Issue #1


Editor's Page

   Our hope in developing this newsletter is that it will be useful to Orthodox choir singers and cantors regardless of their musical training. We have observed that our media-rich culture has a growing number of resources for choir directors and others with considerable musical education and background. Weíve tried to address a need for helping the choir singer who may not read music but sings for the love of the faith. It is our hope to reach singers of all Orthodox jurisdictions with useful information and to stimulate discussion and growth within Orthodox Church choirs.

   We plan to issue "The Tuning Fork" at approximately 2-month intervals and to incorporate articles and subjects contributed by our readers. To that end, your response via the form on the last page of this initial issue will be helpful. We welcome your input Ė in fact, itís essential for us to know if our efforts are worthwhile!

What Does This Mean


Troparion: A generic term to designate a stanza of religious poetry. We sing the troparion at the end of Vespers and in the Liturgy. The stanzas used in the canon at Matins are also called troparia.

Trisagion: Sometimes called the "thrice holy", it refers to the words Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal have mercy on us. They are usually repeated three or more times and occur 1) in the Liturgy, 2) in Matins at the end of the Great Doxology (Glory to God in the Highest) and 3) in the beginning of almost every set of prayers as part of the short petitions before the Our Father.

Time Signature: It consists of two figures, one above the other. The upper figure tells how many beats there are in a measure, the lower figure tells which note gets one beat. In other words a time signature of 4/4 would tell us that there are four beats to the measure and the quarter note gets one beat. In a 2/4 time signature there would be two beats to each measure and the quarter note would get one beat. What do you think a time signature of 2/2 would mean? It means that there are two beats to each measure and the half note would get one beat. In much Orthodox chant, of course, measures are long and "beats" are different from Western music. The principle of the time signature is the same, though.


By Doreen Bartholomew


   Iíve heard it said that some of the pieces we use in church are more suited to grand opera than a church services. While this may be true, we arenít about to start a revolution and throw out all the music that we know and love so much. This would cause a mutiny on a grand scale within our parishes. So how do we balance the sacred and the secular within our services? There really is only one way and that is to always keep in mind that church music should compliment the services, not dominate them. If the music is overpowering and not conducive to prayer, it isnít appropriate for church. However, even music that is suited for church can be distracting if the choir is unsure of how to sing it properly and the choir director is not equipped to show them how.

   The church choir is a finely tuned (pardon the pun) precision machine, at least it should be. More often than not it turns out to be group of people who get together once a week and sing, often not very well. So what can be done about it? Well, there are ways to change it, but one person alone canít do it. To really make an impact at the parish level, it takes the cooperation of the choir director, the choir and the priest and parish council. In this article I will outline a few ways that our choirs, and the quality of church music, can be improved.

What the Choir Member Can Do

   Choir members have a responsibility to be at the services on time, to come to rehearsals, to know their music and to pay attention to the director. These are the very basics. When you join the choir you are taking on a very important job. The choir forms an integral part of the services and the attitude of the individual choir member is so very important to the group as a whole. Choir members need to be aware that every one of them makes a difference to the sound of the group, even if they donít think they add very much. If one member is absent the group sound is different.

   Rehearsals can make or break the sound of a choir. Itís at the rehearsals that the director gets the chance to perfect the pieces the choir is working on. The nuancing of sound and dynamic levels make all the difference between a run of the mill sound and a sound that distinguishes a choir as a cut above the rest. Achieving this sound means that coming to rehearsals should be mandatory and choir members should get to them on time and preferably about 15 minutes ahead of time. Getting to rehearsals early I find especially necessary in the winter because if my body is cold, Iím usually not able to produce any kind of sound that would be classified as singing. Get there early enough to have time to warm up the body, as well as the voice.

   Choir members need to realize that no one, not even the best of singers and musicians, are "too good" for rehearsals. No one knows so much that they can afford to miss a rehearsal. Ideally speaking, choir members who constantly refuse to come to rehearsals, or simply donít show up, should not be singing.

