Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part II, Getting Started

By Richard Barrett on October 11, 2012
  1. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part I, First Principles
  2. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part II, Getting Started
  3. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part III, dealing with that strange subspecies called the “musician”
  4. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part IV, in which the question is asked, “Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal?”
  5. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part V, in which bricks and mortar concerns are considered
  6. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part VI, in which technical points are considered and a wrap-up is offered

In the first installment, I discussed a set of ideals that essentially argue that Orthodox liturgical singing is, first and foremost, an offering to God and to be treated as such — in short, that it is a privilege, a craft, and a discipline.

Proceeding from there, what’s the best case scenario of how this idea gets applied practically? Here are some thoughts:

  • Principle #2: The easiest way to establish a tradition of good singing in a parish is to do it right from the start.

To put this another way: the most cost-effective way to do anything is to do it right the first time. With respect to liturgical practice in general, not just music, if you do it the right way from the get-go, then you don’t have to fix things at a later time when you can be told, “But we’ve never done it like that before!”

So what does it mean to “do it right from the start”, particularly given what some of the realities are for communities that are in their early days? Well, from a practical standpoint, it probably doesn’t mean that you push to do a full cycle of daily services with antiphonal choirs from the first day you open your doors. I think, however, that it does mean privileging the liturgical function of the Church as the community’s sine qua non, and if the parish leadership is having to make choices about not doing things or doing things in a streamlined fashion, then at least the parish leadership should make a point of saying explicitly, “We know what we’re cutting, here’s why, and we want to get a point where we can do things fully.” Don’t, in other words, merely shortchange the liturgy and say, “Well, that’s just how we do things here.”

To give a practical example: I’m familiar with a situation where the prokeimenon and Alleluia are significantly glossed over in a particular parish’s liturgical practice. Whoever is reading the Epistle that morning simply reads the prokeimenon as quickly as possible, and a threefold Alleluia is sung once after the Epistle — no verses, no repetition. Now, this is not at all uncommon in some jurisdictions, but in this case, the priest would actually very much like to incorporate the fuller form of the practice, with the censing during the Alleluia and so on. The reason why this can’t be done is that it would require the parish’s deacon to do something different at those moments, and the deacon has said that it is too late for him to learn to do anything differently. In short, “We’ve never done that before, I didn’t learn it that way, and I’m not able to change now.”

Now, how do we relate this general liturgical issue specifically to music?

    • Principle #2a: At the very least, “doing it right from the start” means identifying and cultivating and talent (assuming you don’t have somebody from the get-go who knows what they’re doing), and providing the person who has that talent with the necessary resources to continue to improve.
    • Principle #2b: It will be far more practical in the long run to pick one musical idiom that you can do well than to try to do several and do them all at varying levels of mediocrity. 19th century Russian polyphony and Byzantine chant were never intended to coexist in the same service, and they require two entirely different musical skill sets.
    • Principle #2b.1: When picking this musical idiom, fight your weight. If you have a choir of five or six people and are meeting in borrowed office space, big Russian polyphony probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.
    • Principle #2c: ”Doing it right from the start” requires the will to do so from more parties than just the cantor or choir director.

As before, let me take a moment to clarify what I’m not saying: I’m not saying, “Figure out how to do <insert name of of particular repertoire here> ABSOLUTELY PERFECTLY AND EXACTLY HOW YOU WOULD HEAR IT DONE (except perhaps in English) AT <insert name of important church/city/monastery for that repertoire here> STARTING YOUR FIRST SUNDAY!” That’s not at all what I mean. Nor do I mean to privilege one particular national repertoire over another.

What I am saying, however, is that you have to figure out how to start in some way that makes the most of what you have, is appropriate to the scale of what you can do, and provides a foundation on which to build. Somebody, and hopefully more than one somebody, will have some kernel of musical aptitude that can be encouraged and nurtured and given the right resources; the trick is finding those people and giving them both the space to learn and to lead. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if people are able to commit to it, and if the parish can commit to supporting their efforts, then it will be fruitful in the long run. It will be an exercise in continuing education for all concerned — but hopefully that can be seen as a good thing, not as a threatening thing or as a barrier.

