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Posts Tagged 'Orthodox choir schools'

Follow up on choir schools, with a suggested course of action

Well, the spike in traffic the last few days leads me to believe that maybe the idea of an Orthodox choir school has drawn the attention of more than my usual two readers. Cool. If that’s so, then let me go into some more detail, and let me suggest a course of action.

First of all, thanks for all of the positive reactions. It’s great to see that there’s a way to describe this vision so that people get it and get excited about it; I hope that this is a sign of things to come. Please continue to share these posts far and wide; it’s an idea that has to gain a certain critical mass before it can go anywhere besides this blog.

Also, there have been a number of excellent suggestions that have come from my “Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it” post. Suggestions about cities, about teaching methods, about other schools to look at, and so on. I appreciate all of that, and I’m all ears for that kind of input. When (I repeat, when) the time comes, that will all be extremely useful — keep it coming!

Something that has been brought up is that there have been people who have toiled in Orthodox children’s music education for years, and there are existing programs that struggle to stay afloat. Wouldn’t it be better to try to build everybody up rather than concentrating efforts in one location? Might putting all the eggs in one basket be a well-intentioned, but ultimately misplaced, idea?

I had a response to this, but before I go into that, I want to make everybody aware of some valuable resources that should be looked at if this subject is going to be taken seriously. There is the Choir Schools’ Association in the UK, and they have a document titled “Reaching Out”, which is a great overview of the current state of the tradition in England. One is a doctoral thesis by one Daniel James McGrath titled “The Choir School in the American Church: a study of the choir school and other current chorister training models in Episcopal and Anglican parishes”. There’s also a doctoral thesis by Lucas Matthew Tappan, “The Madeleine Choir School (Salt Lake City, Utah): A Contemporary American Choral Foundation”.

IMG_3755Something that, alas, I can’t link to but that you should be able to acquire if you want a copy, is the 50th anniversary season brochure for St. Paul”s Choir School. They have them out for the taking in the narthex at St. Paul’s; I got a copy when I went to their Christmas concert on Friday. If you contact the school and ask for one, I have to imagine they’ll send it to you.

Nota bene — with all of these resources, one has to make sure that one takes them mutatis mutandis to a certain extent. McGrath and St. Paul’s are dealing with a context of boys’ choirs, and I’m talking about a co-ed approach, for example. The Madeleine Choir School and St. Paul’s are Catholic, and McGrath is writing from an Anglican perspective. Nonetheless, all are extremely useful in terms of how they talk about organization, curriculum, challenges, and so on — Tappan in particular explicitly has the objective of serving as a “road map” (his words) for those who might want to follow the Madeleine’s lead. Handy, that.

One of the main things I want to put forth here is this passage from Tappan’s thesis on the Madeleine as the justification for a choir school:

…a choir school consists of an institution where children are given a well-rounded musical education as well as liturgical formation in the ars celebrandi, and where they put these skills at the service of the sacred liturgy on a regular basis within a specific community (often that of a cathedral or collegiate chapel). In return, these children are given an outstanding elementary and religious education.

Even though these qualities constitute the basic elements of a choir school, each institution is a unique place where the choir school tradition exists within a particular time and culture… Perhaps the church musician will find in the choir school a model for training young people in an art that has the power to transform lives and to bring many out of the isolation of modern living into a living community of musicians and believers, forming young musicians “for the lifelong praise and worship of God” (p. 2).

But then there’s the epiphany of Gregory Glenn, the founder of the Madeleine Choir School, when he spent three months at Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London:

What Glenn realized was that the institution itself was the formator (emphasis mine). The incessant rounds of daily rehearsals and liturgies in the cathedrals and the process of going through a massive amount of repertoire year after year was crucial to being able to sing, for example, a Poulenc Mass on short notice. The choristers sight-read so easily that rehearsal time was never spent learning notes. There might be a false note or two the first time through a work, but the boys usually corrected themselves the second time around. Choir masters were able to spend the majority of rehearsal time working toward a more musical performance of the repertoire. According to Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School is still working toward this goal, but it becomes more of a reality with time. (Tappan, p. 26)

Here was my answer to the concern about concentrating efforts in one location:

I spent 11 years in a location that was, theoretically, fairly central in the United States, but as far as Orthodox Christianity went, was about as isolated as you could be without being in Wyoming. Almost anything and everything the parish there took on could be (and often was) fairly described as “being a lot of effort for one location”, right down to building a church. It still needed to be done. Along the same lines, the Madeleine school is certainly “a lot of effort for one location” (in Salt Lake City, no less!), but it’s still worth doing.

The other thing I’ll say is that musical efforts in particular often get problematized in “American Orthodoxy” (whatever we mean by that) as “reinventing the wheel”, that reduplication of effort doesn’t accomplish anything… What needs to be recognized is that not all wheels will travel on the same roads[…], people and institutions need to play to their strengths, and dispersion of effort that hangs everything on the energies of either one person or a tiny handful of people is a disaster waiting to happen. The Madeleine Choir School is not the only Catholic school in the Salt Lake City metro area, for example, but its existence allows for the faculty and students to play to a particular set of strengths, and the result is an example that is inspiring. Supporting music education in existing Orthodox schools is a great thing to do, but it also seems to me that establishing a model school that focuses particularly on that aspect will allow for a level of excellence to develop and be made manifest publicly. I think we accomplish a lot more when we’re able to work together than when we’re isolated; my experience is that most of us Orthodox musicians are too isolated from each other as it is, and that that is a bad thing.

Beyond that — as I said earlier, I attended a Christmas concert sung by the choirs of the St. Paul’s Choir School Friday evening with Megan and Theodore; one of the big takeaways was that Theodore was absolutely enrapt when the boys processed in, wearing black cassocks and singing “One in Royal David’s City”. I’ll say that the evening was was mostly the work of the the preparatory choir (the main choir had their big concert yesterday with Britten’s “A Ceremony of Carols”), but everybody did something, and they’ve got a good thing going there.

So, where to, folks? How do we get there from here? I’ve told you how I’d do it — and, I have to say, it’s remarkably similar to what Tappan describes Gregory Glenn, the Madeleine Choir School’s founder, as having done (and I discovered Tappan after I wrote that post) — he put a great deal of time in visiting model institutions and putting together a feasibility study/planning document with a proposed budget. Realistically, I think this is going to be somebody’s full-time task for at least six months.

