Orthodox Church Music –


For many years I was choir director at {…} Russian Orthodox Church in {…} until physical limitations put a halt to that. I found that the available supply of decent English music was lacking. In Russia, the singers grow up in the Church and assimilate the music by osmosis. There the music frequently is not written down, and the director can simply say “sing these words to such-and-such melody” and get away with it. Also, before the Communist Revolution when so many Christians were Martyred, the major cathedrals had paid choirs of professional singers who really knew the music. This situation is not available to American Church Singers. There is a fairly large body of work done by OCA choristers, but the translations that they use are not suited to the services of our Church. I had, in the beginning, what almost every director of a convert church in America has: Untrained singers of the American convert persuasion, some few Russian descendents who knew the music in Slavonic, but not English, some recent Russian émigrés who didn’t have a clue about Church Tradition and singing, but wanted to learn. Some OCA books with different translations than we use. Tattered umpteenth generation photocopies of bits of this and that. And so it goes.

I decided that this was totally inadequate for glorifying God in the Church, and was a mess to keep up with during the services. Frantically shuffling paper is not conducive to proper worship. I went to a local music store that was into computers and music and got a semi-decent midi keyboard and Encore music notation software. Since the clear trend in ROCOR among the “biggie” Russian directors has been Finale, this might have been a better choice. However, Encore was much cheaper and easier to learn and use, and has served my needs. The music was, by and large, “out there”, and it was mostly a matter of finding some version of the music, determining whether or not it would be within the capability and range of my choir, entering it into Encore and twiddling the arrangement to properly fit the translations being used and the vocal capability of my choir. Some of it comes from the “Sputnik” to which I had access. Some of the pieces are outright compositions. Some are reusing melodies that we liked to the proper words (an old and time-honored tradition).

Service books done:

  • Liturgy – John Chysostom and Basil, with or without Deacon.
  • Hierarchical Liturgy
  • Major Feasts/Fasts – Annunciation, Christmas, Circumcision, Cross, Meeting in the  Temple, Lent – Presanctified Liturgy, Pascha (all services), Pentecost, Theophany, Tranfiguration
  • Vigil, or separate Vespers and Matins
  • Panakida, Funeral, Baptism, Marriage, Ordination, Akathist, Moleiben
  • About 5 years of the variable cycle of Troparia and Kontakia

Yes, it is true that an EXPERIENCED choir can sing whatever words to whatever tone at the drop of a hat. However, where this seems to mostly work is where the director is a Soprano and drags the rest through. I am a bass, and it is better to go ahead and provide the music so that everyone is together instead of straggling behind a forceful lead. Even the best seem to fall apart on Tone 3.

General notes for use:

Singers – the music is only the guide. Follow the director. Just because you think that the music shows a given value for a note – follow the director’s lead in humility and love. Even if the director is wrong, it is better to all go together. Go to the practices diligently and realize that your singing is a very important part of the services. Prepare for the service. Not only spiritually but also know you part and warm up properly before you get there. Be on time and prepared to sing. Nothing is quite as disconcerting to a director as looking at a choir that should be there and only seeing 1 or 2 people.

Directors (new directors mostly) – you already know that the music (particularly for note duration) is just a guide. If you carefully chant the words, you should get a general idea of the relative note values. Pace the music so that your Priest is neither waiting nor rushed in his celebration. Listen to some of the better Russian recordings. But do realize that what is recorded is NOT daily parish level. Most of the recordings are Cathedral and frequently Hierarchical services and may not directly reflect what your choir should be like even at its best. Work closely with the Priest and follow his likes and dislikes (even if they differ from yours). Pitch – a lot of the original Russian stuff is in G. You will notice that mostly this stuff is in F. We seem to have more baritone or bass Priests and Deacons in America (better nutrition?), but pitch where your clergy and choir are comfortable – especially on the Litanies. Above all – love your singers and glorify our Lord with your music.

A small fraction of what I have done has been put on the web:



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