Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Music Typesetting and Beauty

How typesetting can help your rehearsals be more efficient and your singing more beautiful and understandable 

Over the past 25+ years I have spent hundreds, dare I say, thousands of hours typesetting, editing and tweaking typesetting of Orthodox liturgical music. Why? Why do Anne (my partner at Seraphim Six Productions) and I spend so much time fussing over our editions? Why do we go back again, year after year, tweaking things to get it just right? The answer is actually very simple, over the years, with our choir at St Lawrence, we have discovered that how the page looks and fixing the little things in text setting make a difference in how easily it is rehearsed and how it is ultimately rendered in the services.

How many of you, dear readers, are still looking at music on the kliros that has been copied so many times that the ledger lines, text or notes are hard to read? How many of you are reading music where the text is in all CAPS, in a fixed width font, rendering it difficult to sing without sounding like a machine gun and difficult to comprehend the text and phrasing? How many of you are reading music that was hastily handwritten or transcribed? How many of you are inputting music into a computer notation program without giving any thought to how it actually looks on the page or without thinking about the readability and usability of the page?

What Anne and I have discovered, through trial and error, is that music that has been properly edited and notated enables beautiful singing and allows it to be more fluid and accurate, especially at first sight. This holds true even when the music is well-known to the choir. Rehearsals will become more efficient, with less explanation – simply because there is more information on the page and readily available to all the singers with less need for the conductor to explain everything.

Some of the elements that make a difference:
  •   Font and font size
  •   Linear style to keep the eye moving forward through the text and musical phrase
  •   Use of notational conventions to aid understanding of rhythm, accent and flow of text
  •  Music spacing that doesn’t distract from rhythmic flow or deceive the singer as regards pulse  and textual flow
  •  Consistent and accurate use of sentence case, capitalization, hyphenation, and punctuation to  allow easier comprehension of the text by the singer
  •  Clear titling, labeling and attributions 
OK, so I know this is my first blog post in ages, years … but in subsequent posts THIS SUMMER I will address the specifics of the bullet items above.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Eis polla – A Hierarchical Visit

Saturday evening our parish had the great joy of welcoming His Grace Bishop Savas (Zembillas) of Troas for Great Vespers. It is usually with both joy and trepidation that choir directors anticipate a hierarchical visit. This visit was no exception. For those of you who have lived your Orthodox life in one jurisdiction, the rubrics do become old hat after you have lived through several and discover that it really isn’t that hard. But for those of us who for one reason or another have had fewer hierarchical visits and/or have been in multiple jurisdictions they can also be slightly dreaded and heart pounding events. Although you may have the rubrics down for Divine Liturgy, you may wonder, what are the rubrical changes for Great Vespers, if the Bishop is present?  

I feel the need to insert an aside in the form of a confession: I was honestly, really dreading this hierarchical visit. Our parish has recently come under the omiphorion of Archbishop DEMETRIOS of the Greek Archdiocese. This was to be our first hierarchical visit. I knew it would be something of a scene and I was not looking forward to the stress of it, new people, new rubrics, new, new, new. Early in the week I felt it was time to wrap my brain around the visit and the rubrics. I suddenly realized that this Greek Bishop who was coming was the same Bishop whom I had friended on FaceBook a month or so ago, whose daily postings – commentary of the daily scripture readings, notes on American history, etc – I thoroughly enjoy. Almost instantly my dread of the event vanished and the joy of a hierarchical visit returned to me. I realize now that I had been being prepared for this visit long before I even knew it was coming.

His Grace and the Choir
Alright, back to rubrics. So the rubrics for Great Vespers are pretty straightforward and the Liturgikon fairly clear, especially as regards items that might vary slightly and need to be confirmed. A possible Litany in the narthex … Eis polla when the Bishop reaches the ambon for the first blessing … a few spots that the Bishop takes: Come Let us Worship, Psalm 103, Vouchsafe, O Lord, Prayer of St. Simeon … Ton dhespotin at the dismissal … no problem … except for those items Vespers proceeds in the normal order. Straightforward, yes. Confirmed with the clergy before we began, yes. I have warned the choir that although I have confirmed everything they need to be on their toes because you never know what may happen …

Curve ball #1 – The deacon who was to be ordained to the priesthood the next day would be serving. I found this out when he came out for the Great Litany. Great relief when he was chanting on a pitch that would work with the Litany we were using.

Curve ball #2 – Fr. Mark, who travels with the Bishop, came out a stood very close to me. “Eis polla,” he whispered. Huh? In the middle of a litany? I obliged, but was completely confused. The choir looked at me rather strangely but joined in. My heart is pounding, pounding, pounding. As the litany continues, he whispers, “Eis polla whenever the deacon mentions the Bishop by name.” OK, I got it. That will happen at least one more time. Next time I’ll be ready!

Curve ball #3 – This one was more minor, but noticeable nonetheless. Our parish practice is for one of our chanters to chant “Most Holy Theotokos, save us” under the deacons intonation, “Commemorating our all-holy, pure, most blessed …”. What we figured out after the 2nd litany was that the deacon would stop and expect the chanter intonation and then continue. So instead of it being chanted while the deacon intoned the commemoration, we needed to wait for the space he left.

Most of the rest of Vespers went off without a hitch, the choir sang the stichera quite beautifully. Although I couldn’t see the Bishop, choir members who could see him said it was clear he was listening intently and pleased by what he heard. Oh wait, we are approaching the end of the Aposticha … Fr. Mark is again by my side.

Curve ball #4 – He lets me know that after the Bishop chants the Prayer of St. Simeon we need to have someone do another Eis polla before we begin corporately speaking the Trisagion Prayers, as is our custom. Not on the melody. So I indicate to our head chanter for him to do Eis polla there.

We made it to the end. Whew! The Bishop spoke, telling us a little about himself and speaking on the unity of the church and how important it is that we are now under the Archbishop. He words were soothing and refreshing. He gave a wonderful, and heartfelt compliment to the choir, expressing how, in particular, he could really understand the words of the stichera for the Holy Fathers, whom we commemorated this week.

Anne & I receiving a blessing after Vespers and
giving His Grace a copy of our latest CD – Life-Giving Wood.
After the service, Fr. Mark and I debriefed a little. He kindly clarified a few of the items that came up, so that next time all can go more smoothly. For example, the Eis polla before the Trisagion Prayers should actually be spoken, not sung at all, and the reader needed to go a receive a blessing from the Bishop as he did it. Be assured I took copious notes! He also was very complimentary of the choir and the beauty and blend of the voices. I loved when he said that next time we should do the Russian “Eis polla” because Ii would sound so great with our choir!

Yes, it was truly a great joy to have His Grace in our midst and I will look forward to his next visit with anticipation and joy! By the way, once curve ball #1 hit, my poor little heart didn’t really stop its pounding, pounding, pounding until I got home, close to an hour after Vespers ended! LOL

(* Thanks to Dan Agulian for his photos.)

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


I just returned from a wonderful vacation on the Big Island of Hawaii with my husband, son, daughter and son-in-law. You may wonder what my vacation has to do with liturgical music, but don’t worry it does. While we were there we were treated to many of God’s blessings and unique creation: beautiful beaches, snorkeling, kayaking, cliff jumping, beautiful fish, jet skis, excellent food and the unique landscape that is present on an island with an active volcano. In addition to these were also treated to another blessing, a visit to St. Juvenaly Orthodox Mission.

John Burns, Choir Director at St Juvenaly
The choir director, a friend of my daughter and I, asked us if we would sing Vespers with them. We were happy to agree. Typically, the mission sings in unison or in two-parts, but John asked if we would sing so that the choir and community could experience the melodies in full harmony. My family can basically cover four parts between us – myself on soprano, Juliana on alto, Paul on tenor and my son-in-law Alex, although a tenor, on bass (which he can do in a pinch). We also had a native Hawaiian convert who sings bass join in with us, as well. We had a short rehearsal before Vespers and then sang the service.  First blessing for me was just getting to sing with my family — The Hughes/Woodill Family Singers! It was such a joy to be on vacation in this beautiful place and worship together and sing together. As a mom with adult children I realize this particular pleasure will not happen that frequently in the future. Second blessing was to be in this small mission parish singing Vespers with my friend John directing. We even sang one of the litanies in Hawaiian! Third blessing was the sweet community of believers at St Juvenaly Mission.

 Now, how do all these many blessings relate to this blog? My friend, John, has selected music for this community that works. He typically has 4-5 singers, none of them trained musicians (although the Hawaiian bass, Michael, who sang with us has recently relocated to the Big Island). They sing mostly in unison with an occasional second part harmonizing on the third. But this music is also adaptable to singing in 4-part harmony. Perfect. The melodies are simple, but not dull. They adapt easily to matching the pitch of the priest. In other words, during the dialogic portions of the service we took the priest’s chanting tone as the root. They have rhythmic interest and they sing well. We used Kievan melodies for the stichera on Lord, I Called and the Aposticha. Kievan chant is ideally suited to mission parishes because the melodies work well alone or harmonized with two voices or full 4-part harmony. Russian Common Chant (Obikhod) would not have worked as well in this situation as it is designed to be sung in 4-parts – when parts are left out it doesn’t really function or sound very well. I am aware of small parishes and missions, with limited singing resources, who try to sing Obikhod. The result is … well … less than optimal.