My modest proposal, then, is this — a great Christmas gift to me, to your kids, and to our Church, would be a gift in support of this initial effort. Somebody shared the post saying, “I wish I had a million or two to give to such an undertaking”; well, it doesn’t need a million or two, not yet, and while you might not be in a position to give a million or two, maybe you can do something (particularly since it’s near year-end — taxes are coming!). It doesn’t really matter how much you might be able to do; if everybody who saw my posts over the last week even gave something relatively small, it would go a long way towards making this possible. Anyway, I don’t want to do a hard sell on giving right now. Rather, this is just the trial balloon — the question is, can we fund the initial planning activities, yes or no? You tell me. If we can, then maybe we can do this for real.

The way to give is through The Saint John of Damascus Society; click here, click on the donate button, and you’ll be taken to PayPal. The Society is a tax-exempt (501(c)3) non-profit, so all gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. If you want to do something but don’t want to do it via PayPal, drop me a line at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org.

I’m really not interested in asking for money right now, so we’re clear. This isn’t about money to me. At the same time, without some money, the next steps are really out of reach.

This is an open forum on the topic, so please, any questions, suggestions, comments, requests for more information, anything — keep it coming! And if you want one of the The Choir DVDs, e-mail me with an address.

Okay, my friends. I’ve made my pitch. You’ve all told me you’re interested and supportive; pray for us, tell me what we’re doing next, and share this far and wide if this is important to you. Thanks for sticking with me so far.

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An Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it

Since I’ve just run a couple of posts that have touched upon the topic of choir schools, and last week I had occasion to run the pitch — such as it presently is — past a couple of friends, maybe I can take a moment to go into detail about how I could see an Orthodox choir school coming together.

First, what have I already done? Well, in 2005, I went to New York for the first time. While I was there, I visited St. Thomas Episcopal Church on 5th Ave, and heard their choir of men and boys for the first time. I learned more about the St. Thomas Choir School (there’s a video here that I can’t embed), and became fascinated by the model and its heritage, and convinced that it would be fantastically worthwhile to adapt it for Orthodox use. In 2007, I published this piece as a blog post (it originally had been intended for The Word, although, alas, the submission was never acknowledged). In 2009, it was picked up by AGAIN Magazine as an article titled “Teach a child to sing: Thoughts about Orthodox choir schools”. Fr. Chris Metropulos noticed the article, and interviewed me on the OCN show Come Receive the Light. All of this really amounted to me throwing the broad strokes of a big idea out there to see if anybody would run with it; I can’t really say I wasn’t given a platform, because I was, but nobody ran with it.

Which isn’t to say that nobody responded at all. I got an e-mail from a Mover and Shaker who was really intrigued, but who said, frankly, we’re so far away from being able to speak meaningfully of what a school could accomplish that there’s just no conversation to be had with anybody right now.

And that was that, until 2013, when a documentary on the Madeleine Choir School in Salt Lake City titled The Choir was released on DVD. I immediately bought ten copies in bulk and sent them out to various musical leaders on the American Orthodox scene with a copy of my AGAIN article saying, in essence, This is exactly what I was talking about. This is what we should be doing. Watch this and then let’s talk.

The same Mover and Shaker who had responded positively to the article was the sole person to respond to the mailing, and this person continued to respond positively. In fact, this person said — that’s great; now, here are another ten people who need to see this. So, I sent out another ten copies of the DVD with the article to the suggested names; no response.

Well, now there’s been a piece on a Catholic choir school that has run on CBS Good Morning. It’s a moment, a fleeting one, but I may as well try to take advantage of it.

So, I’m going to give you my pitch. If it inspires you, makes you want to help, please talk to me. This is a vision, to be clear, that I want to see succeed because I want there to be just such a school I can send my kids to. Certainly I want to facilitate the vision, but I want to be a participant, not an overlord. I’ll do whatever I have to, but I don’t need to run the show. I’m shouting it from the rooftops as much as I can until there’s a critical mass of others to do it, and then if there’s a capacity I can serve in that I’m actually suited to, I will, but I’ll be happy just to be a parent of a student. This is my vision thus far, but it need not be mine alone, and it need not be my baby that I guard jealously.

An Orthodox choir school is a parochial school attached to a parish or a cathedral that has as its educational mission the training of primary school-aged children from all Orthodox jurisdictions for excellence in Orthodox Christian musical service. They will receive, as part of their standard curriculum, a high level of musical education, both in terms of general musical skills as well as skills specific to Orthodox musical service, and they will be exposed broadly to the rich heritage of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music — Byzantine chant, Slavic chant and polyphony, Greek-American choral music, modern composers who engage Orthodox spirituality in concert works, and so on. The students will contribute regularly to the liturgical life of the parish/cathedral by singing services throughout the week; they will function as outreach to the community at large by means of concerts and recordings; they will also represent the school, the parish/cathedral, and the musical traditions of Orthodox Christianity by touring. Historically, many such schools are made up of boy trebles, who must then leave when their voices change; the vision here is that an Orthodox choir school will be co-educational, and there will be choirs for students to sing in as they get older.

The value of such a school hopefully is obvious. The next generation of musical leaders in America’s Orthodox churches is not going to fall out of the sky, and the major concern expressed at every Orthodox musical event I have ever attended is, “How do we get our kids involved?” This is a way to do it.

What is necessary to move forward? Well, a lot. How I’d do it, if resources were no object, is this:

I would first form a planning committee made up of people familiar with the broad range of Orthodox musical repertories and who had experience with working with children in particular. This planning committee would make an initial presentation to the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops and get their blessing to proceed. The committee would also seek to talk to organizations like PaTRAM, Cappella Romana, the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, Axion Estin, the Antiochian Department of Sacred Music, and so on, as well as music faculty at the Orthodox seminaries, and others, to get their input. From there, the job of this committee would be to assess how choir schools operate in this country and how Orthodox schools operate in this country. For the choir schools, we’d visit the Madeleine, St. Paul’s, St. Thomas Choir School in New York, and then also for perspective we’d go to England and spend some time at Westminster Cathedral’s choir school, as well as the Brompton Oratory’s choir school and a couple of others. For Orthodox schools, we’d look at Agia Sophia Academy in Portland, the Theophany School in Boston, the school of St. George Cathedral in Wichita, and then there are, I think, some in California we’d look at as well. (I’m already going to be visiting St. Paul’s at Harvard Square in January for an initial observation.)