And, yeah, this is probably going to mean setting up a regular rehearsal time. That’s coming up in point #4 down the road, so I’ll talk about more specific mechanical things related to that (like learning to read music) then.

When it comes to selection of musical idiom, unless you are in a jurisdiction that basically prescribes something already, I strongly urge you to consider this in terms of what’s appropriate for the resources you have. If you have 12 people who like the idea of being in choir but who can’t all sing simultaneously in the same key, or perhaps there’s a balance issue where you’ve got 11 women and one man, then four-part music makes zero sense to embrace as a model. If  you have 8 people, can reasonably do two on a part, 3 of them can read music decently and the other five are pretty good at following by ear, then polyphonic music of some variety perhaps can work.

This applies to different styles of repertoire as well. The breadth of our musical heritage also means that the various national expressions of liturgical music require different ranges of musical abilities. Trying to do “a little bit of everything” at a middling level is going to be a very different experience for choir and congregation than picking something that you can master with the resources that you have. In the main, I tend to think that monophonic chant repertoires have the advantage of being scaleable to ensembles of any size as well as ability; it’s much harder to make that case with some (not all) polyphonic repertoire.

That said, If you have a group of 20 people who can all read spots off of walls, have great ears, are comfortable with the diction of multiple languages and three different kinds of notation, then do whatever the heck you want – I’m not going to argue with you (and that’s point #4b).

I’d like to emphasize that, at least in terms of the Orthodox musical heritage taken as a whole, I don’t have an inherent problem with polyphonic music, in its proper context. There is a venerable tradition of polyphonic Russian music, of course, to give one example. The problems that I do think are worth talking about have to do with practical matters. I have been in the situation of having a choir that is theoretically singing polyphonic music, but it’s impossible to get sufficient people on every part to commit to showing up every Sunday, with the people who do show up not being in a position to be leaders on their part. I have had Sundays where I have had to sing all four parts within the same hymn (not simultaneously, of course) because absenteeism has required that I jump around to where I’m needed the most. If that’s your reality, then I maintain that’s not an appropriate set of musical resources for polyphonic music.

As to the last point — if you are trying to build a musical practice that aspires to excellence in the music of our Tradition, you are not going to be able to do it alone. You will need the open cooperation and support of other leadership within the community — that might be the priest, that might be somebody else, but whoever it may be, without clear and visible cooperation, then, in my experience, it’s going to be very difficult for musical efforts to get very far.

I’ve deliberately discussed this in terms of “from the start”, and I’ve basically talked as though that means “from a parish community’s start as a mission”. It doesn’t have to mean that, by any means, but it’s going to be a harder undertaking to make changes to a community’s existing musical practices than it will be to start fresh. The principles are going to be the same, but it will be even more vital that they be stuck to — particularly the one about support from other leadership.

Part III to come.

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  1. Orthodox Collective on October 11, 2012 at 10:23 am

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  2. Ross Ritterman on October 22, 2012 at 12:04 pm


    Another great post with lots of food for thought. With respect to there being a jurisdiction with a prescribed musical idiom, this again goes back to the notion of standards and guidelines and, at least from what I understand, the Hierarchy has been unfortunately vague or in many cases silent.

    Not all music is created equally, and within the Orthodox Church this is especially true. Why? Again, because we’re Orthodox and by our nature take a stand on there being a right and a wrong way to do things. That being said, what is “right” is not narrowly confined necessarily, but nonetheless, it’s hard to argue that even in my jurisdiction, the GOA, there’s huge variability among what individual parishes do, much of which is done at the whim of the choir director.

    I have an idea that I think may warrant some consideration. Regardless of a choir’s musical abilities and its ability to execute a specific piece of music, parishes (and Metropolises, for that matter) should be having on-going conversations about music and the worship experience. The way parish councils have regular meetings to talk about finances, events, etc. the experience of worship (from which which liturgical music is inseparable) needs to also be the subject of continuous review.

    With something of that nature in place, the complete creative license and final say doesn’t solely rest with the choir director and his/her whim and ensures that the needs of the parish are being met.

    I wonder to what extent something like this exists in any parishes you’re familiar with.



