John of Damascus

revealing Orthodox Christianity through its sacred music

Directors' Notes



Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Kamal Hourani

Kamal Hourani has been a presence at analogia throughout New England for a number of years, participating as a cantor in the services of Boston-area communities like Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church, Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and more. Although young, Kamal’s dedication and love for the liturgical and musical life of the Orthodox Church belies his years, and he is already emerging as a leader in his class who is respected across jurisdictional lines.

We interviewed Kamal via phone on May 4 2020.

Kamal Hourani at Hellenic College's 2019 graduation ceremony with his teacher, Fr. Romanos Karanos.

Kamal Hourani at Hellenic College’s 2019 graduation ceremony with his teacher, Fr. Romanos Karanos.

What is your name for the record:

Kamal Hourani. 

When is your birthday?

November 21st, 1997.

What you do and where you do it? 

My most recent regular position was serving as the lampadarios (“candle holder,” leader of the left choir) for the chapel of Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA, with Fr. Romanos Karanos, the professor of Byzantine Music at the School and the Chapel’s protopsaltis (“first cantor,” leader of the right choir). I would also fill in for Fr. Romanos when he has had to serve as a priest. Unfortunately, since COVID-19 became a concern and the campus shut down, they haven’t been allowing people from off-campus, so unfortunately I haven’t been there since the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas (March 15). Since then, I’ve been hopping a bit — chanting at my home parish, I chanted in Connecticut for a friend during Holy Week, and so on. Before that, I had a number of chanting positions, including Annunciation Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Boston.

I also teach; my senior year at Hellenic College I served as Fr. Romanos’ teaching assistant, I tutored students, and I also helped the leaders of the Chapel’s student chant groups prepare music. 

When I was 10, I started going to Matins at my home parish, St George in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, and at the encouragement of some friends from Antiochian Village camp, I would go up to read at services. Deacon John El Massih, known then as Rassem El Massih, was assigned there while he was studying at HCHC, and I would chant with him or just stand there and observe — that by itself was a very formative chant education. Having that kind of unique exposure from a young age definitely helped my ear, and by the time that I was a teenager, I had some sense of how Byzantine notation worked, even without formal lessons. 

In 2015, I started my freshman year at Hellenic College, and I went through the whole chant curriculum with Fr. Romanos Karanos and a few other teachers — Dn. John, Gabriel Cremeens, Irini Bullock née Koulianos who was Fr. Romanos’ teaching assistant at the time, and so on. I was exposed to a number of great teachers, and that was also a huge part of my formation with respect to Byzantine music. 

The liturgical life of the School’s chapel was also an important part of the learning process for me. Having antiphonal Byzantine choirs was amazing, it shoved prosomoia (hymns set to a model melody) into my ear, and it gave me a place to practice a lot. Also, having to serve as a domestikos (assistant) — making sure all the preparations for a service are in place for the leader of a given choir, like getting all of the books ready — and leading a chant group my last two years there taught me a lot I couldn’t have learned otherwise. 

I started chanting at Annunciation Cathedral my junior year, helping a friend of mine who was the protopsaltis at the time. He took the semester off at the end of our junior year, and suddenly I was thrown into the deep end. Luckily, I had two friends who were M.Div. friends and very competent cantors, who were assigned to the Cathedral as their parish assignment, and they were a big help. Even so, it was a lot of services by myself, juggling both Greek and English. It was a good training experience for me, it helped me improve my Greek and my chanting, and it also taught me to be diligent in preparing for services.

I received my Byzantine chant performer’s certificate in April 2018, and then graduated in May 2019. Following graduation, I was determined to put my talents to use in terms of teaching. One of my major objectives for the certificate was to be able to pass on what I had received, and in the last year, I’ve started working with private students, which has been very fulfilling. It’s been very enjoyable to see students progress and see their talents multiply.

With my most recent experience at the Holy Cross chapel, I’ve been Fr. Romanos’ lampadarios, although with him serving more often as a priest, I was often leading the right choir. That was a huge pleasure with very, very few limitations; we were generally free to take our time, pick compositions that one wouldn’t often get to do outside of that context, and savor singing them.