The kinds of questions we’d be asking everybody are these: what’s the curriculum? How do you find students? How do you find teachers? What are the benefits and pitfalls for kids — spiritual, physical, emotional, otherwise? What are the benefits and pitfalls for the church communities that are served? How does everything get paid for? How do you keep it financially accessible for students, assuming that’s an objective? How does everything keep runing smoothly? How does accreditation work?

The next question we’d have to answer would be location. My guess is, at this point, such a school would need to be someplace where there is a diverse and sizable Orthodox community already, and where there would be a parish or cathedral big enough to be able to accommodate such an undertaking, given that in all likelihood such a school would not have its own classroom facilities at first. Perhaps the choir school could represent an expansion of a school that already existed. I’m not sure. In any event, I’m guessing there are very few places in the United States where this could be done successfully the first time, and that would have to be very carefully considered.

Probably, the committee would zero in on three candidate locations, and then survey Orthodox communities in those locations to see where there might be the largest concentration of prospective students.

Then, there would need to be a careful consideration of staffing. Who are the teachers? Where are they going to come from? What will they need to be paid? I anticipate that here, the committee would put together a wish list of faculty, and then make informal inquiries about interest, willingness to move if necessary, what it would take for them to accept an offer, and so on.

We’d then take our findings from all of these inquiries and create a planning document. This document would include the faculty/staff wish list, a projected budget for 5-10 years of operations, a narrative of what the school would do in its first five years from an academic standpoint, a musical standpoint, a recruiting standpoint, a facilities standpoint, and a development/fundraising standpoint. There would a curriculum plan as well, and sample concert programming.

This planning document would then serve as the basis for a major gifts campaign, at which point we would open our doors when we could do so responsibly.

Most, if not all, of these tasks could be undertaken under the aegis of the Saint John of Damascus Society; it would be well within the Society’s mission, and it would certainly be easier to perform these initial tasks via the mechanism of a nonprofit that already exists. Certainly, when it came time to move beyond planning stages, in all likelihood it would be ideal to spin the school off as its own entity, perhaps with its own foundation.

So, there you go. That’s the sketch of what I think would need to happen to move forward. There’s much more I could say, but that’s the backbone.

The Madeleine Choir School sends out a season booklet every summer, and last year that inspired me to try to put something together that’s similar, as kind of a proof of concept. I didn’t quite finish it — I have a dissertation to write, after all — but here are some pages from what I did finish. The names I list are nobody I’ve actually asked to do anything; they’re simply there to indicate real people who could serve this kind of school were it to be up and running. The concert programs are also strictly intended to be representative ideas. Nonetheless, see what you think.

If I might make a plea from the heart — if you’ve read anything I’ve written or seen anything I’ve done that has to do with Orthodox music, you know that this is a labor of love for me. Nowhere in that brochure mockup do you see my name; I am not trying to promote myself by any stretch of the imagination. I believe strongly that there is a desperate need that this fills — a desperate need for our churches, certainly, but also a desperate need for our world — and I hope to see that need filled. No more, no less.

If this is of any interest to you at all, let me know. If you want a copy of anything, ask — I’ve got a lot of resources related to choir schools, including somebody’s dissertation about the use of the choir school model in America. I’ve still got copies of the DVD of The Choir I can give out if that helps. I’m entirely and absolutely serious about wanting to see this happen; if you’re at least halfway serious about wanting to help, I’m all ears.

Okay, back to work for me.

St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square

As a brief follow-up to yesterday’s post — I made reference there to my advocacy for Orthodox use of the choir school model. As part of that, I give you the video from this morning’s appearance of St. Paul’s Choir School at Harvard Square on CBS This Morning.

http://www.cbsnews.com/videos/catholic-boys-choir-brings-its-music-to-the-masses/

It’s a pretty good summary of what I maintain are the opportunities and advantages of such an approach — a high level of musical education, liturgical participation, spiritual formation, and overall engagement with the tradition starting from a young age, a focus on excellence and discipline, an excellent means of outreach via performance and recording, and traveling to perform in amazing places. I’d advocate a co-educational school along the lines of the Choir School of the Madeleine (see my comments about that institution here), but regardless, this clip is another excellent “proof of concept”.

I’m working on setting up a meeting with John Robinson, St. Paul’s music director, sometime in January. I want to chat with him and also observe how the school works. What would you like to know about such a place? How might you envision such an undertaking moving forward in an Orthodox setting? Talk to me — I’m very serious about wanting to see something like this come together. I’d love to be able to send Theodore to a school just like this — how can that happen?

How you get better as an Orthodox musician

Theodore, at two and a half, has started chanting. He loves to stand at the psalterion in the Holy Cross chapel, and sing along to the best of his ability. He had already started saying “Alleluia” as “Allya” a year ago, and then during this last Paschaltide, he started singing “‘stos ‘nesti” with the Paschal apolytikion in church. He’s since started trying to chant “Alleluia” and “Kyrie eleison. No less of an authority than Alexander Lingas even said when he heard him, “Well, he’s got yphos!”

theodoros protopsaltis

Theodore has even started developing a notation system for “Alleluia”. He sits in my lap, I’ll write a phrase of something in Byzantine neumes, and then he’ll write something using his own signs.

THBII alleluia notation

He’ll even explain to you — sort of — how it works.

All of this is great, it really is. It’s so awesome to watch him work these things out on his own, to try new things, and to respond to what he sees and hears. His two-and-a-half year old brain is a little sponge, soaking it all up.

