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Educational Materials for Clergy, Readers, Ecclesiarchs, Chanters, Choir Directors
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Notes for the Choir and Director


As part of their job, the choir director(s) should be familiar with where all the changing hymns and prayers (of the Tones, feasts, etc.) are located.

It is also essential to establish a normative (but not exclusive) usage of how to perform the divine services for one's parish. In many parishes, the membership of the community includes a wide diversity of other Orthodox ethno-jurisdictional backgrounds (Antiochian Archdiocese, Greek Archdiocese, ROCOR, OCA, Romanians, Serbians, Anglo-American converts, etc.), where a great diversity of practices make up their traditions. As a conciliatory gesture to our diverse membership, it is extremely valuable from a pastoral view to accommodate some of the most typically expected traditions of these traditions, as a means of making people feel more “at home”, in as far as such practices are not contrary to the current practices of the parish's jurisdiction of Orthodoxy.

Moreover, we should consider that the majority of church-goers expect to participate in neither “liturgical minimalization” nor “liturgical maximalization”, but in a moderately rigorous liturgical and spiritual parish life that will “feed” and “nourish” the parishioners in a manner that is diligent and sincere, and does not consist of overly-abbreviated, “comfortable and convenient” Orthodox worship.

Performance Practice

1. The choir (kliros)

A significant portion of Orthodox worship consists of the clergy having a sung liturgical dialog with the congregation. Those who are skilled enough to contribute to the singing of the services stand in an area designated as the “choir” (called “kliros” in Greek), and the singers are called the chanters or psaltes (although by extension it is not uncommon to call the choir members “the kliros”.) The members of the choir are volunteers who choose to offer their service of musical ministry to help sing the more challenging hymns of the Church’s complicated cycle of worship services. As such, the privilege of singing on the kliros comes with responsibilities to serve diligently and to attend services consistently, so as to not let the community down. Choir members are also obligated to try to lead a righteous life and to attempt to improve their skills and knowledge in order to better serve the congregation, and to provide an exemplary model for other parishioners. They are also obliged to serve humbly, without feeding their egos and expecting recognition for their service. (In truth, the chanters are as much a part of the ministry of the Faith as the priest is, and we should try to be worthy vessels of God’s will.)

2. The choir director or canonarch

In modern western culture, a choir is led by a choir director, but traditionally the choir in Orthodox worship is led by a canonarch, who is both a lead chanter and solo chanter. When there is no choir present (as is often the case during much of Orthros), the canonarch performs a service jointly with the priest, singing most of the music, and performing most of the reading as well (unless there are people from the congregation willing to help with the reading). The canonarch sets the pitches and tempos of the singing, and attempts to run the sung portion of the service as smoothly as possible, assigning parts of the service to other singers as needed. A good choir director or canonarch will make sure to utilize the skills and talents of the available singers and readers as fairly as possible, and will try to find ways to invite as many people as possible to participate according to their talents and abilities, especially encouraging youngsters and newer choir members to help in ways that allow them to grow into trained choir members.

3. Congregational singing versus choir singing

This is perhaps the most controversial issue in the emerging tradition of modern Orthodox worship. Traditionally, the choir assumed the responsibility of many portions of the services that have complex melodies, especially those portions which have hymns which change from day to day or season to season. It is completely impractical to, for instance, provide parishioners with hymn books for all the stichera and other hymns specific to any given day or feast. But it is completely realistic to engage the full congregation in the singing of all the common, unchanging portions of the services which we sing at every Vespers, Orthros, Liturgy, etc. In ethnic traditions that use 4-part choral singing (such as the modern Russian Church), the singing of parts makes it difficult for the congregation to adequately join in the singing, resulting in the congregation being a more-or-less passive witness (or spectator) of the service. But in traditions that honor unison singing (such as Byzantine or Znamenny Chant), the congregation is able to fully participate in a significant portion of the service.

