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How the Department of Sacred Music Choir Workshop Revitalized Our Music Ministry

By Jen Hartmann, Assistant Choir Director

Interested in hosting a choir workshop at your parish?
Contact Paul Jabara, Chairman of the Department of Sacred Music, at

On September 30, 2018, while directing the choir in the Trisagion Hymn during Divine Liturgy, I experienced something profound. The familiar people standing in front of me weren't just twenty-five dedicated and faithful individuals who just happen to come upstairs and sing for Divine Liturgy on Sundays, but they were a choir. A cohesive unit. Twenty-five pairs of eyes looking intently at me. Breathing together. Blending together. Singing in tune, in tempo, and in faith. Their eyes, ears, and hearts were wide open, and the joy was palpable. Something big had changed between the previous week and this moment.

The difference? We invited Paul Jabara to lead a workshop with our choir that weekend (September 28-30, 2018).

I first met Paul at the Sacred Music Institute in 2017, and when he said he was offering workshops to parishes all over the Archdiocese, I knew immediately I had to work hard to get him to my parish of St. George Orthodox Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where I am assistant choir director. The St. George choir is composed of some of the most unique and wonderful personalities I have met. We range in age from 4 (nothing cuter than a loud little voice singing "Most Howy Fayotokos, SAAAAVE US!") to 87 years old. Sometimes we only have a few people singing, and sometimes, like on Palm Sunday, we have over 40. We have a fairly balanced divide of parts, although like most choirs, we are a bit light in the tenor section. We are blessed beyond measure with our numbers, but we still negotiate issues like blend, intonation, communication between directors and choir, and giving pitches without falling back on a warbling electric organ (the use of which results in a musically- and temporally-disjointed Liturgy).

Like many choirs with busy members, we have also had difficulty with rehearsal attendance, save for a few frenzied sessions right before Holy Week. Furthermore, our Divine Liturgy books were (carefully and lovingly) assembled many years ago, so many of the pieces are handwritten and use old translations and/or are otherwise outdated. Yet, through the glory of God, our choir sings a lovely Liturgy each week, and rarely stumbles in a way that might be noticeable to the average parishioner.

As a person with a graduate-level education in music, I have always seen so much potential in our St. George choir. The director and assistants all have ability and knowledge, but frustratingly, we were having trouble rallying the choir. It would take an inspiring, energetic, and knowledgeable teacher to help them discover just what they could accomplish, and to show the directors how to help them get there.

Director Nick AbouAssaly rehearses the choir during their Friday night workshop session with Paul advising from the piano.Director Nick AbouAssaly rehearses the choir during their Friday night workshop session with Paul advising from the piano.Ahead of the workshop, we discussed at length what we wanted to focus on during our sessions with Paul. He customized our sessions even more specifically to our needs after he had the opportunity to assess the choir and directors in person. The session on Friday night (September 28) was a guided rehearsal: Paul observed each director in action as we taught new pieces of music. He then offered constructive criticism and instruction in our conducting technique, rehearsal order, warming up, and more, giving us a few tools we needed to lead an effective rehearsal session. Most importantly, he gave us the confidence to understand that our role is more than just standing in front of the choir and waving our arms. Everything we do—from giving pitches and making eye contact to choosing repertoire and scheduling rehearsals—directly influences the attitude and focus of the choir.

Saturday morning (September 29) brought another rehearsal and a discussion about the roles and responsibilities of choir members and directors, a potluck lunch, and a "working Liturgy" in which choir and clergy worked together to match pitches and decrease the lull between clergy petitions and choir responses. This was a must for our choir, as it brilliantly illustrated the enormous benefits of taking pitches from the clergy and director rather than the organ. This session also allowed for detailed work on music that is rarely rehearsed; for example, our tempo tends to drag during the Ektenias and Antiphons, and each director had the chance to practice conveying a faster, lighter tempo using unambiguous body language, while choir members learned how to read and realize those instructions. Paul not only worked on these challenges from the choir, clergy, and director perspective, but also made some subtle but impactful changes to how the choir stands in the choir loft, and did voice testing with singers (including our youth) to ensure they were placed in the correct section.