Here’s the thing: he’s two and a half. What he’s doing is wonderful and age-appropriate for a two-and-a-half year old. It’s really more than I would figure I could expect from a two-and-a-half year old. Still, there will come a time when it is no longer age-appropriate. There will come a time when he needs to start developing an understanding that goes beyond simply doing something and grows into an understanding of what it means to do it right. Then, eventually, an understanding of what it means to do it well. If he isn’t willing to do that by a certain point — which will be his prerogative entirely; I’m not going to force anything on him — then certainly the age-appropriate thing for him won’t be to continue to do what amounts to yelling in church. It will be better for him to do something else if he’s decides he doesn’t want to get better beyond “Alleluia”. That’s not a problem; that’s exactly what one would expect when it comes to seeing a toddler grow up and develop — that they will continue doing some things and do them in more sophisticated ways, and they will discard doing other things and take up new things. Wash, rinse, repeat.

In other words, it is normal that there be a pattern of development when one learns a new skill, and it is to be expected that one will follow that pattern if they continue to do something that requires that skill, or they will do something else that doesn’t require that skill. This is really easy when you’re dealing with kids; the trouble is when adults decide that they aren’t interested in getting better at something but they want to continue to do it anyway.

There’s a truism amongst musicians — the way you get better is to play with people who are better than you. This is something that, if you’re an Orthodox musician, is kind of a problem. Let’s be honest — a lot of us are in situations where we’re isolated, where we’re either one of the only competent musicians, or even the only competent musician, or if we’re not, then we’re one of the only ones who is really involved. And, for many of us, we spend so much time, not even trying to bring people up to our level, but just trying to explain to people that there is a level. Forget phrasing, musicianship, dynamics, whatever — we’re working on getting people to sing a majority of right notes. We put the majority of our efforts into trying to communicate the fundamentals of the fundamentals, and doing so in contexts where some people are receptive, some are hostile, and some are benign but unable to be productive for one reason or another. To put it another way, we spend a lot of our time working with adults who are, relatively speaking, at the level of my son Theodore, and who are faced with the choice of learning to do it better or needing to stop. Here I note that it seems inescapable that we speak about singing in church as a clerical calling, something set apart; consider the petition during the Divine Liturgy — “Again we pray for those who bear fruit and do good in this holy and all-venerable Temple; for those who serve and those who sing (ψαλλόντων); and for all the people here present, who await thy great and rich mercy”. Such a point of view has been espoused by no less than the Ecumenical Patriarch. So, if we’re going to talk like that, then we also need to speak frankly about what it means not to be called to sing. It is nonetheless a choice a lot of adults don’t want to make; beyond that, we work in such situations under circumstances where clergy may or may not be supportive, we may or may not be being paid, and we may or may not have adequate resources otherwise to do what we need to do.

To frame this in terms of personal experience — I am hardly one of the “greats”. I stopped pursuing music performance as a full-time profession because I knew I wasn’t, and knew I couldn’t be. Still, I am a well-trained musician. I can sing pretty much what you put in front of me, be it in staff notation or Byzantine notation, I can do it in English, Latin, French, Italian, German, and Greek, and if it’s Church Slavonic then I can do it well enough to blend with somebody who is proficient. Some of my ability comes from what I had to do for my music degree; some of it comes from experiences in Episcopal church choirs, where you’re singing new repertoire every week, some of it comes from experiences with other performing ensembles like opera choruses and early music chamber ensembles, some of it comes from doing a lot of recording sessions where you’re sightreading music you’re seeing for the first time and have to record within the next half hour so you can get through the other fifteen things you have on the docket that day. I am not amazing; there is nothing remarkable about being able to do any of that. It is simply what is expected if you are to be considered a reliable, garden-variety professional.

And what did I do with my church choir? Generally, I had to teach notes by rote and hope it stuck; I had to explain things repeatedly like the necessity of turning the page when you reach the end of it; I had to beg people to come to rehearsal and come to church on time; overall, I had to put 15-20 hours a week into that kind of undertaking, and it compensated me far less than I would have received were I merely a paid member of a choir at a Protestant church. Towards the end of my tenure, I had experiences like telling my choir that they needed to watch me for entrances during the anaphora, and one person responding by stomping out, proclaiming that “You’re totally focused on all the wrong things and have completely lost the spirit”; this person never spoke to me again, and instead lodged some kind of complaint against me with the priest (the priest declined to discuss any specifics of the matter with me, and I left the parish shortly thereafter).

I have had to go out of my way over the years to make my own opportunities to play with people who are better than me so that I myself can get better. Sometimes that meant paying people to come to me. Sometimes that meant people paying me to come to them. I took various pro singing gigs here and there. I found a way to go to Greece to learn Byzantine chant, since the alternatives were all a five hour drive away. I also went to gatherings of other people who were in my shoes. hoping to learn things that I could bring back to my parish. I went to PSALM in 2006. I went to the Antiochian Village Sacred Music Institute a couple of times. In all of this, I hoped to learn something that could inspire people to want to see things the way I did, and to want to get better, to make music for the worship of God that was always seeking to be as good as it could be rather than “good enough”. The response was always the same — “What does any of that have to do with us? I mean, fine that you had fun, and great that all of you musicians were able to sanctify each other’s preferences, but what happens there stays there; we’re not interested.” People, in the main, had no interest in being inspired; no interest in being reached; no interest in being worked with; no interest in learning. That was for “musicians” outside of church; it had nothing to do with what they wanted in church.

If this is how you’re spending most of your life and your energy, as a musician, your A-game is going to suffer. And, truly, for many of us, when we do get together, the once or twice a year that the opportunities come about, we’re so thrilled that there’s another honest-to-God person in the room who gets it, to whom we don’t have to explain anything, who is singing the right notes and speaking our language without translation, that we’re not thinking about our A-game; we’re just having fun making music with people who share some understanding of what that means. Never mind “playing with people better than you are”; it’s a miracle when we get to play with other people who get it, let alone who are better.

So then, when we do get to play with people better than we are, it’s a ball game we aren’t prepared for. We don’t perform at our best because we don’t even remember what that is. Our A-game is irrelevant to our regular existence as church musicians.

Really, what I think we face is that there is a particular kind of poverty that we’ve had in our parishes for a long time for various historical reasons. Rather than try to improve the matter, various voices have spiritualized, if not fetishized, this poverty, given a particular moral weight to it, and what perhaps was non-professionalism out of necessity has become anti-professionalism out of choice, replete with nonsensical pietistic platitudes like “Orthodox music isn’t performed, and it would be better if we didn’t think of it as having composers, let alone professionals; Orthodoxy doesn’t do art.” Add to that what I believe is an American distaste for anything that smacks of “being told what to do” and a preference for being self-taught over learning from a teacher (something I certainly encountered when I was playing guitar seriously, 20+ years ago), and you have the perfect storm of a musical anti-culture in American Orthodoxy.