What was the experience of the certificate like?

My interest in the certificate was to get to a level of professional proficiency and qualification in Byzantine music. Not everybody has to do it; there are people who did well in the chant program at HCHC without taking that step, but I felt that it was important to pursue it.

The exam has three parts: a short theoretical presentation, a prepared repertoire list of eight different genres of composition with composition in each mode, and then a sight-singing section. You also have to be prepared to answer questions about theory and performance practice as you go. My theory presentation was about the setting of heirmoi (short hymns setting meter and melody for an ode of a canon, a long hymnographic genre); I had to talk about the general context of the hymnographic genre of the canon, what heirmoi and troparia (short individual hymns) are and how they function in that genre, and then compare English settings, including my own, to Greek scores. The required repertoire involves more difficult pieces in the papadic texture, like Cherubic Hymns and Communion verses, very melismatic pieces that belong to a style called Old Sticheraric, and then a highly virtuosic paraliturgical genre called the kalophonic heirmos. My list had classical and modern composers in both Greek and English, like the eighteenth century Iakovos Protopsaltis (c.1740-1800) to currently living composers Ioannis Arvanitis (1961-) and Gabriel Cremeens (1992-). My selections were very challenging at first, especially because some pieces, like the slow Doxologies and slow settings of “Lord, I have cried,” are pieces that we don’t commonly do in church here in America.

It’s an intense and intimidating experience. You’re singing in front of a panel of five master chanters who will hear every mistake that you make. Still, the intimidation made me and my cohort of examinees prepare even more fervently, and as nervous as we were going into it, after the first exam was over, we were all more at ease. We saw that, yes, the judges are master chanters and teachers and mentors, but at the same time they’re fellow workers and colleagues and we all appreciate the chant together. It was a beautiful day to see everybody’s hard work come to fruition; since we had all prepared together, it was as though when one person passed, we all succeeded in some way. 

It was a huge accomplishment for my undergraduate degree, and honestly, a big part of my college career was just working towards that certificate.

What motivates you to do what you do?

I want to help in whatever way I can to increase the liturgical vibrancy of the Church in America. It comes from a place of loving the services and having benefited so much from them in my life, especially in my time at college and in the Holy Cross chapel. Honestly, the chapel life of HCHC is the most important part of HCHC, period. Through the chapel, the School pulls in young Orthodox Christians in America from every jurisdiction, not just the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, who want not only to receive an education but also to grow closer to Christ, and they are drawn in and fed by the chapel life. The more that we’re fed at the School, the more we can hope to guide other people and feed other people; honestly, I think the chapel could do even more. 

The Church in America, and I say that cross jurisdictionally, has functioned for a long time with minimal liturgical vibrancy; if we want to progress as a Church, we need far more liturgical vibrancy. The chapel cultivates a thirst for Christ and a thirst for liturgical vibrancy, and that’s the only way we’re going to be able even to begin talking about bringing that to the parishes. People have criticisms and suggestions about the chapel’s service length and how it does daily Orthros and so on, but to me it provides an important ideal of what liturgical vibrancy can look like, and an example of what we can take to the parishes — hey, the chapel does liturgies for these saints throughout the year, I can help my parish make those happen by reading or chanting, that kind of thing. But if the chapel isn’t going to offer that fullness, who is, and how will we know what it looks like to have that kind of liturgical life? You need this kind of cadre of young adults and adults who have been formed liturgically and who have been exposed to the fullness of the tradition of our worship. If they’re exposed, it allows them to pray more and also provides a template for them to teach others and to bring into your action, because if you want to be the people of God, we have to be exposed to God to spend time with God.

That’s where it comes from, a thirst for Christ and a thirst for a full liturgical life. I hope to translate that into my work and inspire other people to spend time in the services and spend time with God, and come to love them. I want to help us learn to order our calendars and our lives around the Church’s liturgical life, around our worship, instead of around work schedules and when our next vacation is and when my next appointment is.

Are there any projects you’re working on that you haven’t talked about yet?

