Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part VI, in which technical points are considered and a wrap-up is offered

In my most recent installment of this series, I promised that it would not take me six months to write the last one. Well, it’s true, it didn’t take me six months; it took me twenty. Sigh.

To recap what I have been doing in these essays — I have tried to suggest some core principles for how to approach the responsibility of being an Orthodox church musician. I first wrote about them on my personal blog, and I have been giving a more thorough consideration to these points here. I’ve discussed why, fundamentally, Orthodox church music needs to be treated as a privilege, a craft, and a discipline; the rest of the discussion has spun out from those assumptions, dealing with the practicalities of getting started, what being a “musician” means in this context and why that’s a good thing, the need for rehearsal, and the relationship of the physical church building to the activity of singing under its roof.

Here I will address the final couple of principles I outlined, and then make some concluding points. So, without further ado:

  • Principle #6: The various systems of modes and special melodies (and yes, even notation), as impossibly complex as they may initially seem, are actually there to help organize and simplify the cantor’s job. The better you learn them, the less stressful of a time you will have in the long run.

To put this another way — I think it’s fair to say that we tend to see things we don’t know how to do as barriers to entry rather than opportunities to learn. Singing, particularly singing in church, is something that is by nature a very personal thing to do, and so these perceived barriers to entry tend to be taken very personally.

Let’s be honest; sometimes the skills fundamental to Orthodox church music seem like things that, in order to learn, you needed to have gotten a special letter from an owl at age 11 and then have spent the next seven years at Hogwarts. If you don’t know an automelon from a watermelon, or if you hear somebody use the word Doxastikon and are left wondering if they fought the Autobots, and your questions upon looking at a piece is of music are, “What are all these little squiggles?” and/or “What are all these little black dots?” then the whole venture can seem hopelessly arcane.

There are two components here I will talk about — understanding and embracing the distinctive skills and musical terminology, and then understanding that they truly are tools that make the church musician’s job easier when they are properly grasped. In terms of the former — just with terminology, I know of no type of music that doesn’t have its own attendant jargon. These terms are functional; they’re not just for show, and they refer to categories that help musicians with their tasks. Perhaps more important, they will help you communicate with people who will be able to teach you what they know about church music. I once had an attendee at a chant workshop challenge the use of “Ni-Pa-Vou” for solfege; this person asked, why not just use what people already know (i.e., Do-Re-Mi)? Doesn’t insistence on foreign terminology make it less accessible? And the answer is, yes, it is something you have to learn, but it’s the standard way of doing it, and every book and every teacher, even in English, will use “Ni-Pa-Vou”. If you insist you don’t have to learn the jargon, then it may be initially “accessible”, but you’re cutting yourself off from resources and people that can help you.

As tools, automela (that is to say, model melodies), modes, notation, and names of genres of hymns all are aids in the otherwise overwhelmingly impossible task of organizing the sung worship of the Eastern Orthodox Churches according to what is outlined in the Typikon. The system of modes is a tool that enables the singer to keep hymns musically distinct; notation enables the singer to learn and to perform in a way that does not rely entirely on memory, and also saves musicians from having to make up everything on the spot; model melodies enable musicians to sing a large chunk of hymns for offices like Vespers and Orthros in a manner that is simple, repetitive, and easily learned; knowing the particular genres of hymns enables the singer to understand the theological context and liturgical function better, an understanding which in turn gives both singers and composers an array of musical choices to make in order to better serve that context and function. In other words, as complicated as it may look up front, you will be a better worshiping musician in an Orthodox context if you put in the time to absorb these things.

To be sure, in an English context, there are issues we are still working out. Many of our English language resources do not translate prosomoia, hymns that are meant to be sung to a model melody, so that they are metered for the model melody. Some books do have metered translations, but then the English incipits for the automela are not entirely standardized. Other books don’t even bother providing the incipits for the automela, so that the whole system is obscured. For other hymns, there are not necessarily good English compositions to begin with. Depending on the materials one has to work with in a particular scenario — a printout of unmetered translations with modal ascriptions and nothing else, perhaps — understanding the system of modes at least gives the singer the tools to improvise something that will work.