This has not gone completely unnoticed or unremarked on. At the 2006 PSALM conference, Fr. Thomas Hopko said very bluntly, “The Orthodox Church seems to be the only place on earth where you don’t have to be competent to be asked to do something. How does this come about? What happened? Why will people join a community choir, not miss a rehearsal, pay attention to the choir director, and then then not do the same in their parish choir? If we’re not taking church and everything we do in it seriously, then we’re just re-arranging deck chairs on the Titanic. You can’t raise the bar when you still have to convince people that there’s a bar to be raised in the first place.” Along similar lines, I had a conversation recently with a longtime Orthodox choir director, somebody with a doctorate in conducting and decades of experience, who remarked that in a conversation with Fr. Ivan Moody, it came up that in Finland one must have a Masters degree in choral conducting to be choir director. “What a concept,” this person said. “Yeah,” I replied, “here it would be more like a disqualification.”

The difficult reality is that the circumstances we face in the world of American Orthodox church music are such that, in the main, they weigh the overall level down; the efforts of the would-be musical leaders do not pull it up. And, as long as this is the case, we Orthodox musicians in America are going to be hard-pressed to make much of a case for the best that Orthodox music can be with our own efforts. We will rely on non-Orthodox musicians to bring out the best elements of our liturgical music, we will have to record and perform in non-Orthodox churches because we have not adequately provided for the acoustic environment in our own — in short, we will be the audience for the professional performances and recordings of our own music, not the singers, and it will be because, frankly, we’re not good enough for it to be otherwise.

And we haven’t even begun to talk about issues like professional levels of pay. I am going to guess that there are 10 people in the United States who are able to make anything like a living off of being Orthodox church musicians, and that’s rounding up from the cases I know about for sure. I’ll limit my comments here, but a place to start is the simple fact that a decent undergraduate musical education isn’t cheap, let alone any level of education beyond that, and it would be nice to think that people who are serving the Church with such an education could at least make their student loan payments with what they’re paid. I’ll leave that there for now; a lot of parishes obviously struggle to pay priests (if they pay their priest), let alone anything else, so compensation is complicated, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed. There is a connection between time, talent, and treasure that must be acknowledged as part and parcel of the solution to the overall problem I’m discussing.

Orthodox musicians, ultimately I’m talking to you here, and we have a lot of work to do. As I used to tell my choir, I’m not asking you to do anything I don’t also expect of myself. Our task is complex, and while concerts, recordings, and conferences are great, the need is long-term and must be addressed in ways that are systemic and cultural, too. We must inspire the non-musician to do better, inspire the congregation to care, inspire ourselves and our colleagues to stay sharp, and somehow to get a culture in place that will form future generations of church musicians as singers, as composers, as teachers, and as leaders. We have to do all of that prayerfully and in love, and we must be mindful that our ultimate goal is service to God, just as it is for the priest and for the member of the congregation.

Cappella Romana is proof that it can be done at a professional level. PaTRAM also exists for this purpose, as did PSALM, and it’s also why Kurt Sander organized his Pan-Orthodox Liturgical Music Symposium this last June. I helped to found The Saint John of Damascus Society because I most certainly believe this is worthwhile, and I have advocated a particular model that would help with a big chunk of what we have to do, both in terms of teaching the next generation to sing and to understand why we need to learn to sing. In general, we all need to find ways of playing with people better than we are, and using those opportunities to get better ourselves.

How do we do that? As a place to start, visit parishes, monasteries, seminaries, etc. where those people are. Get to know them. Sing with them if they’ll let you, and see what you learn by worshiping with them at the psalterion or in the choir loft. Buy them coffee and ask them questions. That’s really hard when your parish isn’t anywhere close to anybody else, no question, so then you have to make it a point to attend gatherings of Orthodox church musicians so you can have a chance to get to know people. Go to choir conventions, sacred music institutes, liturgical singing seminars, symposia. That’s often not easy or cheap, but if you can’t afford it, ask for help, either from your parish as a whole or from individuals who are sympathetic. Present it as something along the lines of a mission trip, only for music. Hopefully they can at least get the costs down to something manageable. Better yet, if you can, bring at least one choir member with you so that they, too, can see that there’s a bigger world out there. Then, don’t stop there; start going to the things that will challenge you, and don’t just go to the events where your friends will be. (You’ll make friends at everything you go to, I promise.) You’ll learn even more that way. And when you do see your friends, don’t just revel in making a decent sound with somebody else who can make a decent sound; yes, it’s fun and feels great to bathe in a sound that’s resonant and in tune, but go beyond that. Force yourself beyond relaxing and enjoying so that you are listening and watching, and subsequently learning from what you hear and see. That’s how you get better, or at least that’s where you can start.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Theodore wants to write some more “Alleluia” while sitting on my lap. Gotta start somewhere.

The Choir: “I remember playing tetherball in Latin”

I have spent a decent amount of time trying to advocate for the idea of adopting the choir school model in an Orthodox setting, and one of the problems I’ve always run into is that nobody seems to have any idea of what the model I’m talking about looks like. I spend a lot of my time trying to explain what I’m talking about, and I describe examples like St. Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York or Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London, but the description can only go so far to bridge the gap between frames of reference.

http://utmcs.org/news-and-updates/item/218-documentary-the-choirThe Choir is a documentary about the Choir School of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it could be just the thing to bridge that gap, I think. It paints an extraordinary picture of an extraordinary place, and it gives you a great sense of what the school means to its teachers, its students, its alumni, and the people in the pews who hear the school’s singers from service to service. To be a chorister at the Madeleine Choir School is to have a rarefied kind of educational experience that prepares one for more than just opening one’s mouth and making pretty sounds; the experience imparts to the kids a lasting understanding of discipline, dedication, resilience, and, of course, faith. Oh yeah, and Latin (“I remember playing tetherball in Latin,” one alumnus says. “That doesn’t happen at any other school”). And, almost forgot, you also get to sing for the Pope.

