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On Giving Pitches

Giving pitches to the choir is among directors' most important tasks, and like so many other things in Orthodoxy, there are several effective ways to do this. Factors to consider include the size of the choir, singers' collective level of musical literacy, the director's vocal range, whether or not s/he has perfect pitch. There's also the matter of repertoire familiarity: has the choir been singing this piece for years, or did they just learn it last month? What works for me might not work for you, and that's okay. All that really matters is that the given method suits the choir. I'll begin by describing my approach; then I'll touch on alternative techniques.

The vast majority of music our parish choir sings is written in G/e or F/d, if there's a score at all (we generally sing troparia and kontakia using pointed text only). However, about half the time I'll give pitches in a different (usually lower) key. This decision depends on which singers are present for a given service, and the tessitura (the average range) in which they're most comfortable.

Next comes repertoire familiarity. For the Divine Liturgy, most of the music in our choir binders has been there for years, and every singer knows these pieces practically from memory. In this situation, I can just give them a major or minor chord, and everyone knows which pitch is theirs. The same goes for the Obikhod tones. They've had the pitches for these given in the same way for decades, so for the sake of simplicity I've retained most of my predecessor's conventions for pitching these. It's what the choir is used to, and it works. Would that it was always this easy!

I have to be a bit more careful when pitching repertoire the choir sings only rarely, such as a lot of the material for Holy Week and Pascha. With these pieces, the singers know their parts well, but getting them started correctly requires some finesse. In these circumstances, I usually hum the root position chord to briefly tonicize the key in the singers' ears, and then I'll hum each pitch while pointing at the relevant section. I pay special attention to the altos here, because we have a new-ish singer in that section.

Now, a word about volume. Obviously, the singers need to be able to hear the pitches, but by the same token I don't want the entire congregation to hear me giving pitches because it's an interruption. Fortunately, my predecessor trained the choir to listen for hummed pitches. Were that not the case, we'd need to devote rehearsal time to that technique. It also helps that our temple is very small, and I'm able to stand very close to the other singers. If we had a larger temple or a significantly larger choir, I might need to abandon humming in favor of softly singing the pitches. Regardless, a tuning fork is essential equipment here, as it's inaudible to everyone but the person using it. I've occasionally heard directors using a pitch-pipe, and I'm not going to lie: I really hate this. It's so disruptive.

Another disruptive technique is giving pitches immediately before the choir starts singing. This distorts the organic flow of the services. The trick is to give pitches, when possible, during the priest or deacon's final ekphonesis. For example, when I hear the deacon slow down as he chants the last sentence of the Gospel, I'll give pitches for "Glory to Thee, O Lord; glory to Thee!" This method can take a while to learn, and I admit to sometimes struggling with it. There are, of course, some situations in which this is impossible, such as when moving between troparia/kontakia with wildly different tones. Here, there are no clergy exclamations to camouflage the pitching, so I just try to make the best of it. That's all any of us can do, you know? :)

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