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Handling Mistakes and Misfires

Smooth recovery from mistakes — those made by themselves, those made by the choir and those made by the clergy — is where directors earn our salaries (such as they are — ha!). I'll address each type separately, but there's one overriding thing you need in all of them: you need to know the services, backwards, forwards, and upside down underwater at 4 AM with your hands tied behind your back.

Let's begin with clergy mistakes — or, more properly, clergy mistakes that affect the choir. A lot of them don't; if the priest does the wrong censing or has some sort of misfire in the altar, other people may not even notice. However, other mistakes can require the director to jump ahead in the service, and you need to know where to go! Imagine this: you're in the middle of Matins and have just finished the third ode of the canon. You're expecting the priest (let's say there's no deacon) to begin the Little Litany, and instead you hear: "The Theotokos and Mother of the Light let us magnify in song!" What has just happened? Where dd he go? What should the choir sing next? Well, he's just made a big jump ahead, so the choir needs to sing the Magnificat, and then go into Ode 9 of the canon. In other words, he's just made a big oopsie, and it's up to you to go with the flow so the service isn't interrupted more than absolutely necessary (frantic page-turning on the kliros is probably unavoidable here).

Several years ago, I was loaned out to a neighboring parish that was struggling to find a new choir director. At the time, our parish had three directors (!), and I wasn't the senior one, so why not help 'em out? One of the most valuable aspects of that experience for me was that it forced me to learn a ton about the rubrics, as the priest's first language was not English, meaning he tended to skip ahead without immediately realizing it (different alphabets and all). So, I got the two-volume Hieratikon set from St. Tikhon's Press, and eventually convinced the priest to get the same set. Even before he did, I at least had a chance of being able to find wherever it was that he'd skipped to. I strongly encourage all directors to get these books; they're invaluable, especially for services we don't have very often and that have complex rubrics (for example, Grand Compline, Paschal Vespers or Lenten festal Matins).

One more thing about clergy mistakes: the post-game analysis is immensely helpful, so you and the clergy understand what went awry. It could be that there actually wasn't a mistake, but a cut he forgot to mention beforehand, or a local/regional liturgical habit you didn't know about. For example, in my parish we omit several litanies during most Vigils, so I've pencilled that into my Hieratikon for future reference. Come to think of it, the pre-game conference is also critical, so nobody assumes the other one will instinctually do or not do something.

Moving on to director/choir mistakes. My approach here is super simple: whenever possible, keep singing. It's better to sing something in the wrong tone, which most of the faithful may not even notice, than to bring everything to a screaming halt after the first phrase and start over. Unless I absolutely must stop for some reason, I'm not going to risk interrupting the congregation's prayers. This is not to suggest that we don't prepare thoroughly and analyze whatever went wrong so we don't to do it again. I'm simply advocating for smoothness here. In an extreme case, this may involve reverting to straight chant. For example, if the reader comes out with the wrong prokeimenon and you can't remember the tone in the heat of the moment, chant it straight. No harm, no foul. From my perspective, this is far better than making everyone wait while you get sorted out, and you know what? Chant it straight and it'll sound like a deliberate choice; cause a ruckus and it will look like you're the one who screwed up, even if you weren't. So, straight chant for the double win!

One more sample scenario i've run into multiple times: what to do when the choir needs to come in using a cue pitch from the priest, and for whatever reason the priest, for whatever reason, begins on a pitch that is waaaaay too high or low. Sometimes these random things happen for no certain reason; a single distracted moment may be enough to cause it. At any rate, in an extreme instance, I find it's best to bite the bullet and give fresh choir pitches. Fortunately, in antiphonal pieces (such as the All-Holy from Grand Compline), most priests with then pick up the choir's pitching, and the rest proceeds normally. If the priest finds this difficult, a rehearsal is in order.

Mistakes and misfires are bound to happen. There is but One perfect; we ain't Him, and He allows these things to happen to help us acquire humility. Glory to God for His many mercies!

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