The guides through this unique school are the students and alumni themselves. Certainly, Gregory A. Glenn, the founder and pastoral administrator of the School (as well as the Cathedral’s director of music and liturgy), and Melanie Malinka, the Choir School’s director of music, are both present throughout, the Papa Bear and Mama Bear so to speak. It’s not the adults, however, but rather the kids and graduates — some of whom have gone on to singing careers, acting careers, church music careers, and so on — who give you the most insight as to what it’s like. “It’s a lot of dedication,” a seventh grade girl tells us, “because you always need to be giving 100% so that the whole choir sounds good.” A fifth grade boy nervously explains, “You have to be in every Mass, but you can miss three. You can’t miss more than three or else. I don’t know because I haven’t missed,” he makes sure to emphasize. “You have to be at all the places on time or else you have to sign the log.” “It’s a lot of our own time, our own commitment,” a chorister says, “but we also get a lot of fun things out of it… [like] we get to go to Italy.” International travel aside, “[The dedication] was the big reward,” an alumna concludes.

Self-confidence is also a fruit of the School’s labor, as we hear in a discussion of what it’s like for kids to sing their first solos. “They put me right in the center of the altar, I was right in the front,” one alum tells us in a fairly typical anecdote, “[and they] had one of the adult members sing with me because my voice was so shaky.” Still, the lesson was valuable: “You just have to do it, you have to get over the nerves, because you know you can do it, you just have to trust yourself… I think it really boosted my confidence… if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things I’ve done [since].” Along similar lines, a current student says, “[W]henever I make a mistake like crack or something, I just keep on going,” a current student says. A classmate agrees: “Now I feel very confident to do it because I’ve already done it.”

The picture that emerges of the life lived by students in the School is intense, to say the least. Regular classes, music classes, violin lessons, choir rehearsals, services, concerts, tours. Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are very upfront about what it means to be a performing choir school: “[P]erformance tours are not really a luxury for a choir school, they’re a necessary part of the curriculum,” Glenn says. “It’s not a vacation,” Malinka concurs. “They are at school when they’re on these tours… We drag them from museum to museum to really enrich the experience as much as possible, and then in the evenings they have to sing a concert or a Mass.” But, Glenn insists, “what they learn on a performance tour is really remarkable.”

The Choir does a really amazing job of giving the viewer a sense of what being at the Choir School is like, and what the School contributes to the life of the Cathedral (and I have to imagine that the filmmakers drew some inspiration from the tantalizing little hint of the proposed series about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School that’s on YouTube). It’s a great ride; you know what a choir school is by the end of the film, you have some idea of what kids get out of being there as well as what they have to put into it, and you hear a lot of wonderful sacred music being sung very beautifully along the way. Still, they’re also very clear to make sure that, tours to Italy aside, the link that all of the great music and discipline and cute kids in choir robes has to the Christian faith is understood: “Even when the choir is giving a concert outside of the context of Catholic liturgy,” one of the Cathedral’s priests tells us, “they’re still evangelizing, they’re still praising God, they’re still giving glory to God[.]” Even so, as another priest says, “[M]usic and… liturgy go hand in hand. Without one, the other is a pauper… For someplace like a cathedral, which is the mother church of the diocese, it is very important to have a choir that is top-notch.”

There are stories lurking around the edges of what the filmmakers show us; how the heck did a Roman Catholic choir school wind up in Salt Lake City of all places, for example? Brief narration at the beginning ties it to a restoration of the Cathedral in the early ’90s, and Greg Glenn having the big idea that a musical institution like a choir school would go along nicely with the Cathedral’s renovation. That’s fine, but how did a building like the Madeleine Cathedral get built there to begin with? In general, the film dances around the Catholic/Mormon thing a bit (it tries to get around it with comments here and there from the conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir); this is perhaps understandable, but the question looms regardless.

One also gets the impression that Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are something of a yin and yang — Glenn perhaps the administrator and idea man, Malinka the teacher and musician. We see Glenn be energetic and vigorous, painting in big broad strokes in a rehearsal with older kids as well as in a performance; we’re also told in an outtake that Glenn didn’t allow any breaks during choir rehearsals, and it was only with Malinka’s hiring that the rehearsals became a little more humane. Malinka is quite enigmatic; she will take you down with the raise of an eyebrow during a Mass, but she also seems to edge towards getting teary-eyed when she talks about classes graduating (the Choir School is preschool through 8th grade). There seems to be a story here about the relationship between these two people at the center of the School, and there are moments when you find yourself curious to know more, but it’s not the story the film is telling.

Of course there is music throughout the film, and for the most part it’s fantastic. The filmmakers show you rehearsals where things don’t go so well, and when the adults react they make it clear the level of responsibility and effort they expect. There are some Morton Lauridsen things they included that I wasn’t thrilled with, but at the same time, you get them singing “Having beheld the Resurrection” from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil in the Chiesa del Gesu in Rome (a very nice early moment). There is also a handful of isolated performances on the bonus disc — a chorale from a Bach cantata, an excerpt from Cherubini’s Requiem, and “Deep River” — and these are all also lovely.

If you’re somebody who does anything with music education of children in a sacred setting, you really owe it to yourself to watch The Choir (order it here). There is much here to learn from, much here to be inspired by, much here worth trying to adapt and reproduce for other contexts. I maintain that this is a model worth pondering in an Orthodox context, and I think this film will be a good tool for getting across what excellence in children’s sacred music education can look like. As Tom Hardy’s character says in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Watch The Choir, and I dare you to not be inspired to dream bigger.

A curriculum proposal for Byzantine chant

So, a couple of months ago, I suggested that learning to sing needs to be part of learning to chant, and even suggested that language and diction in the appropriate languages should be an expected part of one’s training, just as it is for a classical singer.

I’ve continued to chew on some of the implications of that post, and one of the outcomes of that was to draft a proposed curriculum for what a Byzantine chant concentration could look like in the context of an undergraduate music program. Obviously, this is all entirely hypothetical; I don’t know of any music schools that are itching to add this as a concentration. St. Katherine’s College could, I suppose, eventually try to incorporate something like this into their curriculum, but who knows. Hellenic College would probably be reasonably well set-up to do something like this, but they don’t even presently offer a music major.

