Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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How Not to Teach a Chant

“Here's the new chant that we're going to be using,” says the high priestess.

She launches in, joined enthusiastically (if not particularly accurately) by the host coven. The result is a muddy blur of sound from which not even a professional musicologist could successfully extract words or a tune.

One painful slog-through later, she smiles and says: “Great! Everybody got that?”

And the ritual begins.

Well, no, we haven't got it, and chances are excellent that—with a start like this—we never will.

So how do you successfully teach a new chant?


In an Ideal Pagan World...

Well, the ideal way would be not to teach it at all. Duly start up the new chant in its given place in the ritual and, with a strong leading voice and enough repetitions, we will all soon be singing along.

Alas, not all local communities have a culture of attentive listening and enthusiastic singing. Sometimes knowing even a little something about a new chant beforehand gives people enough of an investment actually to join in.



The Law of Three

Three tips for successfully teaching a new chant:

One voice only the first time through.

This allows the group to hear the words and tune clearly, and gives them something to pattern after.

A minimum of three repetitions.

Once to listen, once to try it out, once to self-correct.

A strong, clear lead voice for the group to follow throughout.

This gives the rest of us something to match to.


I Sing, You Sing

One particularly effective way to teach a new chant is to do it call-and-response style the first time through.

Leader: sings first line.

People (including leader): repeats first line.

Leader: sings second line.

People (including leader): repeats second line.


This makes it even easier for people to hear, and to remember what they're hearing. After once or twice through, though, be sure to do at least one verse in unison to get us used to it.


Lose the Song Sheets

In my experience, four lines are the most that you can realistically expect people to pick up at a time. Longer chants require song sheets, which I heartily advise against, for two major reasons:

A song sheet rapidly becomes an encumbrance.

What do you do with it once you're finished with the chant? You can't hold hands (or a chalice) if you've already got a piece of paper in your hand.

People reading song sheets tend to get buried in the song sheets.

Song sheets isolate; the whole point of ritual is to do things together.


Chants are important. Like any traditional culture, pagan culture is transmitted through story and song, and actualized in ritual.

So it's well worth taking the time to get it right.


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Tagged in: chanting chants
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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