Chanting a Psalm is, at the very simplest, only a matter of adding your voice to a text. Opening my Episcopal Book of Common Prayer to Psalm 34, I read aloud the first three verses:
I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall ever be in my mouth.Reading aloud is something that does not give most of us trouble; we do it all the time. Chanting is simply a matter of putting voice to a prayer or Psalm. Like this. The rest is simply an elaboration on this one basic principle.
I will glory in the Lord. Let the humble hear and rejoice.
Proclaim with me the greatness of the Lord. Let us exalt his name together.
With bare-bones simplicity, it is easy to see the basic elements of good chanting. To begin with, the voice should be kept simple. You don't have to manufacture a big, operatic sound. Musicians would say, "Try to make a tone without vibrato"--that means without a lot of extra vibration in your voice. Just sing clearly and simply. Your sound should be as soft as it can be while still sustaining a tone from your diaphragm. (Your diaphragm is that place in you that's just above your navel.)
In singing Psalms, what gives rhythm and shape to the musical line is word accent and line accent. It's common sense. If you take the second line of this Psalm, for example--"I will glory in the Lord; let the humble hear and rejoice--you can hear where the accents go: "I will glo-ry in theLord; let the humble hear and re-joice."
The natural shape of where the accent falls in a word, and in the whole meaning of the line, tells you how to shape your chanting. If you want to find out how to sing a Psalm, say it first. Let's try the third line together, reading it aloud then chanting it:
Proclaim with me, the greatness of the Lord. Let us exalt His name together.
In chanting the Psalms, you can see that just as in praying we're simply using what we have: our Psalm book and our voices. But you've probably already noticed that there is a whole different feeling to it, a different level of involvement. When you're simply speaking the Psalm, you can hide inside the words. To chant requires your body. It requires your breath, tone, and commitment.
Almost all of us feel self-conscious about our voices. I certainly do. We feel exposed, and perhaps we are--exposed before each other and exposed before God. And God does seem to expose who we really are in singing more than in any other way, which is one of the great secrets of transformation learned in a monastic choir.
As I sing, I am in a strange and wonderful way vulnerable, and in that vulnerability something magical can happen. Suddenly, I'm no longer hiding behind my words, faking my usual speaking voice. The authentic tone God gave me, which is the breath of my life and the unique vibration of my being, is suddenly right there, catapulting me into the presence of God, and that changes things; it cuts right through the falsity and role-playing. When we push through our fear, our awkwardness, and our self-consciousness, we come into a new place. We also learn in a new way because the body itself becomes a key participant in our spiritual transformation.
There's a wonderful story from the Eastern Orthodox tradition in which a cynical and intellectual young man came before an old staretz (one of the wise elders of the community) with this question: "Father, I have no faith. How can you help give me ["have"] faith?" The staretz replied, "Do a hundred full prostrations a day for a month and then come back to me."
Now, a full prostration is one of the great art forms of Eastern Orthodox prayer, in which one extends oneself fully on the ground while saying the words, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me." So this very dubious young man went and did a hundred prostrations a day for a month, and when he came back to the old staretz, he said, "Father, I have found my faith." This is so because, as the wise old teacher knew, faith enters us primarily through our bodies. It's our bodies that equip us and sustain us to understand and become one with those difficult words of our faith.
The head is too much of a hat rack. It can only argue and question. Faith means moving beyond that, and in chanting we make an important first step. We begin to say to our bodies, to our voices, to our tone, "Welcome! Come with me on this journey. Guide me on this journey, because you can take me places that my mind can't."