember is that this happens to us all. As we sing the Psalms, we're not operatic stars. We just bring our own voices and hearts to God and do the best we can.

Speaking of operatic stars, one other thing I should say, right at the outset, is that in contemplative psalmody, we try to sing the lines not exactly deadpan, but from a still inner place. We don't add on a lot of Italian opera emphasis. Some people (particularly those trained in the Anglican cathedral tradition) try to make Psalms "lively" by putting dramatic energy into them through exaggerated pronunciation and emphasis. But when we sing the Psalms contemplatively, we try to be still and right in the middle of them--like that "still point in the turning world" the poet T.S. Eliot refers to. We let the emotions rise and fall around us, but we don't throw a lot of our own energy into them. Psalmody is really a kind of sung stillness.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus