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.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Why is respect so important?

OK, I know this isn’t one of the questions on the list from my first blog, but it is one that impacts so many of those questions. I decided it was a good place to begin my musings.
When we look at the preparation, and rendering of the divine services, respect needs to be present in every moment. From determining the correct order of service and service texts, to rehearsal and then finally the actual singing of the service, each step must been done with care and respect.
As liturgical musicians we don’t have the luxury of being able to just pick anything to sing. We are constrained by multiple levels of tradition. We have to respect the tradition of the Church in terms of what service we are singing, what the traditions and norms of our jurisdiction are, and by the local practice of our diocese and parish. We also have to look realistically at our resources. What are the skills and abilities of our singers and clergy? Being honest about the capabilities of our singers is an important aspect of respect. If we either over- or under-estimate these capabilities we are disrespecting our singers. It is critical that the music we put in front of our singers is within their reach, within given the rehearsal constraints. Perhaps we will be able to use music we love, but more often we need to choose music that will work.
We also have to consider the ethos of the parish. We must be sensitive about not jolting their communal prayer with music that does fit the flow and sensibilities of the larger community. Communities get attached to certain settings and hymns. That doesn’t mean never changing music, but it does mean not changing it on the whims of the director without considering and respecting the various groups of people who it affects: choir, clergy, parishioners. If you are new to leading music in a community (especially, if you new to the community) take time to understand what the parish is used to. Be patient and make changes slowly over time. Be respectful of the community’s musical heritage. Then be willing to let go of it, even if you love it, if it doesn’t work in the parish.
Speaking of the music we put in front of our singers … this is another BIG respect issue for me. It is important to have the music well-organized and readable! I will never understand directors who shuffle music during the service (on a regular basis). It is much easier and calmer, for everyone, to have the music in order for the singers, in advance! Yes, it might take extra preparation time but we are talking about leading prayer. It is hard enough for the director and singers to enter into the corporate prayer because of the necessity to lead. Why make it more difficult by shuffling papers and whispering instructions to the singers during a service? This is distracting and disrespectful of the singers and the parishioners at large; who are often fully aware of the distracting insanity at the kliros. (Disclaimer: yes, I know occasionally this is necessary, I am talking about directors who do this every Sunday and for EVERY service.) It is important to have a system for organizing the music that the singers can use with calm and understanding. At our parish, we have a highly developed system, but there are many ways to do this. What is critical is to have a functional way to handle the variables that is respectful of the people using it and allows for smooth and calm transitions, so that it does not distract from the liturgical moment.
Finally, with respect to rehearsals – OK, I realize this is a topic that will take it own multiple bloggings to cover fully, so simply, as regards this topic – don’t waste your singers’ time. Plan your rehearsals. So many directors complain that they can’t get singers to come to regular rehearsals. One of my dear college professors once said, “You must make sure that at every rehearsal you make beauty. If you are making beauty, singers will come back.” My dear friends, making beauty takes work, but the rewards are many. Good rehearsals begin by respecting your singers’ time and capabilities. They require work and love. Love for your singers, the music, the process and ... Don’t just sing through the notes. Get to the heart of the matter. Sing the text. Make music! Praise God!
Respect has a way of breeding respect. If you respect, in time others will respect. Respect is a way of life. It is a way of love.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Questions, questions, questions ... answers?

Last Sunday morning, the first of the New Year, I woke up with my head buzzing with questions. But these weren't questions for which I wanted answers, but questions that others have asked or might ask me about why I do what I do with my time and energy. So, as I pondered these questions this week, and continued to create a lengthy list, I decided perhaps the best way to deal with them was to create a blog with each entry answering one of these questions. It is curious to me that all of the questions can be answered quite simply by two overarching reasons, but that for each question these were quickly followed by details of greater and more unrelated specificity. In other words, although the basic premise of each answer is same, the minutia of each answer has its own detail or path.

So here are the list of questions:
  • Why do I spend hours typesetting clean, readable editions of old favorites?
  • Why am I so fussy about how a text is set to the melody?
  • Why must the accents of the text follow the accents of the melody?
  • Why do I spend hours in rehearsal preparing for a feast, when I know many other parishes don’t?
  • Why is it important to strive for beautiful singing and rendering of the liturgical text, motion, moment?
  • Why does it matter, so much to me, that the church calendar line-up with the civil calendar?
  • Why do I think that the creation of new compositions of liturgical music is as important as preserving the old favorites?
  • Why do I insist that the English we use in church be elevated but understandable?
  • Why does it drive me crazy when the rhythm/pitch/tempo of the choir/chanter is out of sync with the clergy who are serving?
  • Why don't I care if there are 4, 16 or 40 singers, so long as they have rehearsed?
  • Why have I spent hours copying, organizing and creating choir books?
  • Why do I "kill trees", in order to copy the order of service for each music stand, for each and every service?
  • Why do I bother to work on vocal technique, sightsinging and other "musician things" with amateur singers?
  • Why do I bother to create recordings of what we do in the parish?
  • OK, really folks the list goes on and on ... but this is enough for now.
The simple two-part answer to ALL of the above:

In whatever I do, whether it be in church or out of church, I strive to do my best for the glory of God. Secondly, it is because I want to help bring children, teens and young adults from the ugliness, and sadness of this world, to the light of Christ and to the historic church.

I realize the the above are simplistic and without detail, context or back-up, but it is my starting point and the starting point for this blog. I promise to post more details about various questions, in no particular order, over the next days, weeks and months. Read if you like; otherwise, feel free to find another blog that might suit your fancy more.