A few assumptions I’m making: first and foremost, that there is an on-campus chapel with regular services. Second, that chapel services would make a full-on recital unnecessary; rather, have the student do a junior and senior exam that basically are an extended jury — where they prepare a certain number of compositions ranging in difficulty and sing 2-3 of them at the request of a committee. Third, that building a good cantor who is also a good musician will require some knowledge of Western music theory and notation (I’m less sold on keyboard skills, but it still seems instinctive to me to include) in addition to Byzantine music theory and notation. Fourth, that voice lessons won’t concentrate on things like “Caro mio ben” or “Silent Noon”. They may well include that kind of repertoire if the student really wants it and the teacher is able to do it, but beyond the universals of healthy production, the specifics will by and large be those of psaltic technique. Fifth, that the academic environment would be such that it would allow for patristic and theological discussion to occur within the context of music history courses.

One observation I make immediately is that this is a very full undergraduate degree. I started off with IU’s B. Mus. in Vocal Performance as a basis, while also consulting their Early Music Vocal Performance B. Mus., and then worked from there to focus it specifically on the requirements of Byzantine chant. As with IU’s Vocal Performance B. Mus., the general education requirements are quite minimal, but it’s still jam-packed. I think the keyboard skills part could perhaps be taken out/made an elective, maybe a case is made for 2 languages rather than three, and maybe you either don’t do credits for Chapel Choir or tweak the number of credits for voice lessons. But, all that said, the B. Mus. at IU is a very full degree, and that’s just how it is.

It seems that a couple of other useful curricula to come up with would be a B. A. degree, and perhaps a more general “Orthodox Liturgical Music” degree. It’d be nice to also include a course or two on Mediterranean folk music to be able to show the relationship between liturgical and vernacular musics (hinted at in the bit about “Mediterranean instruments”, which also assumes that such instruction would be available), but maybe that would have to be kept for the Masters degree.

Anyway, here’s the draft. I’m curious to hear thoughts.

Bachelor of Music in Performance, Byzantine Chant

Major Ensemble

Chapel Choir (1 cr.) required every semester of enrollment.

Performance Study

Voice. 3 credit hours each semester until senior exam is passed, at which point they may be reduced to 2. Required: entrance audition, freshman jury, upper-division examination, junior exam, senior exam.

Secondary Piano and Keyboard Proficiency

All students must pass a keyboard proficiency examination. Voice majors must take an examination for placement in a 3-semester class piano sequence (2 credits per semester) or take elective individual lessons (1-2 credits per semester) and continue study each semester until the keyboard proficiency examination is passed.

Core Music Courses

26 credit hours

  • Placement examination or Introduction to Musical Concepts (1 cr.)
  • Core Musical Skills I (1 cr.), Western Music Theory and Literature I (3 cr.)
  • Western Music Theory and Literature II (3 cr.)
  • Western Musical Skills II (1 cr.)
  • Byzantine Musical Skills I (1 cr.)
  • Byzantine Musical Skills II (1 cr.)
  • Byzantine Music Theory and Literature I (3 cr.)
  • Byzantine Music Theory and Literature II (3 cr.)
  • Byzantine Music Theory and Literature III (3 cr.)
  • History and Literature of Western Music (3 cr.)
  • History and Literature of Byzantine Music I (2 cr.)
  • History and Literature of Byzantine Music II (2 cr.)

The above must be passed with a C or better.

Advanced Music Literature and Music Theory

3 credit hours selected from:

  • Composer or Genre (3 cr.)
  • Topics in Byzantine Music Theory (3 cr.)
  • Pre-Reform Notation (3 cr.)
  • Analysis of Modal Music (3 cr.)
Other Music Courses

25 credit hours

Required:

  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Services and Service Structure I (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Services and Service Structure II (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Idiomela I (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Idiomela II (3 cr.)
  • Liturgics & Chant Literature: Anastasimatarion and Irmologion (3 cr.)
  • Applied Greek Diction for Singers (1 cr.)
  • Applied Arabic Diction for Singers (1 cr.)
  • Applied Romanian Diction for Singers (1 cr.) OR Applied Slavonic Diction for Singers (1 cr.)
  • English Diction for Singers (1 cr.).
  • Electives: 6 credit hours, including a minimum of 2 credit hours in pedagogy courses such as Introduction to Music Learning (2 cr.) or Vocal Pedagogy (3 cr.).

Electives may also include courses for music majors in sacred music, music education, techniques, conducting, composition, music history, music theory, opera, and unclassified courses. A maximum of 4 credit hours in early or Mediterranean instruments may be counted in this area.

General Education

23-35 credit hours

  • Written and Oral Expression English composition, 2 credit hours or competency.
  • Foreign Language 12-24 credit hours or proficiency, equivalent to two semesters of first-year language study.
    • Greek: Elementary Ecclesiastical Greek I (4 cr.) and Elementary Ecclesiastical Greek II (4 cr.); or Accelerated Ecclesiastical Greek (4 cr.).
    • Arabic: Elementary Arabic I (4 cr.) and Elementary Arabic II; or Accelerated Elementary Arabic (4 cr.).
    • Choice of:
      • Romanian: Elementary Romanian I (4 cr.) and Elementary Romanian II (4 cr.); or Accelerated Elementary Romanian (4 cr.). OR
      • Slavonic: Elementary Church Slavonic I (4 cr.) and Elementary Church Slavonic II (4 cr.); or Accelerated Church Slavonic (4 cr.)
  • Humanities 3 credit hours.
  • Life and Physical Sciences and Mathematics 3 credit hours.
  • Social and Behavioral Sciences 3 credit hours.
To Complete Degree

Free music or non-music electives as needed to bring the total credit hours to 120, excluding Chapel Choir.

“Learning to chant” vs. “learning to sing” – or, do you learn to play Mendelssohn or do you learn to play the violin?

I’m working through the recently-released Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide with members of my choir. Part of the motivation is to try to make them a little less intimidated by “the squiggles”; I’m also curious to see just how well the book actually works as a textbook for people of a range of musical backgrounds, everything from basically zero up to a degree in music education. It’s an interesting exercise; we’ve only had two meetings thus far, but I’ve been surprised by the level of willingness to participate. We’ll see where it all goes.