Deacon John has been planting the seeds for an Antiochian Archdiocese Byzantine Choir, and I have been singing in that as he has put it together. We debuted a few months ago in December at the Order of St. Ignatius dinner at St. George, Little Falls, New Jersey. That was a pleasure to be a part of; people were very pleased and responsive, and they were supportive financially. It’s been encouraging to see the positive response. 

A more obscure project I’ve been working on is a catalogue of heirmoi. I’ve been going through the Menaia (liturgical books containing hymns for commemorations with a fixed calendar date) starting with September, and I note all the heirmoi that are used in a given month in the order of occurrence, with their mode and their occurrences, organized by Ode — here are all the heirmoi for Ode I, and so on. Then I go on to the next month and I highlight which ones are new that weren’t in the previous month. I’ve been working on this for the last two years, and my hope is that it will lead to an English Heirmologion that has a concordance, like Scripture has a concordance, with all the occurrences of the heirmoi, and variants in texts — it’s a project that I’m thinking could end up being developed as a critical edition of the Heirmologion.

I’m also working on cross referencing English liturgical books that we have, and understanding the differences between the books we’ve translated from Greek and the books we’ve translated from Slavonic — content differences, rubric differences, that kind of thing. For example, comparing the Menaion translated by Isaac Lambertson with the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Menaion. Where are the differences and why? That’s also got me studying older Greek manuscripts versus the newer printed Greek books by Apostoliki Diakonia — I’m looking at this collection of thirty-eight liturgical books from a monastery in Cyprus that have some really interesting differences from the modern books.

I have done some composition, mostly shorter, more syllabic pieces, and writing out prosomoia; I hope to do more.

Translation to me is very interesting, and within that, I’m a huge nerd regarding liturgical books, I’ve collected a lot of scans of different Typika (liturgical books outlining the order of services for the whole year) and liturgical books and manuscripts and so on, and I’m spending time comparing them.

I’ve been working on translating, slowly but surely, the Euchologia (Sacramentary) of Simonopetra Monastery on Mount Athos — not a direct translation, exactly, because I’m adapting and annotating a lot of their rubrics, but I’m taking them as a base for our use here in America because they’re so clean and well-researched. I’ve also been working on an Enkolpion (manual) that takes the Simonopetra Sylleitourgikon (concelebration manual) as a starting point. If we’re going to have liturgical vibrancy in America, we need the liturgical books and music available as well.

Are there any projects you’d like to work on that nobody’s asked you to do yet?

There’s a lot on that list; I want to take the work I’m on liturgical books, polish it, and make it more broadly available. That’s a question of getting myself where I need to be education-wise. I want to go back for my M.Div. in the fall, and even after that, there’s probably more formal education I would need — it would just depend on what the Archdiocese and the Metropolitan want me to do. One way or the other, it seems to me there’s a need for these books, and even if it’s just sitting on my computer for now, I can do what I can do on my own.

What is your sense of the big picture for Orthodox music in America?

I feel like we’re either in already, or at least approaching, a real liturgical renaissance in this country, which is so exciting to watch. I had no awareness of these issues as a kid when I started to learn how to chant. But it looks to me like there is a wave of interest in music and liturgical vibrancy on the part of youth, and it’s really inspiring to watch and be a part of. All of us working in music ministry should be very concerned with perpetuating that explosion, whether that involves the work we do at the parish level, as teachers, or organizing concerts or conferences that engage the public. All of these things work together, and all we musicians in the Church, whatever our varying opinions about styles or translations or all the little details we think about, we have to work together to continue to allow this to happen. If we can do that, God willing, we’ll come out on the other side of this liturgical musical renaissance as a Church that is known for the beauty and the richness of its services and its music and its arts. And, hopefully, that richness and beauty draws everybody in, whether they’re Orthodox, non-Orthodox, or even the faithful who perhaps lapsed or become indifferent, and inspire them all to fall in love with the beauty of the Church and to fall in love with God.

Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Amy Hogg

Amy Hogg, of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, is actively engaged in the world of Orthodox music in a number of ways: she is a cantor, a teacher, and an innovator. With the guiding principle of making Byzantine music education more feasible for students in this country than she herself had experienced it, Amy has applied her expertise as a trained music educator to the development of a chant curriculum called Byzantine Beginnings, and she is starting an online school as a collective effort with colleagues across the country. She has also been involved in the liturgical arts more broadly through study of iconography. (For purposes of disclosure, we must also state here that Amy is a member of the Saint John of Damascus Society board of directors.)

