The first element is breath. One monk I know, Father Theophane of St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, likes to remind people that, "Every breath you take is the breath of God." Many of the world's greatest mystical texts, from the Rig Veda to Rumi's poems, picture the earth as being created and sustained by the steady, rhythmic "breathing" of God. And many religious traditions, including Buddhism and Hinduism, start you off on a spiritual practice by bringing your attention to the breath and teaching you to breathe consciously and fully.
The second element is tone or vibration: the sound we make as we add voice to breath. Again, our religious traditions tell us that creation came into existence through the power of vibration. Our Christian language for expressing this is "In the beginning was the Word ...." (What else is a word if not a sound's vibration?) Mythologically, the world was "spoken" into existence. And so when we make our tone, we are participating in the sacred creative act that shapes and sustains all being.
Trained singers very quickly learn that the only way to make an authentic tone is to start from your center, from the diaphragm, where both your breath and the bottom of your vocal column are anchored. Whether a tone is natural and resonant or forced, shrill, or breathy relies on your singing from this place. To make an authentic tone, you have to come back to center.
There are a lot of gimmicks that can be used to fake or force a tone. But to sing authentically, we have to begin with what we are, not what we're not. This means accepting our own humanity, which is sometimes a humbling experience. When we work with tone in music, we are really working with the deepest and most revealing aspects of our selfhood. Just as you can't fake your true self, you also can't fake your true singing voice.
The third sacred element is what I call intentionality, or paying attention to the meaning of the words. In Christian psalmody, this aspect is particularly important. The Psalms, as we've already seen, embrace a wide range of emotions, and while you don't have to become emotional yourself, you do have to pay respectful attention to what the words are saying. If you're bored, or if your head is out to lunch, everything goes wrong in Psalm singing: The pitch goes flat, you fall asleep, and the music is dead. Injecting intentionality into your singing is perhaps the single most important way of making the music stay alive! When you energize the Psalm by paying attention, you energize yourself as well--and your singing helps you gain spiritual force rather than losing it.
The fourth sacred element is community. Most of the discipline of the monastic choir--or any choir--lies in the art of listening to one another and adjusting to one another. Everyone sings with a slightly different vocal instrument, and the beauty comes in blending them together. We have to maintain an awareness of the space that the person next to us is taking up and avoid the temptation to wander off into a personal emotional high.
I remember one evening when I was singing Vespers with the monks at St. Benedict's. I was so pleased because I knew the Psalm tune well, and so I started singing with wonderful drama and verve; I was having a grand old time. Afterward, one of the monks pulled me aside and said very sweetly, but to the point, "My old choirmaster once told me, if you can't hear the person next to you, you are singing too loud. "
Breath, tone, intentionality, and community--it seems like a lot of things to pay attention to all at once. But sometimes it all comes together. One Saturday night at St. Benedict's, when we again gathered for Vespers, I looked around to see only a skeleton crew of monks; most of the best singers had gone off somewhere for the evening. "Uh oh, we're in trouble," I thought, for Saturday is the one night in the week when the monks sing the Salve Regina, an extraordinarily beautiful and demanding Gregorian chant hymn in honor of the Virgin Mary, which soars to the stratosphere and goes on for more than five minutes.
It took only two seconds to realize we weren't in trouble. I have never in all my life heard Gregorian chant sung more beautifully. Something in these men kicked in, and the eight of them sung in unison, as if one angel was soaring above them, weaving their hearts and souls into a brilliant, utterly moving love song. It was definitely a case of the whole being greater that the sum of the parts. But it happened that night not because these men were having private mystical experiences but because they were intensely alive and connected with themselves, each other, and the prayer they were singing--breath, vibration, intentionality, and community combined in a laser-like moment of perfection.