Last month, I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few days at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary. I’ve got more to say about that trip, but among other things, I sat in on a couple of the chant classes taught by their new permanent Byzantine chant instructor, Dr. Grammenos Karanos (also credited as providing the “academic oversight” for the Byzantine Music Theory and Practice Guide), and I also got to sing in the left choir for a few services. Dr. Karanos is doing some nice work, and as somebody who for the time being attends an Antiochian parish, I’m really happy that there are twelve Antiochian seminarians there right now who are benefiting from his efforts.

Something that I’ve wondered about in recent months is the relationship between learning Byzantine chant and learning, more generally, how to sing. To put it another way — I’ve encountered people who can read the notation, understand the modal theory, can do this, can do that, but what they can’t actually do is sing terribly well. This is by no means the rule — I also know cantors who can pretty much sing whatever you put in front of them, whatever the repertoire, whatever the notation, whatever the style — but there does seem to be some kind of phenomenon of “learning to chant” without any additional context of “learning to sing”.

There are some, I expect, who might argue that that’s not only okay, that’s preferable. I’ve heard a counterargument that goes something like this: Byzantine chant isn’t only music; there’s an ethos and a spirituality that goes along with it, and you have to learn the technical end of it within the context of that ethos and spirituality. Otherwise, if you come in with a musical education that you’re figuring out how to “apply” to Byzantine chant, then you’re always going to be approximating what it’s supposed to be rather than actually chanting the repertoire the way you would have if you had just received the tradition from the ground up without preconceived notions or grafted onto an existing set of musical concepts. Notation, vocal technique, performance practice, modal theory — it’s a whole package that you have to receive as a whole package, preferably by imitating the psaltis at the parish you grew up at from young age rather than by doing things like going to classes or learning from books. Conservative imitation starting as child. Any other way is really departing from the tradition.

Now, there are parts of this that I can see. The more I force myself to sing off of scores written in neumatic notation, the more it is apparent to me why transcription into staff notation can only ever be a halfway measure at best. If you’re trying to write in every last bit of ornamentation that you want somebody to sing using staff notation, your score is going to get really busy really fast. Intervals become problematic. And, to be honest, at least speaking for myself, there’s a “look and feel” issue, where the psaltic notation is a good visual cue that you shouldn’t sing this the same why you might sing Mozart.

Vocal technique becomes a trickier matter, however. There are people who are 100% “natural voices”. They’ve never needed a voice teacher, they’ve always instinctively known how to use the instrument that they have to great effect, and they can use it to do whatever they want. I am not, emphatically not, one of those people. Singing has been a 100% learned skill for me. I have had to solve a lot of vocal problems, and often the worst trouble I’ve ever been in vocally has been when my teacher has said, “Sing it like this,” and has me imitate him/her. I’d say that as I have gradually learned some of the things to do and things not to do with the Byzantine repertoire, what has changed the least has been the fundamentals of how I sing; I breathe the same way, in general I produce my tone the same way. Musicality and phrasing are still important. Projection, placement, and resonance is still important. (Incidentally, here I might say that I question the characterization of the proper Byzantine vocal quality as “nasal”. I’ve sung next to people who insist that it’s “nasal”, but to my ear, they’re not singing nasally. They’re singing brightly, with a good deal of pharyngeal resonance, but that’s not the same thing as “nasal”. Nasality is often a poor shortcut in solving resonance problems, so it seems to me necessary to make this distinction.) What’s different is a matter of doing less rather than doing more. For example, vibrato becomes an ornament, a choice to be employed judiciously, rather than where you’re living all the time. Nonetheless, it’s still important to drop your jaw and raise your soft palate on higher notes, it’s still important to keep your tongue forward, it’s still important to keep your vowels in line, and you still have a passaggio that has to be negotiated properly. I don’t think those issues magically go away just because it’s Byzantine chant, and I don’t think, unless you’re one of those 100% “natural voices”, you’re going to figure those things out instinctively by standing next to your psaltis starting at age 5.

To put it another way, if you want to learn to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, you first have to learn to play the violin. You don’t just say, as somebody who’s never picked up the instrument before, “I want to learn the Mendelssohn violin concerto.”

Anyway, the point I’m making is that I think it’s probably necessary to learn to sing as a component of “learning to chant”. That said, I grant that there aren’t a lot of voice teachers out there who are equipped to teach vocal technique in a way that’s obviously applicable to a chant context. Somebody who wants to learn to chant probably is going to feel like their time is wasted on the 24 Italian Songs and Arias book, and Joe NATS Voice Teacher isn’t likely to have the slightest idea what to do with an Anastasimatarion.

Incidentally — as somebody with a voice degree, I had to do a term apiece of Italian, German, and French diction with no actual language comprehension; in addition, I also had to do a year apiece of normal language study of those languages. For me, then, it’s simply intuitive that learning Byzantine chant would involve some Greek and Arabic. Language study — diction and comprehension — is just part of the deal, and it has the extra added bonus of improving your ear and makes you more aware of how your apparatus is actually working while you use it. Yes, fine, there are those of us at English-language parishes who don’t understand why we as Americans need to learn anything in a different language, but there’s almost no musical study of any kind that doesn’t involve having to learn some kind of specialized vocabulary that isn’t in English. Even if you’re a Western musician, you need to know what diminuendo and pianissimo mean. If you sing Byzantine chant, you need to know what a kentemata and a petaste are.

I will say I like the “starting as young as possible” part of the “conservative imitation starting as young as possible” pedagogical model. If only there were some kind of model of a school that existed where that kind of thing was done…

Update, 6:28pmSomething I forgot to mention — amplification. Proper church acoustics + knowing how to sing = no need for microphones. My first semi-scholarly publication had to do with the impact amplification has had on both singers and listeners, and while I’d probably write the piece differently now 8 years later, my rather strong opinions haven’t changed. “Strong opinions” — as in, it shouldn’t exist in certain settings. This is where I have a certain sympathy for the guys who want to call electric lights in church a heresy; the trouble with certain kinds of technology is that it makes it too easy for people to do a bad job and have nobody notice. Church is one of them as far as I’m concerned. If the architect does his/her job properly, and the singer/speaker does his/her job properly, and the teacher of singing/speaking does his/her job properly, then there should be absolutely no need for “acoustic enhancement”.


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