I encourage you to honestly examine the group of singers you have and access their strengths. As this mission demonstrates 4-parts are not essential. Beauty is. Perhaps choosing music that is unison or 2-parts would be helpful for bringing the liturgical moment to life with more energy and beauty. Also, if you are ever fortunate enough to be on the Big Island of Hawaii make sure that you visit St Juvenaly Mission:

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rehearsal Technique #1 – Visual clues to the musical structure

Most Orthodox choir directors do not have the luxury of working with highly trained, and skilled musicians. Most work with folks who enjoy singing and desire to serve their church community through the singing ministry, but have varying levels of sight-singing skills and vocal technique, and most likely have no idea how to decipher music on the printed page, in terms of structure, form and shape.

One technique I like to use in rehearsal is the “look at the music and tell me what you can see, visually” technique. This is a technique I use to boost musical understanding and can help the singers focus on particular aspects of music begin rehearsed. I would begin trying this with a piece of music that they know fairly well. When first using this technique you can help guide them through what you are actually asking them to see by asking leading questions:

1. Which part has the melody? How can you tell? What visual clues are there? 

2. Which parts sing with the melody in a duet? How do you know? What visual clues are there?

3. Does only one part sing in duet or does it move around? How do you know? What visual clues are there?

4. What else can you tell about the music, just by looking? Dynamics, tempo, key?

5. What can you tell about the rhythm or meter of the piece?

Singers who have more knowledge can help others begin to see things that they didn’t previously see. There is often a smart aleck who will go way too deep by describing the harmonic structure or the way the piece ends on a half, instead of full cadence. At these moments help redirect back to the basics. Remember we are looking at what we can tell just by looking. The guiding questions that you can ask are as varied as the music. Once you have asked singers to do this a few times you won’t have to ask as many questions or your questions may become more specific:

1. What do you notice happening in the tenor part on the third system?

2.  How does the the bass part change in the cadential (ending) phrase?

3. Where do the tenors take the melody away from the sopranos, who gets the melody after the tenors?

4. And many more questions!

Let’s look at a specific example. Consider the Greek Chant, Tone 1 setting of the 1st and 2nd Antiphons. (Attached are a couple of images, the entire piece can be found in the SVS Divine Liturgy Book – the infamous “Green Book”)

1. Where is the melody? 
The melody alternates between the Soprano and Bass. Now you can have the choir sing the melody, just the Soprano and Bass, alternating back and forth so that you attain a balance in volume, flow, and phrasing of the melodic line.

2. Which part sings the “duet” with the melody?
The tenor part alternates singing a melodic duet with the sopranos and basses. Now add the tenor to the sop and bass, maintaining the balance and flow established between the bass and soprano. Note: this is often when the bass and soprano revert to their “old” way of singing the melody without balance and flow, so it may take a reminder to get them back on track.

3. So what is happening in the other parts, which aren’t a part of this melodic duet? What is their function? 
This is usually when I remind the singers the difference in how we approach singing “harmonic” lines differently than “melodic” lines. You might try having the singers sing the “harmony parts” no melody, no tenor duet. This reveals solid key of “F”. Work on how they can sing the text in order to keep the pulse moving along. Not every word is created or sung equally. Harmonic / rhythmic parts usually need to be sung lighter and cleaner, with less weight in the tone.

4. Now you can put that together with the melodic piece and most likely you and the choir will begin to hear the melody more beautifully and the pulse of the harmonic parts will be cleaner and less invasive on the melodic line. And guess what, something you didn’t even work on will shine through better – the TEXT!

5. Finally, have the choir look at the cadential phrase of the 2nd Antiphon. How does it change from the above structure? Who has the melody? The duet? What does that mean? How do we sing it? Why might the arranger have made that particular choice? 

So at your next rehearsal pick one of your regular pieces of music, perhaps a Cherubikon, and take it apart with your choir structurally. See what layers you can find. Discover what differences can be found in the structure and how they work together to create the whole.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Summer: Time to Get Back to Regular Blogging!

