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Vocal Care for Holy Week

Updated: Mar 9


14th c. Bari manuscript showing an Exsultet Scroll

This 14th c. Bari manuscript shows an Exsultet Scroll, i.e. a long scroll with the Exsultet text broken up with related illuminated images. (The text at the bottom of the image, which here appears to be upside-down, would show right-side-up to the deacon who is singing it, when the images are unfurled over the opposite side of the ambo for the faithful to see.) The Exsultet is traditionally sung by candlelight at the beginning of the Easter Vigil, and can last 10 or more minutes.


Holy Week, the most beautiful and most taxing part of the liturgical year for church musicians, is almost upon us. I’ve been singing for and/or planning music for Holy Week liturgies in the Roman Catholic Church for more than twenty years, and the process is intense. Each liturgy is a unique ritual, requiring special music and detailed coordination with the clergy and altar service. Church music directors (and sacristans) often work even harder than the pastor during Holy Week. Preparations begin months in advance.


One particular Easter Vigil is seared into my memory. It was the year after the Covid shutdown, and our chapel, the population of which consists primarily of “high risk” churchgoers, did not allow any laity to enter the sanctuary (except for cantor and altar servers). I was tasked with singing the Exsultet by our resident deacon, and scheduled to sing all the psalms. There was a dilemma, however, concerning who would do the readings for the (abbreviated) Liturgy of the Word. So, I volunteered to do those too.


They say hindsight is 20-20. I forgot how long those Easter Vigil readings are!


Exultet (long form) - long reading - psalm - long reading - psalm - long reading - psalm - Gloria…short break during an even shorter epistle to run up to the choir loft… then time to sing the triple alleluia and its psalm. The liturgy was basically the “Angela show” for more than 40 minutes.


Then, finally, a vocal break. Never before has a person experienced as much bliss at the arrival of the homily than I did at that moment.


Vocal care for Holy Week is not often enough addressed.

What follows are some hard-learned tips and musings from this experienced (and perhaps somewhat battle-scarred) church musician and singer. I hope you'll find something helpful here.


1. Your body is a musical instrument.

The human voice is a divinely created instrument, and should be treated with at least as much respect as the piano, violin, and other musical instruments receive. In fact, the human voice is the most subtle and difficult instrument of all to use. There are no fingerings to memorize or buttons to push. The singer has only subtle body sensations for reference points.


Ivocal cords (or folds) from Anatomy of the Human Body (1918) by Henry Gray

Image of the vocal cords (or folds) from Anatomy of the Human Body (1918) by Henry Gray.


Voices are like snowflakes: no two are exactly alike. The sensations that you experience while singing could be very different from the sensations of the person who sits next to you in choir. This is really important! Be discerning when it comes to advice about the finer nuances of vocal technique, even if that advice is coming from a YouTube channel with thousands of subscribers, a well meaning but ill informed choir director…or (I say this tongue in cheek) a random blog post about vocal care for Holy Week.


Seek to develop an awareness of your unique voice. A qualified voice teacher can help you to identify sensations that you feel and can rely upon, and discover the innate beauty of your divinely created instrument.


Click here for a neat 4 minute video which shows a singer’s instrument in action via x-ray.


Some general pointers:

  • The most beautiful sound comes from flexibility and resonance, not rigidity and pressure. Straining on a consistent basis can lead to vocal damage. If it hurts, stop what you are doing.

  • Higher notes require less air to sound than lower notes. If you feel like you have to push to reach those high notes, refer to the previous point.

  • Good posture is critical. Slouching diminishes your lung capacity, constricts your vocal tract, and causes muscle fatigue. When rehearsing while seated, try sitting towards the edge of your chair, with your feet planted firmly on the floor. When standing, keep a firm but flexible stance with feet squarely below your hips and knees slightly bent. Locked knees, and standing in an unaltered position for an extended period of time, will constrict your blood circulation.

