Scale Materials: Greek letter cards

After my last post I should mention that while I was at the MMG training I talked to Michiko about my ideas and she was very encouraging.  During Sophia’s year and a half of piano lessons with her I learned a lot from her.  She is an amazing teacher and a very gracious person.

I have created two sets of cards to help learn the scale and intervals.   The ni, pa, vou… colorful scale cards (on top in the picture below) are used on pitch.   I have also developed the Greek letter cards that are pictured below.  These are used to learn the Greek symbols for ison, the order of the scale, and intervals.  The Greek letter cards generally will not be used with pitch.

Greek scale with English equivalent

The first game is to learn the Greek letters.  Find the first three Greek letter cards in two colors.  Lay one color out in order:  Ni, Pa, Vou (but in Greek).  After mixing up the other color, put them under the first set.  Say the name of the card as you lay it under the set that is already laid out.  Once you have them in order say the name of each card and point to the card.  Add ga in both colors and repeat.  Practice each time until you can remember the new Greek letter and then add a new one.

Oops! I mixed up Ni and Pa. You’d think my photographer would have caught my mistake!

Once you feel like you know the names of the Greek letters pretty well, you can begin playing “Fine”


Using only one color, place the Ni card close to you and build the scale, going up.   When you are done say the cards going up and down (this is not done on pitch).


Here are a few other variations of Fine:

             Let’s Start With…

Pick a different card to start with other than Ni.  Go up from that card.

             Fine Backward

Start at the top of the scale with Ni and go down.

             Start in the Middle

Start with Ga and then place the card that is one up from Ga and then one down from Ga.  Then place the card that is two up from Ga and then two down from Ga.   (Fine and its variations come from Music Mind Games by Michiko Yurko).

Once you know the scale really well going up and down one note at a time then you should try doing it with different intervals. Next try skipping a note and going up 2 notes.  Then practice doing it backwards.  It is good to know these jumps apart from the pitch associated with them in the beginning.  Especially since jump from pa to ga uses different pitches in different scales!

jumping up 2 notes in Fine

Playing Fine with all of its variations is a fun way to get really good at all of the intervals.   Later, when reading the melody in Byzantine notation, the interval symbols will tell how far to go up or down in the scale.  In order for this to be easy students need to know immediately what pitch they should jump up or down to.  

You are on vou……jump up 4…… zo

You are on ke…….jump down 3…… vou

If students have to figure this out while reading the music then their sight reading slowed.  Thus, I think that it is a good idea to teach a lot of the scale games before advancing very far into the notation symbols.


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The base of my curriculum: Music Mind Games

I realized this morning that I haven’t explained where a lot of my ideas to teach Byzantine notation are coming from.  

Let’s start at the beginning!  My daughter started taking piano lessons with a piano teacher in the DC area when she was three.  Her lessons were with a group of three students.  They played Music Mind Games (MMG) together to learn music theory and had a piano lesson with the teacher by themselves.  I was amazed at what these young children were able to learn about western music theory with the MMG method.  


Since I was teaching Suzuki piano as well, I wanted to incorporate MMG into my own teaching.  My daughter’s teacher also happened to be the creator of this method (lucky me!)  So, a year and a half ago I went to a week long training on how to teach western music theory to young children using fun cooperative games.  The creator, Michiko Yurko, started developing her program in grad school and has been working on it ever since (for over 30 years).   

During my week of training it became obvious to me that a lot of the materials and games that Michiko developed could be tweaked to teach Byzantine notation and Byzantine chant.  The only problem?  I was a rote beginner at reading Byzantine notation.  Thus this blog was born and I tried to teach myself Byzantine Notation using resources on the Internet.

If you go through this power point presentation you can get a better idea of how comprehensive her program is as well as how engaging it is for her students.

Some of the things she teaches can be transferred almost identically to Byzantine notation, whereas others have to be completely different.  So far, I have only developed materials for the scale, ison, and interval symbols.  One of her most outstanding materials is “blue jello” — her material used to teach rhythm.  I have used the basic idea of this material and am developing materials to teach the interval symbols.  I think that fluency reading interval symbols in Byzantine notation is central to Byzantine chant in the same way that reading rhythm well in western notation is pretty central to classical music.  

Michiko told me that the best compliment that she ever received about her materials came from a teacher whose whole city public school district had adopted the program.  The teacher said that she and the other teachers had noticed that there were no longer any high, middle, or low students.  All if the students were able to learn western music theory when taught Music Mind Games.  

I think that a program similar to MMG paired with a Suzuki style program to better train the ear could be very helpful in making Byzantine chant more accessible to learners.  That is my dream for thirty years down the road.  Right now I will keep taking baby steps, learning to pray in church as part of the Byzantine choir.  Hopefully as I learn to be more prayerful and mindful of God, the rest will follow.

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First Step: Learning the scale with Fine*

Since I am teaching mainly Americans and most do not know Greek (barring mathematicians and Grecophiles) I start teaching the scale with the colored cards and English syllables.  Later, after students know the words in English they will learn the corresponding Greek letter.

