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Breathing the Psalms

[This has appeared online before but is quite pertinent here]

The traditional monastic practice of chanted psalmody—inherited by the Anglican tradition—is a form of breath meditation. That is, the psalms are read in such a way that the text corresponds to the breath, particularly deep, elongated breathing that assists the body in falling into a restful receptive state enabling deep contemplation of the texts. First, I shall discuss the traditional technique for breathing the psalm used for congregational singing and speaking of the Psalter. Second, I shall discuss how these breathing techniques may be adapted for solo use, either in reading the psalms aloud or silently. (Note: Anything that I say about the psalms here is also directly applicable to the canticles of the Church.)

Singing the Psalms

The traditional Gregorian chant of the Western Church uses nine psalm tones: eight correspond to the eight modes, the last is a tonus peregrinus (see below).

The typical psalm tone has six parts. The first part is called the incipit and typically contains two or three notes that move in an upward direction. When a psalm is being sung, the incipit is only used at the very beginning of the psalm or when psalm verses begin again after an antiphon. (Gospel canticles are different in that the incipit is sung at the beginning of each verse.)

The second part is the reciting tone. This is a note on which the majority of the psalm verse is sung. The psalm is recited on this note until it hits one of the next two parts.

The third part is the flex. This is a single note which drops either a second or a third. In the case of a psalm verse with a long first half, the flex is used as a brief break along the choir to catch a quick breath before returning again to the reciting tone. If, in the BCP’s printing, a psalm verse goes to a new full line before the asterisk, a flex would be used (E.g. Ps 1:3; 2:2, but not Ps 1:1, 5; 2:8 because the line break does not start a full line).

The fourth part is the mediant. The mediant comes shortly before the asterisk which marks the middle of the psalm verse. The exact distance from the asterisk depends on the number of stressed syllables in the final words; the required number varies by psalm tone.

The fifth part is actually the reciting tone again. In the eight psalm tones that correspond with the eight modes, this reciting tone is exactly the same as the first reciting tone. Tonus peregrinus, the ninth tone, which means “wandering tone” has a different reciting tone in the second half than in the first half.

Note that there is no equivalent to the flex in the second half of the psalm verse. For instance, you might expect the equivalent of a flex at the end of the second line in Ps 1:1–but there is no such part.

The sixth part is the final cadence. Like the mediant, when it begins in the last line of the psalm is based on the number and placement of stressed syllables in relation to the psalm tone itself.

Communal Chanting

Chanting the psalms in the traditional manner attends to breath. One designated person—the cantor—begins the psalm and sings from the incipit to the first mediant alone. Then, the rest of the congregation joins in on the last half of the verse. From that point, the two sides (facing each other in a traditional choir set-up) alternate verses.

As one side comes the end of a verse, the other side inhales, preparing to take up the next verse. As the verse ends, the other side picks it up smoothly, leaving no break or gap between the two. If the verse does not directly follow an antiphon, the verse begins directly on the reciting tone. Singing, clearly, expends the breath that the side had taken before the verse started. If there is a flex, the side snatches a quick catch breath before continuing on.

By the time the side reaches the mediant, there is not much breath left. There is a significant pause at the mediant because at that point the side exhales the remaining breath, then inhales a full new breath. As a community or a new person begins singing the psalms in this way the break—which may last five, six beats or even longer—will seem unnaturally long. Resist the temptation to rush; take the time to breathe.

With a full new breath in their lungs, the side then proceeds to the end of the verse and exhales the remaining breath after the final cadence. The other side then smoothly moves to the next verse.

Communal Speaking

Speaking the psalms in community follows essentially the same pattern as singing. Thus, the designated leader in the cantor’s role speaks the first line from the incipit to the first median. After the asterisk the whole group finishes the verse. Then, they begin alternation by sides usually starting with the leader’s side. They begin right after the conclusion of the previous verse, read to the asterisk, exhale, breathe in again, and finish the verse as the next side smoothly takes it up.

The mechanics of the breath work in exactly the same way as singing. Because speaking requires less breath-control than singing, the urge to rush the breathing pause at the mediant is greater. Again, resist the urge.

Individual Psalmody

Individual Chanting

If you chant the psalms by yourself, the pattern is basically the same as singing them communally. The difference is that at the end of every other verse there is no alternate side to begin where you leave off. As a result, the end of each line must be treated in the same manner as the mediant. Exhale all of the breath left in your lungs and breathe in a new breath. Then continue on to the next verse.

Reading Aloud

If you are reading the psalms aloud by yourself, the pattern again follows that of singing. Take a full breath, read to the asterisk/mediant, exhale, breathe in a new breath, then read the second half of the verse. Exhale again, inhale, then start the next verse. If a flex occurs, grab a quick catch breath.

Reading Silently

Reading silently is the only form of reading that is not fundamentally based on the communal singing pattern.  Basically, the difference between reading silently and reading or singing aloud is that no breath is expended in the process. As a result, exhalations and inhalations must be balanced differently. The best way to proceed is to simply alternate half-verses. Inhale slowly as you silently read to the mediant; exhale slowly as you read to the end of the verse.

Conclusion

Following these directions for encountering the psalms will accomplish several things. First, tying the psalms to the breath forces you to slow your reading pace and to pay more attention to what you are reading. It is easy to let the words flow beneath your eyes and for the attention to wander. Tying the text to the breath will make you read more slowly even if you are reading silently (when you are more prone to rush).

Second, tying the two together also slows down and regulates your breathing. Regulation of the breathing is regulation of the whole body. The slower, deeper breaths will encourage a meditative state of mind that will enable you to relax and concentrate more completely on the text. The more you concentrate, the more your mind retains and passively memorizes.

Third, when read or sung in community, following the breath will tie the whole community together in closer harmony. Listening and being attentive to the breath patterns of those around you so that you begin and end the mediant pauses at the same time will yoke the community closer together in common prayer. There is an indescribable harmony that accompanies a non-anxious attention to the community’s breath—a literal “discerning of the spirit” that moves within the gathered people at prayer.

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