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SEM: The Beginning

Our project began with a simple religious choir that grew
to become an international Byzantine choir
bringing new converts to Orthodoxy and triggering a
Byzantine Music renaissance in Antioch.

The Concept

The starting idea in 1997 was mainly to constitute a religious choir gathering the youth of the Orthodox Church in Mount Lebanon and consolidating their spiritual life.

Our nucleus consisted of around 7 people, experts in playing musical instruments and we rehearsed on religious chants. Wishing to increase our number, we contacted the branches of MJO (the Orthodox Youth Movement), seeking the participation of interested individuals who have chanting skills.

The call was repeated over and over, in vain!

Back then, theology was the focus of the Orthodox Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon, due to the admiration of the followers for our Bishop George (Khodor), founder of MJO, outstanding theologian and "philosopher" of the Orthodox Church. Loyal followers of the Archdiocese wanted to follow his example.

The idea of a Byzantine Music School in the Archdiocese was born.

Starting the School

MJO allowed us by the end of the summer of 1997 to use their premises in Mekalles for teaching Byzantine Music. Moreover, they granted us US$300 as a contribution to our logistical needs.

First Version of the New Curriculum

Joseph Yazbeck (founder and director of the School) was an experienced teacher of Byzantine Music (at his Brumana parish, his hometown of Amioun and music session of Bhamdoun during summer 1997) and he had noticed by experience the non-efficiency of the existing translated Greek curriculum. Each time, he started with a large number of students to end up with a very limited circle of talented chanters.

Hence, we developed the first version of the curriculum for the first and second levels and started applying them at our school.

First Generation at the School

It was very important at the beginning to convince the audience that the nascent school was quite different to the previous attempts. So we focused on the following points to attract students:

  • A wide marketing campaign through Raiiati (the weekly publication of the Archdiocese), through MJO.
  • Personal contacts through visits to parishes and contacts with the existing chanters to motivate them to join the school.
  • Contacts with priests to send us groups of people in the aim to constitute choirs in their parishes (You send us people and we return them to you as a choir).
  • Reliable admittance exams and applications.
  • An emphasis on the new curriculum showing that it represents a new revolutionary way of teaching Byzantine Music... And that this time your chances to learn Byzantine Music are very different.

We eventually managed to gather 40 students, most of which were young university students. The journey of the school had begun.

First Teachers at the School

At that time, we had constituted with a number of friends a choir in Mount Lebanon. The starting main members of the choir were: Mike Horany (the conductor), RF Toni Chwiti, RF Melhem Hourani, Jad Ayoub, Dr. Nicolas Rahbani, George Abou Haidar, George Attalla, and some others. They had recorded a tape for the resurrection with meditations to Bishop George (Khodor).

Then I joined them with Michel Maalouf and Toni Badran and we recorded a program for the Nativity on LBC television. Then we participated in a concert at Zahle with other choirs. The program was constituted mainly from Psalms and it was performed again at Nabaa Parish.

We had as well a small concert at Sin El Fil on the feast of Saint Elias, then finally we prepared a recording with chants from the Holly Week. Yet this recording was never published.

At that time we started the school and the first teachers were from this small choir: Joseph Yazbeck, Mike Hourani, Nicolas Rahbani, George Attalla, and Jad Ayoub.

After that the small choir stopped its activities.

The Challenge of Commitment

Out next challenge was to maintain a high level of commitment of the students. This stage is very important because it determines the starting culture of the school; if the school starts with no commitment then it will not continue for long. A major effort had to be pulled in this phase.

With God's grace we were able to succeed in this phase. The success was due to the following key elements:

  1. 1. An efficient curriculum where students feel that learning Byzantine Music is much easier, and where they can weekly assess their evolution.
  2. A full commitment from the administration of the school in delivering classes without any discontinuity. whenever a teacher was absent an immediate replacement took place and the class was delivered.
  3. An amusing spirit in the classes and the school in general was omnipresent. The students loved to come to school because they just had fun there. They were learning and having fun.
  4. A focus on socialization (dinners, etc.) between students and on building personal relationships with each of them. (Students used to come to school even on days where they had no classes; they just felt happy in this place, and they wanted to see their friends, etc.).

Launching the Choir

Almost one year after inaugurating the school, we decided to launch the choir with around 40 chanters including some who had not joined classes. In our first meeting, we watched video extracts of the Theodoros Vassilikos choir in a Liturgy service. With the notation of the Kirie Eleison of the Irinika, we tried to perform them as they do in Vassilikos' choir. It took us around one hour to perform the first Kirie Eleison. We eventually ended the meeting by chanting a much known chant "Innal Malak" (Ninth ode of Easter) together, just to raise the moral of the chanters.

Lebanese Byzantine Choirs in 1997

In the year 1997, when we started the school, there were two known choirs in Lebanon: The choir of Balamand (the institute of Theology) and the choir of the Archdiocese of Tripoli. RF Nicolas Malek was responsible of both. The choir of Balamand existed before he became its conductor, yet he was the founder the choir of Tripoli.

In general the two choirs had the same style: They used to perform the Byzantine Music notation literally with no ever ornamentations or nuances...

First Concerts of the Choir

The first performance of the choir was in a concert organized by Sendesmos at the Church of the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate. We formed one choir with the choir of Tripoli.

Many choirs of different groups (Armenian, ...) participated in that concert. We were the only Greek Orthodox choir.

The recital was broadcast on TL Lumiere (The Lebanese Christian TV).

Nevertheless, it was the first time the Lebanese audience watches such a large group of Orthodox chanters chanting in one choir.

Then, we had many concerts alone in many parishes and the experience of the choir started building up.

SEM achievements (briefing)

Since that time, SEM started growing with the blessings of the Holy Spirit until it reached its actual situation on the international level. From a local small choir, it became the leading choir in Mount Lebanon then in Lebanon then in Antioch.

SEM managed to place the Arabic Byzantine Music in the cultural context. It transformed Byzantine Music from an Orthodox music into a National Lebanese music addressing all the people from their different cultural, age, intellectual, professional and faith backgrounds.

SEM was the first Orthodox image in the Lebanese Media. The first Orthodox program to be presented in peek times on leading Lebanese TV channels.

Finally, SEM was one of the main factors that lead to the current renaissance in Byzantine Music in Antioch during the XXIst century.


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