The way I teach the scale to complete beginners is to start at the bottom and introduce one new pitch at a time, playing a game called Fine* (*from Music Mind Games).  Below is a video of me teaching my 4 year old daughter the scale.   The cards should be placed on the floor with ni closest to your body and should go up away from your body as you go up the scale.  My daughter was doing something funky because of the small space.

Sorry about all of the distractions in the video (the crying baby in the background). This is the only way to get things done right now.  See if you can catch what my daughter said for “zo” when she is first learning it.  I didn’t notice it the first few times.  Kids are great!

Once students can go up the scale with ease we switch and start at the top of the scale and come down.

Here is the link to the video:



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Scale Materials

I developed this first set of materials for teaching Byzantine notation a year and a half ago.  They are the equivalent to what Michiko Yurko uses to teach the scale in Music Mind Games.  Most of the games that we will play with these cards are her games as well.  

The top set of cards is for chanting on pitch.  I use them mainly to teach chanting the scale up and down, skipping notes, etc.  The goal is for students to know the scale really well so that it doesn’t slow them down when learning to read the notation.  The colors provide a visual cue to your brain when you sing.  When I first started reading Byzantine notation these colors were literally flashing around inside my head.  Like Music Mind Games, I also use Curwen hand signs to go along with the colored scale cards.  This gives the scale a spatial element and is really helpful.  Curwen hand signs relate directly to the theory of the Western scale, so I have always wondered if there would be a different set of signs that would relate better to Byzantine music.  At this point I really have no clue, so I will continue using the Curwen hand signs until I find something better.

The lower set of cards are to teach the Greek symbols used for the ison.  I also use this set of cards to teach intervals, (but this set is not associated with pitch like the top set is).  When I teach intervals with these cards it serves more of an academic/memory purpose.  It is easier to know the name of the note that you should jump to than to actually be able to sing the correct pitch.  Thus we learn jumps with these cards before we practice them on pitch with the other cards.  

ImageFinally, it is really interesting to note that reading the melody and ison in Byzantine notation require completely opposite skills.  For ison you are given the note names and must figure out the difference between them (ga down to ni — Oh, I need to jump down 3).  For the melody you are given the current note and the interval to the next note (you are on ga, go down 3 — Oh I need to jump down to ni).  Your brain must work in two completely different ways.  

New chanters with western musical training are used to reading music in the way ison is written.  New chanters without musical training must learn both ways of reading.  Thus, there is really a lot of musical skill involved in reading Byzantine notation.  

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It’s been a long time…

It’s been so long since I have written that I couldn’t even remember how to access my account.  Thanks to the reader who posted a comment recently, thus encouraging me to write again.   Life has been very busy since I last wrote.  Two moves (one across state lines), a pregnancy and a new baby!

If I actually want to use this space and have posts once in a while I will probably have to become more laid back about my posts.  I am a perfectionist and often send my posts to my husband to read before publishing them.  He is a much better writer and grammarian than I am and so this often leads to lots of rewriting and reworking.  It doesn’t help that that was my style during my school days either.  But…I have three young children and am trying to work on iconography in addition to the chanting things that I do.  So, I am going to write this post and publish it– to the dismay of my husband!

Although I found the “Glory to Thee” podcasts helpful after awhile I decided that I wanted to focus on learning to read Byzantine notation more and so I stopped after I had done the fast versions of the eight tones.  Around that time, one of my friends from the Byz. Choir of Pittsburgh moved to DC and started to give lessons.  I went to a few but then pregnancy and the 45 minute drive each way got to me and I decided to study on my own and go to him with questions.  In the spring of 2012 I started to be able to read well enough to chant some from Byzantine notation for matins.  I was using music that was a transcription of Kazan’s work.  I was amazed to find how much more “authentic” I sounded just by reading from Byzantine notation instead of Western notation.  My reading proficiency was still mediocre (it highly depended on which tone) but I started at least chanting the Evlogetaria, Praises, and a few other things from Byzantine notation.  Part of the problem was locating the music for other things as well as getting it in the same translation that my priest was using.  I never talked to him to see if he minded a different translation.

In August I had my third baby and she is very easy going and a wonderful sleeper.  We also moved back to Pittsburgh in October so we have been very busy.  Now that I am in Pittsburgh and not teaching the piano in the evenings I have started to chant with the Byzantine Choir of Pittsburgh, headed by Stephen Esper.  He is giving lessons once a week.  His lessons have been structured much different than the lessons that my friend in DC was giving.  My friend in DC went through the chant manual and taught all of the symbols for jumps, rhythm, and ornamentation before delving into any particular tone.  Stephen had us start reading a hymn in tone 1 right away.  He had us chant on “la” instead of using parralege and he explained each new symbol when we encountered it in the music.  I found that I enjoyed this way of learning much better.  My friend Laura is learning with me as well.  I have been working with her on the side to make sure that she is prepared for the lessons.  I feel as though if this way was my first exposure to the music it would be difficult.  Our lessons have been going well–on the easier side for me–but I am still learning new things.  It isn’t very enjoyable to learn if things are too difficult anyway, is it?

