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 visit.)

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.

This year’s gift ideas

Christmas gift ideas are something I’ve done before, and it’s that time again, to say the least. Christmas is a week from tomorrow, so probably you want to order whatever it is you’re going to order in the next couple of days if you want to make sure it’s received on time. Here are this year’s gift suggestions, from me to you:

- Fr. Ivan Moody’s new book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music. I’ll be review this book shortly for Orthodox Arts Journal, but I’ll go ahead and recommend it to you now. It’s a fascinating look at how 20th/21st century art music from around the world engages Orthodox liturgical music and vice versa, and really turns on its head the idea that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”.

 

- Keeping with the theme, the CD Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music, with Fr. Ivan Moody conducting Cappella Romana. I reviewed it here, and it’s a terrific stocking stuffer for the lover of choral music who might like something a little different.

 

- The world-music collective Dünya has a really fascinating recording out titled A Story of the City: Constantinople, Istanbul. It’s a collection of Byzantine music, Ottoman classical music, and more; I highly recommend it.

 

 

- One more CD suggestion: Christmas in Harvard Square, by the St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square. I just blogged something about the school, so they’re on my mind; plus, it’s a really nice treble sound.

 

 

- The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer briefcase was a gift suggestion here three years ago; this year, I’m pleased that I can finally suggest the Parental Unit, their brand spanking new diaper bag. I remain pleased with my Checkpoint Flyer three and a half years after buying it (as well as with Tom Bihn’s customer service; they’ve been as good as their word on the lifetime guarantee), and while the Parental Unit came along a little late for our needs with Theodore (as in two and a half years late), it looks like it’ll be great for future consideration. (Not an announcement, by the way.)

- Sometime in, I think, 1989, I read an interview in the long-defunct Comics Scene magazine with an animator named Richard Williams. He had just won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and he talked about how this was allowing him to finish, at long last, his decades-in-the-making masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler. The story of why this turned out not, in fact, to be case, why instead Disney released its, shall we say, fascinatingly similar film a few years later (arguably getting away with murder), and why you might find a $2 DVD in grocery store bargain bins titled Arabian Knight using some of the animation produced for Cobbler is nothing less than one of the artistic tragedies of the twentieth century. Over the last few years years, there has been something of a renaissance of interest in Cobbler, with an unofficial, so-called “recobbled” cut having been produced by one Garrett Gilchrist. Over the last year, there have been a couple of screenings of Williams’ workprint, both at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and at the British Film Institute. Filmmaker Kevin Schreck has also produced a documentary about Cobbler and why you never saw it titled The Persistence of Vision, and it has been very well-received in the festival circuit for the last year or so. While it’s a difficult film to license commercially for a number of reasons, Kevin has been able to produce a limited edition 2-disc DVD release of the documentary, and it also includes Williams’ workprint among the special features. It is available for what it is officially being called a donation of $25, and I recommend it highly — it really is fascinating.

- Averil Cameron’s new book, Byzantine Matters, is a concise, readable overview of the state of the field of Byzantine studies, as she sees it. There’s a lot here that’s worth thinking about, and while much of it is prompted by her ongoing feud with Byzantinists who work a bit later than she does, she is up front about that disagreement and what she thinks the problem is.

 

Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery. I’ve spoken my piece about Twin Peaks here already, so hopefully this speaks for itself. Just get it.

 

 

- If Twin Peaks is your thing, there’s also Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, a behind-the-scenes treatment of the series by Brad Dukes. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks really interesting.

 

 

 

StJohnDamascus-logo-color-420x230- Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, and there’s also a book called 75 Years of DC Comics that would be right up my alley. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this. Or even this.

Okay — Christ is born! Glorify Him! May you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!

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.

Thoughts on the Twin Peaks revival (SPOILERS; DO NOT READ IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED)

Yesterday (Friday) was my birthday; I’m 38 now, I guess beyond doubt putting me in my late thirties. Twenty years have passed since I became a legal adult; I’ve known my wife for almost twenty years; Kurt Cobain has been dead for more than twenty years; Soundgarden has been broken up long enough to get back together and to remaster old albums. Hammerbox remains broken up after a failed revival, which, alas, is probably for the best (although their in-studio acoustic performance was pretty awesome). It’s been 20 years since George Lucas made it clear that he really did intend to make the Star Wars prequels, and now next year we’re going to get Episode VII. Tim Burton’s first Batman movie is 25 years old, old enough for Michael Keaton to make a movie that effectively functions as metacommentary on his time in the role.

