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: http://stjuvenaly.org/

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