Well, sometimes it is amazing how time flies. Since I last wrote life has been flying by at a ridiculous rate, I’ve hardly been able to keep up … but after saying goodbye to the 2010 high school graduates at my school I believe it is time to get back to the blogging. In the time since I last wrote I have had numerous ideas for blogs but never had time to sit down and actually write them down.
When I last left you we were heading into the Pre-Lent season. Now we’ve been through Lent, Holy Week, Pascha, the Paschal Season, Ascension, and Pentecost. Whew!
I worked on two important, but related projects during Lent. The first one Anne and I began last summer, was a complete reworking and typesetting of our Holy Saturday Matins a.k.a. Lamentations service. We were determined to finish this service in time for rehearsals the 2nd and 3rd week of Lent because it also required creating new booklets for the congregation. In order to prepare those booklets in time we needed to have sung through every note of the new typesetting.
This particular service of Holy Week is one of our parish favorites. The entire service is sung antiphonally, by candlelight: the first half – thru Psalm 50 – in male / female choirs, the second half – the canon to the end – in two mixed choirs. But why did this service require the many hours of labor that Anne and I and my daughter, Juliana put into it? We have been singing this just fine for years. The initial work for this service was completed many years ago by our dear friend, Fr. David Anderson. His work included, not only a new translation, but also a setting of the Byzantine melodies to the new text. His work was done in long hand before the age of digital typesetting and we have been working off of photocopies of photocopies for years. There were also a number of awkward moments where the flow of the melody and the rhythmic accent of the text gave us trouble year after year. Remember, we are talking about almost two hundred short troparia. The original melodies were formulaic and designed to have text that just works, as I am convinced it does in the original Greek. By working to make it more consistent we knew we could sing this service more accurately with less rehearsal, not to mention simply read it more easily by being digitally typeset.
The second project, similar to the first, was to go through our Holy Weeks books and typeset the sections that were the most problematic to read. As with the Lamentations service, we have been using certain settings for years, but they were not optimally readable and contained many corrections that had been made by hand. By getting the stichera and other portions of the services properly typeset and edited, including breath marks, phrasing, etc, we were better able to sing these services with less rehearsal, more accuracy, better flow and most importantly enable peace and prayer on the kliros.
In the weeks after Pascha, Anne and I went back through all of the Holy Week services made the necessary corrections and have already recopied the pages with changes so that next year when we approach these services everything will be in place. I can’t wait.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why spend time getting organized and planning ahead? Part 2

I decided I needed to do a little follow-on from my last blog and include some samples. I just have to begin by saying that preparing for this Sunday was a classic “Thank God, I look ahead” moment! This Sunday is Forgiveness Sunday and also, for those of us on Old Calendar, the Feast of the Meeting of the Lord. That means combining normal Sunday stuff with the Triodion and Festal requirements. What struck me at rehearsal this week was that even with loads of planning, order of service printouts and a clear picture of what each of the four services would look like. (See sample of this Sunday’s printout, click to enlarge.) Everything took three or four times the normal explanation. Imagine if I had just shown up to rehearsal without that clear picture of the liturgical complexities that we would encounter?

So back to the follow-up … we have our liturgy music in one 2.5-inch D-ring binder. All pages are printed double-sided to minimize the number of pages and all pages and tabs are clearly labeled. Each tab is numbered and designates a specific section of liturgy – Great Litany, 1st antiphon, Little Litany, 2nd antiphon, Only-Begotten Son, etc. Within each tab, options are designated with letters and then have page numbers. Now you might wonder why we did it this way. The answer is quite simple. My husband, Ron – the engineer, said, “Numbers imply chronology and moving forward, letters are used to delineate choice.” It was hard to argue with that kind of logic. (See a sample page of our Liturgy Table of Contents, at top of blog.) So the Great Litany is #1, the First Antiphon is #2 and so forth. Within each tab the choices are labeled A, B, C, etc. So to answer my friend Denise’s question, yes it does all fit in one book, but it is a big book. Remember also, that we put Divine Liturgy music for Nativity/Theophany, Holy Week and Pascha in separate books. Our singers clip the pages to the tab before the service in order to expedite turning to the correct page during liturgy.
So the organization is clear and enables us to, literally, be “on the same page.” Once services are planned, then comes the fun part, planning rehearsals. With the beginning of Lent upon us, I have begun the process of planning my weekly rehearsals. Looking ahead at the entire season enables us to have adequate time to rehearse everything necessary for the Lenten, Holy Week and Paschal Services. Since we usually have a few extra singers for Paschal Matins and Liturgy, we designate particular rehearsals, in advance, that are for specific services or specific service music. BTW, yes we rehearse weekly, every Wednesday, from 7:45 pm (after Vespers) to 9:30 pm. During Lent or other intense Festal seasons we will often rehearse until 10 pm. We also have additional rehearsals on Lazarus Saturday and Holy Saturday. The culture of rehearsals and rehearsal attendance will no doubt be the subject of multiple blogs! My point here is that rehearsals also need structure and planning and looking ahead too ensure adequate time to rehearse.
Why do we bother with all these and many more nuts and bolts? To enable, calm and peace on the kliros and a beautiful offering of ourselves, and the worship to God.
(BTW, I apologize that I couldn't get the images in a logical place. However, if you click on them you can see the detail more easily.)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Why spend time getting organized and planning ahead?

