St. Vincent monk's Gregorian chant workshops strike chord with students
Five students filled a classroom at St. Vincent College with music that is more than a thousand years old.
Singing in Latin, the students were led by Father Stephen Concordia, who taught two one-week workshops this summer on Gregorian chant.
“Father Steven is one of the very, very few people in the United States who teaches this,” said Raymond Henderson, a choir director from Long Island, N.Y.
The style of music gets its name from Pope Gregory I and was developed during the ninth and 10th centuries.
Concordia, a Benedictine monk at the St. Vincent archabbey, is a sacred music professor and director of sacred music programs at the college. He has studied and taught the music in Rome.
Concordia said elements of chanting, such as the melody to the Lord's Prayer, are still a part of Catholic Masses.
“Whenever chanting is used — maybe it's not as prevalent as it used to be — that's still the tradition of chanting the Mass that comes from the time of Gregorian chant,” he said.
In 2015, with technology available to distort pitches and tones, loop beats and rhythms, the students at the workshop said there is still value in the archaic singing technique.
Each day, students were able to practice and perform the music during a Mass on campus with travel at the end of both weeks to a church to perform.
Barbara Brooks of Pittsburgh, a retired secondary school choir director, said she thought of the music as “foundational,” with its early notation system looking like shorthand.
“I always wanted to have the opportunity to study this,” she said. “It's a joy to sing it.”
Chanting notation directs the singer's inflection, not just the rhythm and the pitch like the modern scale, Concordia said. That gives emphasis to certain words in Biblical text that might have different meaning when read, he said.
“We sort of lost that in the last thousand years,” Concordia said.
Henderson has studied the musical style with teachers in Europe.
“It's really interpretation of notes before they were on the staff, and they're so wonderfully wedded to the text, which isn't so evident with the notes on the staff,” he said.
Krystian Sekowski of Edmonton in Alberta, Canada, a choir director, said he believes the connection of the music to the early church is what attracts people to want to learn more about it.
“People do need and want spiritually in their life. A lot of people say, ‘I'm not religious; I'm spiritual,' ” Sekowski said. “You can't win. The church is not going to win over a rock concert, but the church can offer the spirituality that people need.”
Devren Yener of State College said he attended a recent retreat that included pop-music-infused praise and worship songs, and when he sang in the Gregorian chant style, he was surprised at the enthusiastic reaction he got.
“Maybe praise and worship music appeals to your emotions and hopefully brings you to a place of prayer, but then the chant is an opportunity to actually meditate and have an attitude of silence, prayer and meditation,” Yener said.
Joel Kankiewicz of Scranton, an undergraduate student at St. Vincent College who studies sacred music, said it may be some of the oldest music, but just as classic texts by the likes of Virgil and Homer are still worth studying, so is Gregorian chant.
“It's because they still, even today, speak to our hearts,” Kankiewicz said. “It's the same with this music.”
Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or email@example.com.