Part of the reason that it has been so long is that I started working on a new website for the games that I have been working on.  I have been developing materials and games to teach Byzantine notation but I don’t have anyone to test them out with except for Laura and my own children (ages 3 and 4).  I have found that my 4 year old was able to learn some of the notation symbols fairly easy with my method (one up, stay the same, one down).   She has also learned the Greek scale.  Based on my work with her and Laura I am developing short phrases that slowly teach new symbols, and added more and more of the scale as we go along.  I started out generically on ni but then after about 15 phrases I switched into tone 1.

In conjunction with the games and materials I would also like to record some music for teaching purposes.  I would like to develop it along the lines of the Suzuki method.  Of course, I don’t want to record myself, so this will take some time.  First we need to determine what hymns should be taught and then get them recorded by experienced chanters.   As I am still in my chanting infancy, I am not entirely certain where to start.  I have talked to some of my more experienced chanter friends and so have a starting point, but I feel the need of more expertise.

Stephen has all of his new chanters chant the ison during services while they are still learning.  I find that I really like being able to do this because it takes the pressure off of learning.  I still practice the music ahead of time but it would take me close to 2 hours to practice all of the music for matins (we chant all of the Kathismata, stichera and verses from the praises).   So this allows me to only practice some of it.  Besides, they tend to chant at a fast pace, so even with practice it is still difficult to keep up.

There are two things that I have gained from my lessons with Stephen.  First, I think it is beneficial to learn the notation within the specific tones, not just a Western sound C scale.  Second, I think that there is value in having beginners learn the ison from the beginning.  I am not sure exactly how I will add this second part into my curriculum yet.  My impression is that many people have difficulty holding a pitch steady while another person is chanting the melody above them.

I am gaining so much more from Stephen and the other chanters.  Chant really is something that one absorbs.  I know that I am learning a lot just by being a part of the group.   I know that this method that I am developing will take a lot of work and a number of years (or decades) but I dream of a curriculum that can make chanting more accessible to people converting to Orthodoxy, mission churches wishing to have quality Byzantine chant, and even children.  I would love to have a children’s Byzantine choir someday.

Well, the baby is waking up.  Hopefully I can begin posting at least every week or two with my progress.  Sorry for the bad grammar, incorrect spelling, and bad flow (that’s for my husband).  Until next time…

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Learning Tone 2 Heirmologic

For some reason, I feel most comfortable when I chant Tone 2 and Tone 6.  I think it’s because they sound so different from the other tones and so from the beginning it was easier for me to recognize them.   Let’s start with the Glory to Thee podcast:

Here is my outline:
1:40 Apichima

3:08 Apichima with Important notes

3:38 Verse Practice

5:00 Verse practice-analyzing for important notes

6:40 Byzantine chant uses intervals instead of absolute note values

9:20 Antiphonal verse chant with ison

12:40 Troparia practice-Analization

18:10 Troparia practice with ison

20:45 Troparia continued- “O compassionate Saviour…” …”Let the whole earth”

23:38 Troparia continued- “O pure Theotokos…”

24:55 staggered breathing

27:05  Troparia of the Resurrection Tone 2 (Kazan)

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Learning Apichimas: it’s all Greek to me!

I’ve been to a number of workshops on Byzantine chant–a few at churches and also at the Antiochian Church’s Sacred Music Festival.  At each workshop, presenters went through all 8 tones and taught the apichimas and important notes for each one.  Every time, I had no success memorizing them.  This is because I didn’t have a solid grasp of the words they were using in the Apichimas (ex. Thi  Ke  Thi  Ga Vou  Thi).

This time, prior to memorizing any apichimas I made sure that I could chant the greek terms for each note forwards and backwards, in thirds etc.  Unfortunately I only used the English equivalants:

Ni   Pa   Vou   Ga   Thi    Ke    Zo   Ni

Now I have to learn to associate the Greek symbols with what I have been saying.  If I could do it all over again, I would skip using the English because the Greek symbols are all over Byzantine notation.

cvbnm,. c/


I'm working on the sacred geometry for the icons of our patron Saints.

This is how I would do it if I was starting out:

In order to learn the Greek symbols I would make flash cards with the Greek on one wide and a sticky note on the back with the English equivalent.  When you know that z is zo then you can take the sticky note off.

The next step is to know the scale inside and out–up and down, skipping up notes and skipping down notes.  This is because Byzantine notation tells you to go up or down by a certain interval*.  For example, if you are on Vou the music might tell you to go up a third (skip a note).  In order to read the Byzantine notation fluently, you will need to know the scale and intervals very well.  I learned my intervals for western music by learning to associate them with popular songs.  At this time, it’s not necessary to associate the Greek terms with a pitch because the pitch will be different based on which of the 4 Byzantine scales you are in.

Coming Soon:  fun games to play!!!!

*Interval: 2nd- up or down one step,  3rd- skip up or down 2 notes,   4th-  skip up or down 3 notes….

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