And, now, Twin Peaks has been over long enough to get a third season continuation.

(That’s fan-made, by the way. It’s fifty kinds of awesome, but it’s fan-made.)

Y’all have no idea how big of a deal this is to me. A Cocteau Twins revival would be just about the only thing that could possibly make me giddier at this point, but I’d be wary of that after how Hammerbox’s reunion was apparently over before it began.

Flesh of My Flesh threw me a lovely dinner party with several of our new friends here at Holy Cross, and instead of making me a birthday cake, she made me a cherry pie (using the Access Guide recipe) as a way of celebrating the news; our crowd last night was mostly too young to have seen Twin Peaks, however, so this required some explanation. Explanation led to watching the pilot episode with some of our guests; I expect this will lead to watching future episodes with some of them.

Much pixelage has already been employed in speculating about what the 2016 season might look like, so I don’t want to repeat any of that. The series finale and Fire Walk With Me both suggested that there was still a lot of story that Lynch had to tell, so I’m not particularly concerned about that (particularly with Laura Palmer’s line to Cooper about seeing him again in 25 years).

What I am wondering about, however — and not from a standpoint of concern; I want my Twin Peaks revival and I want it now; bring me a TARDIS so I can go to 2016 immediately and watch this – is this: Twin Peaks, when it came out in 1990, had a context of a particular widely-held image of the Pacific Northwest. Money Magazine had declared Seattle the best place to live in the United States in August 1989, to be sure, but keep in mind that this was pre-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” (Melody Maker had only just run their first major article on the “Seattle sound” in March 1989), and Microsoft had only just made their initial public offering in 1986, not to mention that Windows was only on version 2.x, so the tech industry had yet to permeate the Northwest landscape the way that it would by the late 1990s. Really, the main things that the Pacific Northwest was known for when Twin Peaks debuted were serial killers, UFO sightings, Boeing, mountains, and logging; Twin Peaks needed all of that to work, and it played with each of those elements on some level.

So, twenty-five years later, when Pearl Jam is now what Aerosmith was when Twin Peaks came out and Kurt Cobain is the Northwest’s iconic rock death (surpassing even Jimi Hendrix, maybe), when the image of the Pacific Northwest is now split between Seattle as the techie haven for the nouveau riche and Portland as the hipster capital of the world, when the Seattle Mariners are tied for the most wins during a season, the Seahawks have won a Superbowl, and basketball has left Seattle in favor of soccer, what will the town of Twin Peaks look like 25 years later? Now, the show was specific about locating the town in the northeast corner of Washington state, which is still basically the middle of nowhere, but if the Twin Peaks of the revival still looks exactly the same as the Twin Peaks of 1990-1992, well, it would be tempting to say that it’s David Lynch’s riff on Brigadoon. One wonders if technology might be kept self-consciously retro — will Cooper still be dictating notes to Diane via microcassette recorder even while the rest of the world has moved on to smartphones? Will we know that he’s still possessed by BOB because he drinks K-Cup coffee?

And, of course, there’s the question of how a new Twin Peaks season can break new ground after twenty-five years’ worth of television that has been influence by Twin PeaksX-FilesNorthern Exposure, even Veronica Mars – heck, for that matter, Hannibal the last couple of years, in which Mads Mikkelsen has given us a Hannibal Lecter with Ray Wise and Frank Silva as reference points every bit as much as, if not moreso than, Anthony Hopkins. What can Lynch bring to the form now, a quarter-century later?

Speaking of Ray Wise, since Fire Walk With Me he’s been a bad guy in 24 and, quite literally, the Devil in Reaper. Frank Silva passed away in 1995, so presumably Leland will now be BOB’s permanent form. The way they could get around this would be to cast Silva lookalike and opera star Greer Grimsley, but I’m not holding my breath on that.

I will say that the perspective I have now of Twin Peaks at 38 is wildly different than that which I had even twelve years ago. Watching the pilot last night, things that used to seem self-consciously melodramatic now seem quite real. Where I once might have wanted to chuckle at how deliberately over-the-top Lynch was being — for example, his cutting back and forth between a hysterical and screaming Sarah Palmer on one end of the phone line and a Leland Palmer who, presumably, is coming to the dawning realization that his daughter has been murdered and reaching hysterics himself (but is he? Even after Fire Walk With Me, this is still ambiguous) — now I look at it and think, “Yeah, that’s about what it would be like if I got the news that my child had been killed; Lynch just isn’t letting the camera move away, no matter how much I might want him to.” Broadchurch (and Gracepoint, to the extent that it’s a scene-for-scene remake) also manages to capture this rawness of parental grief, but in a much different way; it’s a far more self-consciously realistic treatment of a similar moment.