This Friday is Amy’s 40th birthday, so as with Benedict Sheehan, we’re getting this in just under the wire — many years, Amy! — but we spoke to her by phone for this profile at least a few weeks ahead, on May 23 2020.

Amy Hogg headshotYour name for the record:

Amy Jean Hogg. 

And your date of birth?

June 19th, 1980. 

What you do and where you do it?

I live in Pittsburgh, PA with my husband and three children. In addition to being a stay at home mom, I teach Byzantine chant to private students. I’ve spent the last several years developing Byzantine Beginnings, a chant curriculum to teach Byzantine notation, ear training, and fundamentals of theory. I have a background as a Suzuki piano teacher, and while I was active with that, I studied a curriculum called Music Mind Games — it’s a game-based curriculum, using interactive games used to teach Western notation, ear training, theory, and so on. I’ve used those ideas as the jumping off point for my own game- and visual aid-based Byzantine chant curriculum. [Editor’s note: since this interview, The Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music has published an overview of Byzantine Beginnings that you can read here (LINK).]

I’m currently working with my chant colleagues Samuel Herron and Gabriel Cremeens to found an online Byzantine music school. That’s been a long-term goal of mine for years, since it’s clear to me that there’s a great need for it. I had been offering a range of private online courses under the Byzantine Beginnings banner; Sam had been teaching some of those classes as well as developing some of his own. We decided to team up with Gabriel and launch a school; we’re calling it the Trisagion School of Byzantine Music, and it will offer the Byzantine Beginnings curriculum for introductory students as well as intermediate and advanced classes. The goal of the Trisagion School is to train students for parish musical ministry through Byzantine chant, with all that entails — to be able to sing all of the services with a beautiful and healthy sound, to have a good understanding of the music and theory, to have a traditional vocal style, and to understand the liturgics. Also, once a student finishes our program, they will be prepared to take the exam for the Byzantine chant performer’s certificate at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

I chant at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, where Stephen Esper is the protopsaltis. In non-COVID-19 times, generally we have a pretty large Byzantine choir, with as many as 12 people on one side. I sub for Stephen regularly if he has to be away, and there’s a Friday Matins service that I normally lead on a weekly basis.

I also co-host an Ancient Faith podcast on Byzantine chant, A Sacrifice of Praise it launched in fall of 2018, and we’ve produced thirty-nine episodes so far. The goal is to raise awareness of what’s going on in the chant world, to provide basic background knowledge, and more generally to be the kind of resource I would have loved when I was starting out — I had only just converted, and I didn’t know anything about the wider chant world in the States, let alone in Greece or the Middle East.

For me, the podcast was stressful when I started working on it — I’m not a big talker, and the thought of having conversations that other people would be listening to was intimidating. It took us about a year to work out all the technical kinks, and that was very helpful to me — if we had launched a year earlier, I would have had a much harder time handling it. I was very stressed about putting myself out there in the public eye. In that sense, the podcast has helped me get more used to doing that kind of thing and not being stressed out about it. It’s also allowed me to meet more people in the chanting world, which has been invaluable. The feedback on the podcast has been very positive — people have told me that they find the interviews that we do with different composers and chanters to be inspiring and informational. I also think it’s helped to raise the baseline of knowledge amongst the average chanter. There are absolutely people in this country who have been doing this at a high level for 10 or 20 years and who have built a chant culture and community at their parish. At the same time, there are a lot of smaller parishes where people learning Byzantine music are isolated, and they don’t have the luxury of a chanter the next level up who is there for them to connect to. There’s always the question that gets asked, who’s your teacher? It’s treated almost like apostolic succession. That annoyed me at first, but I get more where it’s coming from now — you can’t just pick up a book and learn how to chant; the skills have to be learned from someone. So, if you don’t have access to that in your local community, our podcast helps fill that gap. I’ve heard from listeners that it helps them feel more like they’re part of the broader chant community, and I think building that broader chant community in our country and making it accessible to everybody is something that we really want to work for.

