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What I’ve learned in choir practice

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choir practice

Practise, practise: “With a little practice, anyone can master the tones we use to accompany the Psalms in the Breviary: if the order only accepted those with the vocal capacity of a Caruso, I would have been turned away at the door.” Photo: CNS

THE Order of Preachers places a heavy emphasis, not only on private prayer and contemplation, but also on official, public liturgical prayer, as the above quote from the Constitutions of the order indicates. 

Given this emphasis, choir practice has comprised a not insignificant part of these first few months of our novitiate.

Learning the various tones to which the Psalms are chanted and perfecting the numerous hymns scattered throughout the canonical hours of prayer was initially made considerably easier by the presence of Br Rafael, a Spanish novice from the previous year’s class who had remained behind for a few extra weeks to teach us how to sing properly – he had studied music before joining the order. 

Through his skill and knowledge our class of novices – almost all of whom have English as a second or third language – was brought up to an acceptable level of melodious mellifluousness. 

Not quite on par with the cherubim and seraphim – admittedly – but near enough as to make no difference. 

We are not, after all, meant to compete with the heavenly liturgy but rather join with the choirs of angels and saints. 

Second string to be sure, but there nonetheless.

Unfortunately for all involved, now that Br Rafael has returned to Spain to make his first profession before heading on to Oxford for further studies, I have been placed in charge of the choir and all things liturgical. 

I, who while in the seminary took my seat in that part of the Oratory colloquially referred to as “singer’s corner”, so called in keeping with the great Australian tradition of calling tall men “Shorty” and those with red hair “Bluey”. 

However, self-deprecation aside, after some informal singing lessons from a friar during my postulancy in Adelaide – generally held between the conclusion of Vespers and the ringing of the gong for dinner – I am now able to hold a tune without causing those in the choir stalls opposite to wince in obvious pain. 

St Augustine is often quoted as saying “those who sing, pray twice”.

Yet I was once told that this oft-cited line is only partially correct; what St Augustine – a brilliant man who clearly had extensive experience of community life – actually said was, “those who sing well pray twice”.

Whether this is true or not, I do occasionally get the impression that those who instruct us in singing are occasionally tempted, like Professor Henry Higgins, to advance the notion that we will get much further with the Lord, “if we learn not to offend His ears”. 

I am compelled to add however – lest you gain the wrong impression – that the Dominican way of praying the Liturgy of the Hours is far simpler than, say, that of the Benedictines. 

We are forever being reminded that, ideally, the laity should be joining us at the major liturgical hours so that all the faithful might praise God together with one voice, enjoining the sanctification of the world though the prayer of the Church. 

With a little practice, anyone can master the tones we use to accompany the Psalms in the Breviary: if the order only accepted those with the vocal capacity of a Enrico Caruso, I would have been turned away at the door.

By Br Sebastian Condon

Br Sebastian Condon is from Brisbane. He is undertaking a novitiate with the Dominican order in Hong Kong.

Written by: Guest Contributor

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