One final thought for now — Twin Peaks was a cultural moment, not unlike the ’89 Tim Burton Batman (yes, I know, that’s a touchstone that makes a particular kind of sense to me and perhaps nobody else), that was about the end of the 1980s marking some kind of a generational shift. Batman looked at this from the urban angle; Twin Peaks looked at this from the small town angle. Batman played with deliberate anachronism, putting Prince songs in the same world as 1920s-era gangsters, creating a Gotham City you couldn’t really locate on either a calendar or a map but that was still identifiable as a caricature of a New York that had produced Michael Milken, Ed Koch, John Gotti, and Bernie Goetz. Twin Peaks didn’t go the route of anachronism; rather, it gave the audience a world that was very specifically dated (24 February 1989 is the date given in the pilot episode, meaning it took place exactly 12 years before my wedding day) but that also freely employed the ethos of an earlier generation, while implying very strongly that that there was something seriously rotten underneath that generation’s surface. Certainly the presence of flannel, jeans, saddle shoes, and a sheriff named Harry S. Truman made Twin Peaks feel like a town that had been spared the nastiness of the ’80s; then there was the cast. All the young, scrubbed, shiny faces of James Marshall, Lara Flynn Boyle, Sherilyn Fenn, Sheryl Lee, Madchen Amick, and Dana Ashbrook made the town look like a place where young people might be bored but safe (which made it all the more shocking when their faces might be smeared, sometimes with running mascara, sometimes with blood, sometimes both); Kyle MacLachlan’s lantern jaw, black suit, and slicked-back hair was clearly intended to evoke somebody like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr.’s character from The F. B. I.; amongst the older adults, there was Russ Tamblyn, Richard Beymer, Peggy Lipton, Ray Wise, Piper Laurie — heck, even Michael Ontkean — all recognizable faces from the ’60s and ’70s, all of them now able to put on a sheen of middle-aged respectability, and the show subverted and undermined their respectability from the first scenes of the pilot episode. A generation that had grown up in the ’50s, become adults in the ’60s, and had kids in the ’70s were now having to face the consequences of their choices, Lynch seemed to be saying, and their children weren’t necessarily turning out any better just because they had fled the city for small-town life. This wasn’t Family Ties. Maybe small-town life just made it easier to hide weirdness, ugliness, and evil in plain sight.

Thing is, all of those concerns are basically old hat at this point. Many of us assume these days that the cities are corrupt hellholes and that there is no Mayberry, that small towns are probably cesspools of backwardness, ignorance, and abuse that cover it up with a sheen of self-righteousness that refuses self-reflection. We know that there are no safe havens anymore; New York isn’t really the land of opportunity and the small town in the middle of nowhere isn’t a sanctuary against the evil that men do. And, unfortunately, it’s no longer the bloodcurdling shock that it once was when we find out that Daddy was doing bad things to his kids, and we don’t need the distance of demonic possession to make it believable. We accept it, we process it as just one more tragedy, and we know that the generation that’s growing up right now is basically screwed no matter where we live or what we do. We’re over it; life goes on somehow. Next topic.

So, the point of this is to say — how will a new Twin Peaks season engage our current cultural anxieties the same way the original did, using the original’s setting? I assume Lynch and Frost must have something in mind for how they might do this, but how? In the real Pacific Northwest, the Ghostwood Country Club and Estates were eventually built everywhere, replacing the woods. Does that mean that the evil lurking in the woods has been let out into the open? Or has it just been built over for now, and it’s biding its time?

I guess we’ll find out in 2016.

When Roman history makes the news

Pre-modern historians often lament that our subjects are treated as irrelevant by society at large. While this is often true, and is certainly frustrating when it comes to convincing the general public to be interested in what we do, I’m not at all certain that it’s better when public figures feel empowered to misuse the materials of the pre-modern historian in order to serve their own agendas or to make themselves look they are of loftier minds than they actually are. (I also think it’s a problem when otherwise intelligent people respond in kind by simply re-subordinating those materials to their own agendas, but never mind that now.)