Our evening ended with a lovely choir dinner at a local restaurant. Interspersing workshop sessions with social events really emphasized the point that a choir is so much more than just a group of voices, but really needs to function more as a fellowship and stewardship organization within the Church. Because of the fellowship during our lunch and dinner, I learned more about my choir friends that Saturday than I had in the previous two years!

On Sunday morning, we met early to warm up and continue to practice some of the techniques we had learned through the weekend. Everyone seemed very happy and excited to put what we had learned into practice, and since the warm up was carefully planned to gradually stretch the choir's vocal range and and was not rushed, the choir was able to extend their range further than I had yet heard. We also went through some familiar music (Ektenias and the Trisagion Hymn) to gently remind the choir and directors of new tempi and phrasing we had practiced.

Liturgy arrived. I had my turn to direct first, and was in front through the Trisagion I mentioned previously. Paul stood by the director's stand the whole time, helping us find and give pitches. After I stepped off the director's stand and took my place in the alto section, I had the privilege of watching the other directors grow exponentially in confidence and skill before my eyes. It was hard work, and giving pitches without the organ reminded me of how a preschooler must feel when removing the training wheels from her bike for the first time. But the difference it made in the choir's sound was outstanding. 

Paul guides assistant director Alexia Slauson during Divine Liturgy.Paul guides assistant director Alexia Slauson during Divine Liturgy.Paul stepped in to direct the Anaphora, and illustrated the techniques he had been teaching us. Having an extraordinarily confident and clear director who has effectively prepared the choir to watch and follow meant that the choir sounded better than I had ever heard! They sounded absolutely stunning. Jaw dropping. And not just "jaw dropping" in the sense that they dropped their jaws to create beautiful vowel shapes—which, to be fair, they also did perfectly—but in the sense that I was nothing short of gobsmacked by what I was hearing. The timing, the blend, the intonation: everything sounded exactly as it should.

By the middle of the Anaphora, I truly could not believe that this choir, singing one little word, over three little chords, could cause shivers and tears at the same time. And that word, coincidentally, was exactly my reaction to this experience.


The truth is, our music doesn't have to be complex to speak. It doesn't have to be musically perfect to be prayerful. Other church tasks take on this personality, so to speak: baking prosfora, for example, requires an environment not of perfection and advanced skill, but rather of peaceful and intentional prayer. When this environment doesn't exist during the process, the Prosfora simply do not turn out quite as beautifully. Participating in the Divine Liturgy through music requires the same kind of environment. This kind of group effort demands an assertive (but kind), focused, passionate director.

Before Paul came, the director and assistant directors at St. George were trying not to ask too much of our dear friends in the choir. We didn't want to pressure them, as volunteers giving their valuable gifts to the Church. After Paul's visit, we have learned that honouring the gifts of time and talent our singers have entrusted to us does not limit us to taking whatever we get at face value, asking for nothing extra, and praying we don't crash and burn during the Divine Liturgy. Instead, our responsibility is to lead our singers toward tangible and rewarding goals; expect hard work and focus; provide ample opportunity for growth, fellowship, and fun; and most of all, strive to be inspiring role models who do it all for the glory of God. In being this type of director, we correctly reframe our "volunteer choir" as the vital ministry of the Church it actually is.

All in all, when setting up this workshop, I had hoped for a fun and fruitful weekend for this beautiful group of people whom I have grown to love so dearly.  However, Paul's visit to our parish will absolutely have a lasting impact, and as we continue to make plans for concerts, more effective rehearsals, updated Divine Liturgy binders, and regular fellowship events, I believe that his visit will likely turn out to be a benchmark moment in the history of our choir. 

The choir, directors, and clergy of St. George - Cedar Rapids with Paul, all smiles after a successful workshop and a beautiful Divine Liturgy (September 30, 2018)The choir, directors, and clergy of St. George - Cedar Rapids with Paul, all smiles after a successful workshop and a beautiful Divine Liturgy (September 30, 2018)