  • You will be on your feet a lot. Wear comfortable, supportive shoes.

  • Holy Week music binders brim with octavos and can get pretty heavy. Consider taking out all the music you won’t need for the liturgy at hand (keeping it close in case there are any last minute changes), or use a music stand to hold it up for you. This will prevent fatigue and slouching.

  • Focus on how it feels rather than what you hear. Human bodies absorb sound. This means that a church packed on Easter Sunday will sound more dead than an empty church during rehearsal. If you normally rely on the sound of your voice, you will be tempted to push and over-produce when you don’t hear the reverb that you would normally expect, and you'll end up straining.

  • At all costs, and especially during Holy Week, avoid yelling, screaming, or raising your voice to be heard over other ambient noise (e.g. at the bar). Whispering causes your vocal cords to squeeze more tightly together, and should also be avoided, especially if your voice is already inflamed.


Antiphon "Osana filio David" Hs. 0415, 15th c. Dutch manuscript

Antiphon Osana filio David (Hosanna to the Son of David) traditionally sung on Palm Sunday, as found in Hs. 0415, a 15th c. Dutch manuscript


2. Dealing with nerves

Man’s worst fear is public speaking, and by association, public singing. It’s more highly rated than the fear of death. I remember my first solo in a professional setting. I was singing one of the Passion settings by Bach in a professional pickup choir with nationally renowned soloists, and had been chosen to sing the part of Pontius Pilate’s wife. The solo was only about 15 seconds long, but I rehearsed it to exhaustion. I must have been noticeably terrified at the dress rehearsal, because the accomplished chronista (i.e. tenor who sings the narrative parts) drew me aside for a chat afterwards that I will never forget.


“Why are you nervous? You know the part. Trust yourself. Trust all the work that you have already put in.


  • Memorize the intros for any solos and key choral pieces. Know intuitively how to find your starting pitches from the accompaniment and/or from the other voice parts.

  • Organize your music. Know which pieces will be sung on which days, and the order of music for each.

  • Learn your music before Holy Week begins. You’ll already be singing enough during Holy Week without the burden of extra rehearsal time. Your instrument (and your mind) also require rest to work at their best.

Trust yourself. Trust all the work that you have already put in.
  • Familiarize yourself with the liturgy at hand. Each Holy Week liturgy is a unique ritual, and you will feel more at ease when you know what to expect and what the cues will be. (Roman Catholics may benefit from reviewing the missalette and the Roman Missal, and printing out critical pages of the latter for easy access. A free download can be found here.)

  • When we get nervous, our breathing tends to become quick and shallow, and this diminishes the capacity of our instruments. Be intentional about keeping your breathing low and relaxed.

  • Remember that your purpose is not to be a star performer, but a messenger, pointing to a Mystery far beyond yourself. As John the Baptist said, “He must increase; I must decrease.”


3. Hydrate well, and start early.

Singing and talking naturally dehydrate the body, so you’ll need even more water than usual. A voice poorly hydrated requires more effort to use, leading to vocal fatigue and slower recovery from heavy use.  


Did you know that the vocal cords (yes, cords, not chords) are among the last parts of the body to hydrate? It can take up to four hours for them to benefit from a glass of water. Start hydrating early. An added benefit to starting hydration early is getting the interruption of the bathroom break out of the way before the church service begins.


Pure water is ideal. If water just isn’t your thing, consider exploring recipes for infused water. (A couple of my favorites are cucumber mint, and watermelon cilantro.) Bear in mind that if you are under a fasting requirement, infused water might be considered a break in your fast.


Be mindful that caffeine and alcohol are both diuretics. One or two cups of coffee in the morning will still leave your body wanting for more. My personal sweet spot for morning liquids before singing is one cup of coffee and one cup of herbal tea with a little honey.