Senator Ted Cruz’s recent appropriation of Cicero (or, really, Charles Yonge’s translation of Cicero) has already been well-examined by classicist Jesse Weiner, writing for The Atlantic. I don’t think there’s a ton to add there, but I would consider the longer arc of history as well; Cicero’s militant defense of what he saw as the fundamentals of the Roman Republic did nothing in terms of the big picture to keep the Republic from turning into an Empire less than 40 years later. I’m not the kind of historian who talks about this or that person being on “the wrong side of history”, but I think it’s hard to get around the fact that Cicero was on the losing side, at the very least.

What perhaps might be more useful is considering the Empire’s relationship with its provinces, and how eventually, in 212, an emperor named Caracalla found it useful to extend citizenship to the provincials:

I grant Roman citizenship to all aliens throughout the Roman world, except the dediticii [meaning obscure], local citizenship remaining intact. For it is proper that the multitude should not only help carry all the burdens but should also now be in included in my victory. (Giessen Papyrus 40.1)

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One can interrogate Caracalla’s motives — broadening the tax base? Making sure Christians were subject to Roman laws? — and there were consequences to this that were both positive and negative, to be sure, but destroying the Empire wasn’t one of them.

Maybe the Edict of Caracalla is applicable to today’s circumstances, maybe it isn’t; the point is that you can’t just do a Google search on English translations of Latin rhetoric and cherry-pick what sounds useful. Using Cicero as an out-of-context prooftext for your political aims, pro or con, is simply stupid. I think I’d rather stay irrelevant than see my area get abused by opportunistic demagogues.

Checking in from Boston, and musings on weddings

IMG_3508I am looking up briefly from the Scrivener window at my carrel in the Holy Cross library. I have to say, it’s been a lovely time thus far. The library has been excellent for my purposes; at IU, I had to have 30-40 items out via interlibrary loan at any given moment, but here, I’ve only had to ILL 2-3 books. Fr. Joachim Cotsonis, the library’s director (also the Byzantine lead seals specialist), and Hilary Rogler, the circulation and ILL librarian, have been wonderfully helpful at every turn. I’m getting a lot done, and it’s been due in no small part to their help. A chapter went out to my advisor a couple of weeks ago; I’m hopeful that I will have another one out sooner than later.

A couple of weekends ago we drove back to Indianapolis (yes, drove; airfare for three of us for a weekend just wasn’t going to be worth it) for the wedding of our dear friend Laura Willms, the Tall Ray of Sunshine herself, as well as one of the Orthogals, and the Executive Board secretary of the Saint John of Damascus Society. Flesh Of My Flesh was the koumbara, so we left Thursday evening and arrived in Indy on Friday afternoon in time for the bachelorette party. Saturday was a crazy day of rehearsal stuff, which I was semi-involved with because I was part of the wedding choir. Sunday, we attended Divine Liturgy at Holy Apostles, which was very much like being home again, even if for the rest of the trip it felt very strange being back. The wedding itself then followed at Ss. Constantine and Helena, an OCA parish under the Romanian Episcopate, and it was quite a wedding service; besides their pastor, an archpriest from St. Tikhon’s and a ROCOR priest from Detroit were also concelebrating, and it was a grand affair to say the least. Following that, we enjoyed ourselves at the reception, and then it was time to make the trek home. We headed out Sunday evening, and got back to Brookline Monday afternoon. Many years to Laura and Gabe!

I would like to give a shout out to Summer, our hostess; we used Airbnb to find a place to stay, and it was our first time doing so. We lucked out — we found a lovely cottage in the Irvington neighborhood that was really comfortable, more than reasonable price-wise, and conveniently located. Summer has done a lot with the place to make it homey and welcoming, and I highly recommend booking with her if you need accommodations in Indianapolis.

I’ll also mention an experience that I had while we were out there that demonstrated for me how much the PDF has changed the business of the copy shop. I needed (or so I thought) to print out my music for the wedding, so I went to the FedEx Kinko’s in Broad Ripple to print it out. I had been e-mailed 20 separate PDFs, and I had them on my iPad. I asked somebody behind the counter, is there a way I can print these directly from the iPad? No, they said, and we can’t touch them because they’re music PDFs. We have to have written permission to copy before we can do anything with sheet music behind the counter.