4. Complex choir singing

There are a number of cycles of hymns that can sometimes be quite challenging and “melismatic” (lengthy, ornate melodies in a genre which is called “papadic”), which require some specialized training to execute properly. While many parishes outside of the "Byzantine Chant homelands" (Greece, southeastern Europe, the Near East, etc.) have chosen to find simpler musical settings that allow more choir and congregational participation (avoiding the use of papadic melodies sung by solo cantors), it is important to recognize that the following pieces (or “cycles”)* of music are traditionally intended to be sung by a select group of very skilled chanters during the Divine Liturgy: the Trisagion Hymn, the Prokeimenon, the Alleluia, the Cherubic Hymn, the Megalynarion, and the Koinonikon (Communion Hymn) sung during the communion of the clergy. Congregational singing, on the other hand, is traditionally used during the singing of the Antiphons, the Typical Psalms, the Anaphora, the Koinonikon (Communion Hymn) sung during the communion of the faithful, and almost all of the “liturgical dialog” between the priest (or deacon) and the people.

*These “cycles” include portions of the service which change according to the day of the week or of the calendar year, or of the season or occasion (including the remembrance of the dead); this particularly includes feasts, which have a great variety of hymns and readings for the occasion.

It is important that the congregation be educated to the tradition that both "kliros singing" and "congregational singing" are consitituent parts of Orthodox worship, complementing one another, rather than competing with one another. Both have their appropriate role in the Church, and it is up to each parish to find a good balance in utilizing these styles of singing. With too much congregational singing, there is hardly a point to having a choir; with too much solo chanting or too much use of complex musical settings, we risk alienating the congregation and isolating them from their proper participation in the worship. For changing parts of the services there is no avoiding the use of "kliros singing", as it is the role of the chanters to sing the stichera, troparia, etc., but we also need to be mindful to avoid “concertizing” the selections that the choir is assigned to sing, and consider the best interests and spiritual needs of the overall community.

5. Notated Music versus Free Chanting

Byzantine Chant has two very equally valid styles of singing: Notated music (either in traditional Byzantine Chant notation or transcribed [as best as possible] into modern western notation), and Free-chanted music according to memorized melodic formulas. Neither style is superior or inferior to the other, but each have their rightful place in the performance of the services, and their use will vary according to the skills and talents of the singers who are present on the kliros at any given service.

The written tradition provides a timeless foundation and ideal model to depart from, as well as to ground the tradition and bring it back to a standard held by historical concensus. Notated music is best for learning and for use by less-experienced chanters or those who have some difficulty in memorizing volumes of chant melodies. It also can be used as a reference by those who wish to practice singing a particular melody from memory, but need to be reminded of the proper melody before singing the hymn. (This is especially helpful when singing lesser-known prosomoia melodies.)

The oral tradition allows for free-chanting of hymns according to melodic formulas committed to memory. There are two levels of free-chanting:

a. singing hymns according to a simple generic formula of (for example): [1-2-1-2] - ending (this is usually called the heirmologic genre), and

b. singing complex hymns using an improvisatory sequence of phrases taken from a memorized repertoire of dozens of "stock phrases" (this is usually called the sticheraric genre).

Guidance for the Choir Director (or Canonarch)

Since the Internet in today’s world allows all of us to obtain texts, rubrics and other instructions for any service for any day of the year, almost without effort and without really requiring us to know the Typicon very well, all that is now required of a choir director is to locate the necessary texts and music from the official website or email list of one's jurisdiction, and to print out enough copies for the choir and readers. Pre-prepared texts which are distributed via the Internet are a great convenience to us all, especially inexperienced choir directors and readers.

BUT... being a good choir director (or reader) actually requires a much further knowledge of how to perform the daily services, especially for weekends and feasts, in case we either don’t have access to the necessary materials, or in case we need to observe a different commemoration than what is set forth in the official rubrics issued by one's jurisdiction. We will not always be in a position to get the day’s rubrics, and so we must advance beyond the stage of being spoon-fed instructions, and learn how to obtain these instructions for ourselves. (It is better to not always rely on pre-prepared materials, but to routinely prepare our own materials, so that we truly learn how to put the services together and to perfect this “craft”.)