    • Richard Barrett on October 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm

      In the jurisdiction which I presently serve, there is a lot of talk about unity of liturgical experience, but it is unclear to me how much practical enforcement of that there actually is. Our own printed liturgical books frequently disagree with the directives printed in the annual liturgical guidebook; there are things that our service books explicitly tell us to do that then in the liturgical guide are represented as “thou shalt nots” — singing the Typika instead of the stational antiphons on Sunday, for example, is a “thou shalt not” in the liturgical guide, even though the Liturgikon (which just came out in a new second edition) and Five Pounder tell us to do it. (Singing the Typika is “Slavic practice”, we’re told.) There are things the liturgical guide and service books tell us to do that then we’re told at the deanery level, “Don’t do that under any circumstances whatsoever, nobody ever does that”, like chant instead of read Psalm 50 at Matins on a Resurrectional Sunday. Theoretically, we’re not supposed to use any text not provided by the archdiocese department of liturgics, but many rubrics appear to assume that we have an HTM Menaion handy (and I’ve been told that there’s something of a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy where having a Menaion is concerned). We’re also theoretically not supposed to use any music that isn’t posted on the archdiocese’s sacred music website, but I’ve been privately told that the issue there is not, say, regulating which Byzantine chant setting one might use for something, but rather trying to make sure that people aren’t just randomly inserting Protestant music. I’m told that our metropolitan is insistent on congregational singing, but then he’s also apparently starting to push Byzantine chant being done well and traditionally with some movement towards taking psaltic notation seriously in the archdiocese.

      So, I really don’t know, at an archdiocesan level. I sometimes wonder if there isn’t one set of rules for “Anglo” parishes and another set of rules for “cradle” parishes.

      What I also find is that it is only useful to have regular conversations with leadership about what’s going on in the liturgy if the leadership actually knows what’s supposed to be going on liturgically in the first place. That may or may not actually be the case; not every priest or bishop has a mind for liturgical detail, for better or for worse.

  3. Richard Barrett on October 27, 2012 at 9:19 pm

    One other thing — I was singing in a festival choir for something within the last few years, and during a break I was looking at a piece of Byz chant. The guy sitting next to me said, “You know, I used to be the choir director at [big cradle Orthodox church] in [big Midwestern city].” Oh? I said. Were you Orthodox at the time? “No,” he said, “I was just a hired gun.” This apparently back in the ’60s, and he would have been there at a time that the primate for one of the major jurisdictions was the priest. This person told me that he used to routinely insert Protestant hymns on major feasts, and that this was pretty standard. It was an interesting conversation.

  4. Ross Ritterman on November 2, 2012 at 5:31 pm

    “This person told me that he used to routinely insert Protestant hymns on major feasts, and that this was pretty standard. It was an interesting conversation.”

    Lord, Have Mercy.

  5. Ross Ritterman on November 5, 2012 at 1:41 pm


    Giving your last post the attention it deserves, I’m unfortunately also referring to doing things in the service that are flat our incorrect.

    Examples: Singing Agios O Theos…during the Doxology and at the Trisagion following the Small Entrance only twice before “Glory to…” singing Prostasia ton Christianon in a mode other than 2nd. “Save us oh Son of God” only twice before Glory…Both Now…”

    Forgive me, but the thrice Holy hymn needs to be sung three times. When the priest says “Dynamis” the choir does not respond with “Dynamis” – this needs to happen. These are the kinds of things that I take issue with, and need fixing(before we even address any issues of style).

    In the GOA, we receive an Hmerologion – it’s a thick red book that has the rubrics for all days in the given liturgical year for the parish level – the material is identical to what the Patriarchate has online here:
    We should be all able to read (or have someone help us read) what’s in this book – there’s, frankly, no need for “liturgical guidebooks” which are a crutch and don’t help people to understand why we sing what we sing in the service – it’s just spoon fed to choir directors.

    There aren’t many “thou shalt nots” – though i will tell you I’ve never been to a parish where the Typica is sung, or even the verses of the antiphons, though technically speaking they are not “out of bounds”.

    What’s the most frustrating is the lack of respect for the tradition, and the lack of desire for education. “I’m just doing what’s in Desby…” is an excuse for laziness.

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