What motivates you to do what you do? 

Music is a huge part of worship for us as Orthodox Christians. I think that we all aspire to offer something beautiful to God as we worship—both the prayer in our heart as we sing, and the sounds that come out. As I learned to chant I realized that there was a need for more teachers of Byzantine chant in our country. So, I worked hard to learn to be a better chanter and better serve God in my own parish, while also working so that I could help others do the same.

I am a teacher at heart — it’s fundamental to who I am. At the same time, what I learned as an elementary educator is that it’s not just the music itself you have to deal with; you have to take into account the external and circumstantial challenges that students deal with, too.

For example, when I started studying Byzantine music seriously, around 2010, we lived in Washington, D.C. The priest’s wife was the chanter at the parish I was chanting at, and she was very good, but her circumstances and my circumstances combined made it very challenging to learn what I wanted to know from her. There was a teacher who did offer lessons, Nick Jones in Falls Church, but that was an hour’s drive away on a weeknight. I was pregnant at the time and already taking care of a two and a three year old, so that was beyond what I could handle. I wound up trying to study on my own, finding what books and resources I could on the Internet, and it was frustrating. When we moved back to Pittsburgh in 2012, I started chanting at St. George, and I was able to study with Stephen Esper as well as Dr. Nick Giannoukakis. Not only that, but the biggest difference of all was that I was actually able to chant services with someone who knew what they were doing, while also chanting from scores all of the time. Still, I was very aware that I had come out of a situation that’s common for a lot of Americans, where you don’t have someone to chant with and don’t have a local teacher. 

When I decided to take Holy Cross’ certificate exam, it gave me an important motivator, a goal to study towards. I knew that standing up and chanting in front of five master chanters was going to scare the daylights out of me if I didn’t prepare and develop confidence. At that point, I was practicing for services, but I wasn’t studying with a teacher in a consistent manner. I had a bazillion questions and no one to ask, and my progress was very, very slow because basically I had no guide. When I started preparing seriously for the exam, I prepared with systematic, regular guidance from teachers who told me, learn these classical pieces, study this, listen to these recordings, practice this, and so on. I had to get serious about learning some Greek, studying more difficult music, and also taking voice lessons. Suddenly I was able to make much, much more progress. I want to make that experience more accessible and attainable for everybody.

Something that I’ve realized is that learning Byzantine music has been such a journey of personal growth. Four years ago at the Antiochian Village Sacred Music Institute, Bishop ANTHONY of Toledo and the Midwest spoke about 2 Timothy 1:7 — “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but one of power, love, and self-discipline.” That really spoke to me at a time when I had this great desire to make learning easier for other people and for myself, but I was also struggling with being scared and timid — even the idea of chanting in front of other people was very scary to me. I took Bp. ANTHONY’s words to heart; his words really helped me at the time and I think of this verse often. Whenever I start to feel anxious about a new project or getting in front of people, I remember that I’m doing this because I love God and others. That the things I’m doing are not about me but are for God and other people. So for me, this journey of chanting had helped me learn more about myself — my struggles — and to trust in God more.

What projects are you working on that you haven’t talked about yet? 

In the last year, I’ve started studying what’s called the Estill Voice Training (EVT) method with a teacher named Kimberly Steinhauer. Estill Method was developed by Jo Estill, who was a longtime professional singer when she decided to study the science of the voice. In the early 1970’s, she worked as a research associate and lab technician studying laryngeal cancer, and she investigated aspects of vocal quality through acoustic analyses, perception studies, and so on. Jo hypothesized that the average person could identify different speech qualities — what she called speech, sob, twang, and opera. After she proved this, she set about researching how people manipulated the different structures in their larynx to arrive at these different voice qualities, and she found that there are 12 different structures that we can independently control and that change different aspects of our vocal quality. In short, EVT’s model allows you to understand the big picture of how your voice works so that you can make informed decisions about how to use it. I think that the EVT model has a lot to offer to chanters; both in terms of analyzing what great chanters are doing, as well as opening up new possibilities for how to sing this music in your own voice. It’s certainly helped me understand my own voice better and how to get different sounds with it, and I’m learning to analyze what I hear other people doing and how to apply the EVT model to get a more traditional vocal style. Currently I’m working towards the first level of certification in EVT, Figure Proficiency; I hope to work towards the second level, Master Trainer, after that. The third and highest level is Mentor and Course Instructor; that’s the qualification for talking about all the science involved and training the trainers. We’ll see if I go that far with it; I haven’t decided yet. Overall, EVT has helped me be a better chanter, and I want to be able to share that benefit with my students. 

