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Getting Pitches From Clergy

So...you need to grab choir pitches from the clergy. Oh Lawd! Talk about terrifying. Normally, directors can sneak in new pitches between an "Amen" and the beginning of whatever's next, but what about when we can't, because the clergy begins the piece and then the choir enters? Let's discuss.


These situations are thankfully pretty rare outside of monasteries. I'm talking about things like the singing of the Theophany troparion during the Great Blessing of Water; in many parishes, the clergy sing the first phrase, and then the choir comes in. Another example would be the Magnification during Matins; the rubrics indicate that the clergy sing this once, and then the choir repeats it (although in many parishes it's not done this way).


If you're dealing with clergy who have solid musical skills and training, rejoice, for thou livest in the best of all possible worlds. Some can even have perfect pitch, or can be convinced to squirrel away a tuning fork in their vestments so they can start in the correct key for the choir! This is a huge blessing.


What if your priest needs a bit more help, though? It can be hard for directors to remember that for someone who does not read music and lacks extensive vocal (and ear!) training, it can be intimidating and difficult to start and end in the same key. One would hope that such a clergyman would seek out the choir director and ask for some assistance; often, simply going over something once or twice is a huge help. Clergy, I implore you to do this!


Taking pitches from clergy is even harder when you've got more than one or two of them, such as at a hierarchical Divine Liturgy. Think about it: have you ever heard a hierarchical "Holy God" that actually sounded good — in the United States, that is? You haven't. I know you haven't, because it's probably never happened. You've heard three guys singing in four keys simultaneously. It's a musical miracle!


So, how can you save a situation like this, where the clergy's gone off the rails (or the staff!) and you need to bring the choir in? My strategy's pretty simple: ignore the clergy pitches, give new pitches, and plunge right in. It's not elegant, but it gets the job done. This is especially true for hierarchical services, when you won't have any hope of having a mini-rehearsal with the clergy before the service starts.


When rehearsals are possible, however, I suggest going that route, particularly for something like Theophany, when the choir pretty much has to get the pitch from the clergy's opening salvo. If something goes drastically wrong in media res, of course, you can give new pitches and forge ahead, but it will be obvious that you've done it, which isn't ideal. The All-Holy from Grand Compline is another potential toughie that merits rehearsal.


On a sombre note, it deeply concerns me when people say things like, "Oh, we don't have to go over this stuff. We only do this twice a year; we can just plow through it quickly and move on." Yes, these situations don't happen very frequently, and the pieces are on the shorter side, but you know what? We still have a sacred responsibility to offer our best to God at every single service — no exceptions. We'll never be perfect, but that's okay; God doesn't expect us to be. He does, however, expect our best effort in everything. In the words of the Holy Prophet Jeremiah: "Accursed is the one who is slack in doing the Lord's work. (48:10, NRSV)" Let us attend!







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