Moving forward, I suggest that the way to demystify the terminology and the skill set is to tie it to the practical liturgical function. Notation is a great example of this; notation, even Byzantine notation, isn’t a system of magic runes. Staff notation and Byzantine notation are both practical, and emerged as the best way to serve particular and distinct kinds of musical rhetoric and objectives. Learn Byzantine notation, not because it will somehow make you a better human being, but because it is the best system for the distinctives of Byzantine chant. Learn staff notation because it is the best system for the needs of polyphonic music. etc. Learn both because then you will be maximally flexible; if you can read whatever kind of notation is used for what you sing in church, you will be able to sing more, you will be able to sing better, and you will learn to sing new things more quickly.

  • Principle #7: Good liturgy and good music aid each other. Good settings will do a good job of cooperating with the liturgical action that they accompany; clergy that are celebrating properly will also help good settings fit in naturally with the liturgical action. In other words, a good Cherubic Hymn will be long enough to cover what’s happening at the altar while it’s being sung, and a priest will find that a properly-set Cherubic Hymn means that he doesn’t have to rush through everything in preparation for the Great Entrance.

I think this largely speaks for itself, but what I will say here is that the converse is also true: there is a relationship between bad liturgy and bad music. To put it another way, I think there can be a general problem of clergy not being aware of what is happening musically, with the singing being little more than an appendix to what the priests and deacons are doing. The converse can also be true: church musicians can see what’s going on at the altar as little more than the added ingredient that makes their concert a sacred activity. It must be remembered the church singers are themselves part of the clergy; as I noted way back in the very first installment of this series, no less than the Ecumenical Patriarch has made this very point.

To illustrate: my very first Vespers of the Dormition as a cantor, I saw that the Theotokion at “O Lord I have cried” was in all eight modes, and I had to practice it a bit ahead of time. During the service itself, I sang the First Mode section, and then the pause while I made the mental shift for Plagal First was evidently just enough that as I started to sing the next line, the deacon exclaimed, “Wisdom!” and it was too late to continue; on to “Gladsome Light” it was. When I inquired later as to what had happened, I was told that nobody at that parish had ever bothered attempting the Theotokion in all eight modes; my predecessors had just left all the modulations out. So, when I paused, the deacon’s assumption was that I was done. The next year, I made a point of telling the deacon in advance what was coming, and things went much more smoothly, musically and liturgically. The deacon didn’t know what he didn’t know, and it was my responsibility during that first Vespers to be sensitive to what the clergy were doing and adjust; jumping right back on top of him would have been worse, making him look bad and reflecting poorly on me. When the deacon was informed, and knew to be aware of what was happening at the psalterion, then everything was fine.

This brings me to my final thought for this series. To revisit something else I said way back in the first installment:

The answer, I argue, is education — the church singer must be prepared to educate in love, both from the psalterion in the singing of the Church’s hymnody and among the rest of the parish “at large”, as it were. The church singer must be prepared to answer the question, “Why do you sing what you sing the way you sing it?” and even if the answer is not understood, the love for the person asking the question must be apparent.

I still think that’s true, close to three years later, and I would expand it a bit. As a overarching point, musicians, clergy, and members of the congregation alike must be willing to learn from each other, to listen to each other, and to love each other. As a practical matter, it is absolutely incumbent upon church musicians to be willing to teach, to demystify, to advocate, to explain what we do — to our priests, to our choir members, to other musicians who might want to get better at something we do well, to the person in the proverbial pews, to children who might want to be cantors and choir directors when they grow up. There are challenges in doing so, to be sure, but we need to regard that educational mission as our default posture. Being a church musician cannot simply mean that we show up on Sunday morning and make pretty noises; we must be teachers and missionaries as well. At the same time, remember that in our musical leadership we are serving; we have a pastoral function, even if we are not clergy; we must see Christ in those whose service we find ourselves, and love them accordingly. That point is maybe one of the more compelling arguments for why seminary ought to be a component of an Orthodox church musician’s education, but that, I think, must be a discussion for another time.

We must know what we are doing well, we must be willing to pass on what we have learned, and we must do so in love, so that we may serve Christ and His Church. This is our responsibility; this is our privilege; this is our vocation. We must do no less.