Before I forget, I should note that I had Theodore with me, and that FedEx Kinko’s is a really bad place to take squirrelly two year olds.

But, whatever, okay, fine. I worked at a Kinko’s 10 years ago, and I know my way around, more or less. I went to one of the pay workstations to transfer them from my e-mail to a thumbdrive. Theodore was taking a little too much interest in the workstation’s CD drive, though, so I tried to make it quick.

I took the thumbdrive over to one of the copiers. The first thing I noticed was that the copiers could access Dropbox, and they were also able to access mobile devices directly. Grr. That’s why I asked, people behind the counter.

The second thing I noticed was that there was no way to batch print PDFs; I had to go through something like five screens to print each one individually. With twenty PDFs to print, each taking an individual series of fine motor skills to do so, keeping Theodore under control quickly became like trying to juggle Jell-O. I got two printed out before Theodore cheerfully realized that the main power switch on the copier was exactly at his eye level.

I took the thumbdrive back to somebody at the counter. Is there any way I can avoid having to print out all of these individually? I asked. Can I do anything to just print them as a batch? The guy said no, not from a copier, and he was just about to take the thumbdrive from me to print them out himself… when the co-worker I talked to earlier piped in and said, “No, it’s music, we can’t do anything with it.” I told her the PDFs were all public domain. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Without written permission to copy, we can’t touch it.”

Okay, I said, you see I’ve got a toddler with me. Is there an easier way to do what I’m doing?

Well, she said, you could batch print from a workstation, but they’d be five times the cost.

There’s really nothing else that can be done?

Nope.

I printed the remaining PDFs as quickly as Theodore would allow me to do and left. I also theoretically needed to buy a black binder, but at that point I was irritated enough at their lack of helpfulness that I didn’t want to spend any more money there. So, I texted the choir director, saying, hey, do you have an extra black binder?

He texted me back saying, yeah, I’ve got all the music printed out and in binders here already.

Le sigh.

This capped off what has been a year of weddings; last October, our friends Phil and Lisa got married at All Saints, the next month was the wedding of our Indianapolis friends Fotios and Diana, the sister of Theodore’s godmother got married in Illinois this last May, and then in July, Benjamin, Theodore’s godfather, got married in Cleveland (at the Deer Hunter church, no less). I also got pulled in to chant a wedding at St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cambridge the weekend before Gabe and Laura’s wedding, bringing me full circle back to point of origin for the Boston Byzantine Choir, whose Mystical Supper was the first CD of Orthodox music I ever bought.

At this stage of the game, I’ve seen a lot of Orthodox weddings. I remember going to my first; it was in Fort Wayne, and it was 10 years ago. I was still at the OMGEVERYTHINGISSOAMAZINGLYBEAUTIFUL stage of my inquiry, and that was pretty much what I had to say about the wedding service. Since then, I’ve chanted a couple (not many, just because of the nature of the parishes where I’ve chanted for the most part), I’ve sung in a choir for a few; I’ve been koumbaros for a few; I’ve stood in the congregation for a few. I’ve seen first marriages between converts, first marriages between converts and spouses who don’t plan on converting, first marriages between cradles and converts, first marriages between cradles and non-converts, second marriages between converts, and second marriages of converts to spouses who have no intention of converting. I don’t think I’ve yet been to a wedding service for two cradles, but I assume that’ll happen here before too long.

I’ve been to weddings under a lot of different circumstances. One of the second marriage services was between two divorced people who basically shopped for a bishop who would sign off on the second marriage when the bishop at their home parish dragged his feet. I’ve seen converts convince the priest (a Serbian) to allow kilts and bagpipes in the church for the service. I’ve seen two priests marry off their kids together. I’ve seen weddings that are pro forma ceremonies for people who have been married for years but need crowns so that their bishop will accept the husband as a seminarian. I’ve seen an Orthodox/non-Orthodox coupling do an Orthodox service with, essentially, a Protestant service then performed at the reception. I’ve seen the koumbaros get asked to serve at the last second because the non-Orthodox groom didn’t realize that his non-Orthodox close family member couldn’t do it until the priest told him. I’ve seen converts marry where one spouse’s family is Protestant, the other spouse’s family is also Orthodox, but to make it even more fun, the Orthodox family at some point decided to go non-canonical Old Calendar, even though the child in question stayed in a canonical jurisdiction. I’ve seen the non-Orthodox spouse grumble about the layout of the church and their own lack of “lines”. I’ve seen converts marry where one family is unchurched, the other family is polemically anti-Orthodox, and both families are big enough that the only Orthodox in attendance at the service are up at the solea because the couple couldn’t make room on the guest list for more than a couple of their church friends. I’ve seen the betrothal done months in advance because the couple wanted the engagement to be more than just an engagement in the worldly sense; I’ve seen it done separately because the non-Orthodox spouse was was worried about the length of the service for non-Orthodox attendees.