This is actually a multi-level question that can be addressed from a variety of different directions. Interestingly, my daughter -- who now lives on the other side of the country -- and I had a similar idea today about why we plan ahead. In fact, I laughed out loud when I looked at her Facebook status this evening, since earlier in the day I had the almost identical thought:
“The truth about my constant state of preparedness and anti-procrastination is that it stems from true laziness. By taking the time to prepare ahead, then when it comes time I can do ’it‘ (whatever that may be) so much faster and thus sleep later, or leave earlier, or whatever it is I am attempting to be lazy about!”
Juliana is right! I am organized and plan ahead because of a strange sort of laziness. If I plan in advance, I can go into an almost automatic pilot when the time comes to do whatever the task is, with less worry that it will come off well. This has considerable implications for the work I do in church music.
On this wacky liturgical day, the Sunday after Theophany and the beginning of the Triodion, I decided to look ahead and plan the music for the Sundays between now and the end of Lent – the order of service for the next eight Sundays. For me that means creating a WORD doc that will be printed up and copied for each of the music stands. Each week at rehearsal the singers will take that sheet and “clip” their books in the order for Sunday. Assuming I have done my preparation well and made no mistakes, little or nothing will change for those weeks from the work that I did today. Then, on the Sunday itself, the singers will literally be on the same page. Transitions between liturgical actions and music will for the most part be fairly seamless and a certain peace and calm will be present on the kliros and in the nave. OK, I am exaggerating a bit – things do occasionally come up – but the possibility for peace and calm on the kliros is real and tangible.
Short history, for background purposes: Years ago when Anne and I first began working together as a team, we had to spend a ridiculous amount of time sorting and filing music. We have always had a choir of 25 – 40 singers and that means having 8-12 books ready to go for Sunday morning, including our personal conducting copies. We finally realized that it was big pain to take that amount of time each week prepping books and filing music. There had to be a better way!
Thus begun our 25-year journey to the perfect choir book organization!
At St. Lawrence Church in Felton we have several volumes of choir books –for each volume we have one for each music stand and director, each sectionalized with numbered tabs for each section, and choices within sections indicated with letters. We have books for: Divine Liturgy, Vespers, Matins, Nativity/Theophany, Pascha, Weddings, Funerals, Holy Week, Presanctified Liturgies. Perhaps I have forgotten one? Our system has grown and been improved over the years, but the basic system we put into place so many years ago is still intact.
Our Divine Liturgy book, lovingly call “The Big Black Book,” contains all the music for the year, except for the Nativity, Theophany and Paschal seasons. This most-used book has EVERYTHING for Sunday Liturgies for the year, except menaia commemorations that fall irregularly on Sundays. Yes, I mean everything – all troparia and kontakia, all prokeimena, all koinonika, all festal music, including antiphons. By having the sections organized by number and letter our Sunday schedule might say: Great Litany-1B, 1st Antiphon 2C … Trop of Res 9-D, Trop for Feast 10G … Choir members are responsible and able to be on the correct page at the right time, no ambiguity. OK, honestly there are some choir singers who are better at “clipping the books” and turning the pages than others. But in a pinch almost any of them could do it.
So back to my premise about laziness …
Creating the system of organization did take time … hours, days, months, years of time … but now that it is in place, liturgy and prayer is MUCH easier. It is easier to prep, and more peaceful to enact. Rehearsals can also go more smoothly. The singers can easily turn to Cherubikon 17H, page 5. And I can make a schedule for music for 8 weeks in advance and print it up for the choir, knowing that nothing will need to change and it will be understood.
Beautiful singing and worship of the Triune God can happen calmly and peacefully, with the possibility of hearing the angels join us.