Gregorian Chant Meets Baroque Music, Part 1

bachinvention“You have perfect pitch? I wouldn’t want that — I’d go crazy hearing out of tune and transposing! How can you transpose?” I cannot recall how many times I have heard the following allegations from other musicians in one way or another. Immediately, my reaction has always been one of “What? That’s not me!” Despite that those speaking to me persist that this is how people with perfect pitch function, I nonetheless dismiss it as mere ignorance caused by either jealousy or preconceived and theoretical notions concocted by non-perfect pitch possessors who attempt to understand what is occurring in the minds of those who do possess it. Nonetheless, the question remains: Do I have issues transposing? Previously, yes and no, but with the aid of a wonderful and unsuspecting musical genre and notation from music history, I am confidently relieved to declare that I indeed have surmounted all previous obstacles with regards to transposition.

To begin with, transposing by ear or hearing a song in another key has never been an issue for me. From small on in Suzuki school, we Suzuki students were taught to play our songs in different keys. All that was initially needed was to switch from one pair of strings to another in songs requiring only two strings. As time progressed, we were taught to play our songs in different keys without the string switch just by listening. When my mom and violin teacher discovered I had perfect pitch, it was lauded as a gift and treated as special. Outside of being trained to ignore out of tune playing, using the ear to match it, and ignoring it when I heard it and nothing could be done, I never experienced any of the frustration that people suspect perfect pitch possessors would have. Additionally, since I had been trained to transpose from small on, transposing by ear or hearing a song in another key was never any issue for me. The song at hand was simply the same song in a different key. Yes, I sometimes felt that songs sounded better in other keys than others, but this factor was not a significant annoyance — the song in any key was still the same song, just with a different flavor. Therefore, transposing in this respect was never any issue for me.

Transposing by sight, however, proved problematic to me, as it often does to other musicians — even those who do not possess perfect pitch. Having been trained to see the note on the staff and immediately play it upon recognition, I found it most difficult to see that note as another note. To me, notation and the clef were fixed. An E was an E. Combined with the fact that I have always heard a note in treble clef in my head every time I see it on the page, I found transposing from sight hard. Even learning to read bass clef later in life proved problematic because I had somehow come to view notation as fixed and was so used to reading in treble clef. Perfect pitch or not, I wished to overcome this roadblock, yet no matter how much I pondered, I felt incapable of discovering the “magic fix.” When I finished my junior year of college, however, I — now a trained soprano taking voice lessons for one year — joined my parish’s Latin Mass Gregorian Chant schola in my desire to experience the Church’s rich liturgical heritage. Excited at the prospect of singing chant and using my newly-trained voice — a light, pure Baroque tone that surprisingly lent itself very well to the style required in chant and Renaissance polyphony — to give God glory, I never suspected what other fruits this newly found liturgical and musical outlet would yield …

To be continued …

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