   Rehearsals are usually tight on time. Warming up your voice before you get to the rehearsal can save some of that time. There are two simple exercises you can do in the car or before you leave for rehearsal (or service). First, sit up as straight as you can and just hum some scales very lightly and softly. Each scale should start a note higher. After doing the scales on a hum, do the same thing on the vowels, "ah-eh-ee-oh-oo". Donít strain your voice. A good rule of thumb is if it hurts, donít do it. Singers should also try to review the music they will be rehearsing ahead of time and jot down any problems or questions they might have. Always remember to bring a sharpened pencil with you to rehearsal so you can make notes on your music if you need to.

   Have you ever wondered why your choir director always gets to church before everyone else? One of the ways a choir member can help the director is by taking on some of the responsibility of organizing the services. Ask your director to show you the order of service and how to find things in the various books that are used. If someone else can read the Hours or look up the Epistle or Old Testament readings it gives the director more time to concentrate on the musical aspects of the service. An extra few minutes to give direction to the choir members or to speak to the priest, the deacon or anyone else he/she needs to speak with can make a big difference in the smoothness of the service, thereby improving the aesthetic quality as a whole.

(continued next issue)


Questions and Answers

   We welcome your questions about singing and church music. Here are points weíve found particularly interesting/troubling.

Q: What can individual singers do to help the choir stay on pitch?

A: A lot of things. First, good breathing and posture are essential (see "Vocal Survival Guide" below). Practice "belly breathing" Ė donít puff out your chest and raise your shoulders when you inhale, but instead use your stomach and diaphragm area to expand the space in which you store air. Be conscious of the sound youíre making by listening as you sing Ė listen to be sure you hear all other parts as well as yourself. Warm up before singing so that your voice is flexible and able to reach the higher portions of your range. Try to think of the note as being divided into two sections, a lower half and an upper half and then imagine singing on the upper half of the note. When trying to hit a note that seems especially high, think of your diaphragm as going down as your voice goes up. It sounds odd, but it works. Finally, practice good health by getting exercise and rest before singing Ė good church singing is an athletic as well as spiritual endeavor.

Q: What about "aging" voices? Is there an age at which singers should not be in the choir?

A. In our opinion, no! Sometimes voices become wobbly and tend to go flat as singers age. When that is the case, the singer should try to be honestly aware of those changes and work hard to minimize them by the same practices we mention above. Singing more quietly and listening for gentle feedback from other singers and the choir director is essential too. We believe that most parish choirs are families of loving people where aging and youthful voices can and should combine musically for a spiritual experience.

Proper Posture for Singing While Sitting

   Do you sit during your choir rehearsals? Producing a good sound depends partly on good posture and when most of us sit, we tend to naturally slouch a bit. Hereís how to keep good singing posture while you sit.


  1. Stand in front of a hard-bottomed chair (like a school chair) so you feel the seat touching the back of your legs, then take about a half step out from the seat.

  3. Keeping your eyes straight ahead, sit on the front portion of the seat. Donít scoot back into the chair but remain on the edge of the seat. If you are sitting correctly, you should be able to get up again in one single swoop.

  5. As you sit, pretend there is a wire attached to the top of your head that is pulling you up towards the ceiling.

  7. Your back should be straight and your feet should be in a comfortable position on the floor. Do not sing with your feet stuck up on the chair rungs or with your legs crossed.

This position lets the air from your lungs flow out more easily. It also allows your body to expand all around and enables you to keep your eyes on the conductor. If you sit this way when you sing you will find that you get tired less and your throat will be able to remain open and free, thus helping you to produce a better and richer sound.



Check out these web pages: This is an interactive music theory site. There are many things to do here, including naming the notes, creating and identifying triads and chords, scale building, music speed-reading and key signature drills. Highly recommended for both beginners and advanced musicians. This site has a grid-like chart with all the melodies for the troparia, canon, prokeimena, etc. If you have media capabilities you can click on a site and actually listen to the melody. Although the site is only in Russian, it is easily navigated and can be a good tool for those who want to learn the melodies for the eight tones or just brush up their skills. A moderated chat list dedicated to Orthodox Church musicians. A beginner can learn a lot from the members of the list. The description of the e-mail list says it is a place to "advance the growth and excellence of all traditions of Orthodox liturgical singing by providing a means for open and constructive exchange of ideas among liturgical musicians. "


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Editors: Carol Wetmore & Doreen Bartholomew

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