I’m also working on a virtual choir project. A few years ago, I started a women’s Byzantine chant Facebook group called “Psaltic Sisters,” which provides a space for women chanters to form community, support each other in our endeavors, and make each other aware of what we’re doing. The virtual choir came out of that; I had been thinking about it for awhile, since recordings play a huge role in learning, particularly for students who don’t have a teacher standing next to them. The members of the group were excited to do it, so we decided on Philip Phares’ concise setting of “O Heavenly King” for Pentecost. I made the master recording, and then Photini Robinson transcribed it into staff notation so that as many women as possible could participate. We’re shooting for it to come out on or near Pentecost.

[Editor’s note: It was released on June 5 2020. Here it is:]

Are there any projects that you want to work on but nobody’s asked you to do them yet?

Every year I re-record all of the music my students work on; as I get better, maybe I’ll eventually feel more comfortable sharing the recordings more widely instead of just making them available to my students. Along the same lines, for the Trisagion School, we’re planning to record all of the music that the students study, and we’ll probably do one set with a male voice and another set with a female voice. We definitely want to have good representations of men’s and women’s voices, because it’s very helpful for women to hear other women chanting. That’s gotten me thinking about starting a women’s Byzantine choir; I’ve had some initial conversations about that with other women who chant, but with the pandemic, that’s realistically still a ways away. So, for now, I want to do more virtual choir recordings with other women. 

One of my overarching goals is to support other women chanters and their unique needs. I’ve heard from many women that they have a feeling of imposter syndrome, and I have definitely felt that at times myself. With women still a minority in the Byzantine chant world, I really want to do things that support women in their growth. Producing more recordings of women is one way to do that, as well as providing women opportunities to participate in things like a virtual Byzantine choir as well. 

What is your sense of the big picture right now in terms of Orthodox music in America? 

I think that we’re in a good place. In the last ten to twenty years, we’ve seen a lot of growth happening in Byzantine chant, and the efforts of Fr. Romanos Karanos, Holy Cross’ professor of Byzantine Music, with all of his students in the certificate program, have borne a lot of fruit. The younger generations seem very interested and excited about learning Byzantine music. It seems to me that there will definitely be people excited and ready to carry the torch once the current generation needs to hand it off. There are so many more resources and more teachers readily available now in America than there used to be, and it’s growing and growing — more publications, more recordings, more online resources. It looks to me like that growth is going to continue, so it’s an exciting time for Byzantine music.

That said, a reality it seems to me we have to talk about is that most of the people working in Byzantine music are doing it for free, particularly composers. Dn. John El Massih composes for free, Chadi Karam composes for free. Composers like Samuel Herron and Gabriel Cremeens work on paid commission sometimes, but more often than not it seems that if they’re being paid at all it’s through other positions. That’s partly why I wanted to start a school; right now it’s just the three of us, but we plan to grow, adding more teachers and expanding the curriculum. It’s important to me to make sure everybody is paid — teaching for the Trisagion School won’t be a full-time job, so I don’t mean a living wage, but I want people to be compensated for their time at appropriate professional rates. That’s something I think we all need to think about as we move forward.

I do think Byzantine chant will continue to coexist in one form or another with polyphonic choral music, but exactly how it coexists will vary from parish to parish, based on the parish’s history, the talent pool, and interest levels. The pandemic is definitely going to change things up, and for that reason alone we need to train chanters. It could be that when the dust settles, parishes decide to build their Byzantine choirs and not to go back to four part settings. But I think it’s just as likely that there will be parishes that miss their four-part music and decide to go back to it.