It is the responsibility of the choir director and all readers to further their education by studying the service books, make observations for the various ranks of services and categories of saints, and learn to put all the same materials together on their own without relying on pre-prepared instructions. The more experience that we gain from doing this, the better we become at being a good leader of the services, and the better we become at the ministry of hymnody to the congregation.

As a note for singers (chanters): While we must acknowledge that notating or transcribing Byzantine Chant melodies using the 5-lined staff is woefully inadequate for indicating the particular intervals of the various Byzantine Modes or Tones (scales)*, we in modern America must make do with modern staff notation at the beginning level, and hope that we can eventually advance to using traditional Byzantine notation with its unique scales and intervals. It should be a goal or a “work in progress” for chanters if they do indeed wish to implement the fullness of traditional Byzantine Chant in services. However, if we never meet this lofty goal, there is no need to feel that we are doing the Byzantine Chant legacy any great disservice; instead, we should ask ourselves whether or not we are singing prayerfully and with clarity, as a sincere offering of our labors to the service of others.

* One thing that should be kept in mind in the adaptation of the 5-line staff to Byzantine Chant is the awkwardness of the hard and soft chromatic scales of the “authentic” Second Mode and the Plagal of the Second Mode (Tones 2 and 6). The most common way to notate them is to sing the note “A” as flatted. In some hymns it sounds better to sing it as A-natural in ascending melodies, and A-flat when descending. (For example, see the First Antiphon.)

Handling Mistakes:

1. Pitch problems: An occasional event in the life of every lead chanter or choir director is making mistakes in giving pitches to the other chanters, who might find the pitch to be too high or low for their comfort. Frankly speaking, this happens even with the priest pitching his voice for a litany or other liturgical dialogue at a pitch that is likewise too difficult for the singers to comfortably work with. Recovery can be done in a number of ways, and it is important to know how and even practice fixing such situations. One common method is to re-pitch the singing an interval of a fourth or fifth lower or higher, as needed (an undesirable solution, but one that is nevertheless something to work with); this can avoid awkward dissonances, and can sometimes present a convenient opportunity for the choir to re-pitch their music, or for the priest to re-pitch his exclamations or dialogue to help the singers stay in a comfortable range. If pitching becomes a chronic problem for significant parts of the service (such as the Anaphora), it is essential to have discussions with the priest and set up some time for a choir rehearsal to figure out how to resolve the pitch issues. In some cases, it’s better to simply find a different musical setting (with easier melodies or with less vocal range); perhaps using a different Tone (Mode). Another solution is for the priest to ask the choir director to discreetly give him a starting pitch that will allow the singers to execute the chant comfortably. Various types of compromises are possible, but communication and choir rehearsals are always the best ways to resolve known problems.

2. Incorrect Hymns: At times, the lead chanter or choir director might get confused or distracted (or not be able to find the correct hymn at the right time), and the result is the wrong hymn being sung, or the wrong Tone being used to sing a hymn. In order for “good order” to be preserved, it is important to try to “keep the flow going” and not create any disturbance or awkward pauses in the singing of the service. Mistakes are going to happen, and it is important to keep calm and not get stressed about it, as we are all imperfect beings. As long as we continue to sing prayerfully, there is no harm done, and we can use the opportunity to learn humility and to learn how to anticipate similar problems in the future. Depending on the situation, and depending on how far we have gone through an incorrect hymn, we may be able to “recover” or make correction, but as a general rule, we should try to never break off singing in the middle of a sentence, but at least complete a logical thought or sentence, and then we can decide whether it is best to finish singing the hymn calmly and confidently, or conclude the hymn in the correct pitch or ending phrase of the Tone and then sing the correct hymn. Most of the time it is best to simply push through to the end, even if we are wrong (or need to “fake it”), and then quietly whisper a word of apology to the other singers, and begin to sing the correct hymn (or move on to the next hymn if it is of little consequence).