The Improperia, or Reproaches, a litany traditionally sung on Good Friday as the faithful venerate the Cross, is a powerful dialogue between a God sorrowing over the sins and destructiveness of the people, and a people asking God for mercy. This particular setting by Tomas Luis de Victoria also has editions available in English. (The polyphony starts at the 1 minute, 13 second mark.)


4. Fuel appropriately.

“If someone suffers pain in the chest with a rough voice and throat, take equal parts mullein and fennel and cook them in good wine, sieve through a cloth, drink it often, and he will recover his voice and the chest heals.” - Hildegard of Bingen

I’m going to tread lightly here, as singers are notoriously fixated on the relationship of food and the voice. Herbs have been used for vocal care since ancient times. (There is even an online database devoted to this subject, called Herbs for Voice.) Some singers swear by eating a bag of potato chips before a performance, while others insist that fried foods wreak havoc on the voice. It is a widely accepted belief that dairy products cause increased mucus production, but this has yet to be substantiated by science.


This is what we do know. When things get busy, as they do especially during Holy Week, we tend to reach for the easy stuff: junk food and takeout. Processed foods put stress on the body and lack vital nutrients. Salt causes water retention, so go easy with it. Alcohol is a diuretic, and has an anesthetizing effect which can cause a singer to press harder on their vocal cords than needed. Refined sugars and carbohydrates cause blood sugar spikes, and lower your immune system’s ability to fight infection.


Generally speaking, a diet which emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is a solid one.

  • Stock up on healthy snacks (e.g. vegetables and dip, hummus, low salt mixed nuts, fruits, peanut butter and whole grain bread).

  • Plan your Triduum meals ahead of time. Here is a neat article from Catholic Cuisine about planning your menu for Holy Week.

  • Don’t eat late at night. Digestion can disrupt your sleep pattern, as well as lead to acid reflux during sleep.

  • If acid reflux is an issue, avoid your trigger foods and consider purchasing a “bed wedge” from a medical supply company.


A note about fasting…

While Catholics are bound by the rules of fasting and abstinence during Holy Week, there are notable exceptions, some of which may apply to singers and other musicians.


“[U]nusual fatigue or bodily weakness experienced in discharging one’s duty and superinduced by fasting lifts the obligation of fasting. However, not every sort of labor, but only such as is hard and protracted, excuses from the obligation of fasting. These two conditions are not confined to manual labor, but may be equally verified with regard to brain work [emphasis added]. Hence bookkeepers, stenographers, telegraph operators, legal advisers and many others whose occupations are largely mental are entitled to exemption on this score, quite as well as day-laborers or tradesmen.” from The Catholic Encyclopedia


5. Rest to be at your best.

When under stress, our bodies need sleep more than ever. Skimping on sleep lowers the immune system, which is already on overdrive during Holy Week. You'll want a good night's sleep to clear your mind and get ready for the next day anyway.


In conclusion...

Holy Week is the most taxing part of the liturgical year, but if prepared for properly, it is also the most rewarding. My prayer is that this year, having availed yourself of the relevant parts of this blog, you will be able to immerse yourself more fully into the liturgies, texts, and music of Holy Week.


I would like to leave you with this beautiful quote about the nature of liturgical singing. I find it particularly appropriate for Holy Week and the Easter Triduum, as it also concerns the resurrection of the body.


“Any attempt to read John's vision [in the Book of Revelation] as a narrative of the Last Things, unfolding in time, crumbles away before the ‘already-and-not-yet’ view of God’s final glory that dominates Revelation…
The desire to sing together in this life so that the categories of present and future momentarily dissolve, and so that one may be mystically present in a life still to come and yet already available to be lived…was also shared by those Christians who accepted a general resurrection in some form of bodily existence…
Many Christians therefore believed that the bodily activity of vocal praise they knew in the present would continue after death, albeit in some mode of being beyond full human comprehension.” from The Christian West and Its Singers by Christopher Page, chapter 2

 

The mission of the International Chant Academy is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.




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