My observation, on the whole, is that the wedding can really present something of a conundrum for the non-Orthodox participants, be they spouse or family of the spouse. This conundrum can be handled well, or, well, not; somebody — a convert who married a convert — once told me that in some ways, he/she wished that they had gotten married before they converted. They could have gotten married at the church of one of the families, then been baptized, then been crowned, and it would have amounted to the same thing without making the day itself such a lightning rod for contention.

This is also not exclusively an Orthodox conundrum, I should hasten to add. Neither my wife nor I had any Anglican family when we got married in the Episcopal Church way back in the day; her background being Catholic, there were certainly some issues there, and my background being a combination of unchurched/militant atheist and Evangelical, the high church (well, as high as we could make it in a suburb of Seattle) ceremony and the Catholic-ish sense of things was difficult for some of my people, too.

Some of it, for better or for worse (so to speak), is the service itself. It’s not that long as wedding services go (our Anglican wedding, with full Eucharist, was an hour and fifteen minutes long), but to the extent that the secular norm now seems to be something like 10 minutes long (“Do you think this is a good idea?” “Yes.” “How about you?” “Yes.” “Okay, you’re married.”), the 45 minutes to an hour that most Orthodox weddings I’ve been to have lasted probably seem intimidating, and since there are no vows, there’s nothing really for the non-Orthodox crowd to hang their hat on in terms of familiarity. And, oh wow, you guys still do that Corinthians reading? Is that even legal in 2014? Some priests insert commentary as they go, and that can be a help, but it can also be really cloying if not done well. Other priests charge on through, and hopefully somebody’s put together a well-annotated service leaflet.

Some of it, though, I have to imagine is simply non-Orthodox participants realizing that they’re marrying off somebody close to them at a Greek/Russian/whatever Orthodox wedding, seeing the crowns, and thinking, People still do this in this day and age? I guess it’s cute that they think all of this matters, but, really? We’re not Hindus or whatever. Couldn’t you just do the aisle and vows and call it good for the sake of everybody else, and if this other stuff is so important to you, do it on a day when we all aren’t trying to share it with you and looking stupid because we don’t have a clue as to what’s going on? We can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer right in here. What the hell happened?

Here’s the thing. If you’re a non-Orthodox parent of a convert, or even a non-Orthodox spouse, marrying a cradle, then you have something bigger you can point to as to what the hell happened. They’re marrying into a family with a strong religious tradition, and that’s what you do. Without that external explanation, though, you’re left with a very real distance between you and your child that your child chose. Your child chose to have a wedding that was something different than what you imagined for him or her way back in the day, you may have strong ecclesial feelings that do not look kindly on the Orthodox Church, you have no input into a service that is fixed, and the result is that you feel like you can’t fully participate. That’s a hard thing, and in the worst case scenario, I’ve seen the family sullenly sit there throughout the whole service, not even acknowledging the proceedings enough to stand. Alternately, I’ve seen the parts that the families can have input on, like the reception, the budget, etc. become where people decide to locate the hills on which they’re willing to die. Mostly, though, I just see people looking confused and awkward, and then visibly relieved when it’s over. “I want to be respectful,” a bride’s family member once told me, “but I had no way to follow what was happening, even with the program notes.”

It’s like I’ve said before; we converts hope, in our heart of hearts, that when people visit our churches it will be the Russian Primary Chronicle again, with the non-Orthodox not knowing whether they were in heaven or on earth but knowing that God dwells there because of the beauty. That just isn’t what happens, for the most part. People come to weddings in America in 2014 to participate emotionally, not to see a beautiful service. When they don’t feel like they have a way to do that (or a reasonable way to explain why they don’t have a way to do that), it’s just not the same, no matter how beautiful of a service it is.

To be clear about something — I’m not criticizing the service or converts getting married. I love the Orthodox wedding service; I love participating as cantor (I wish I’d had the opportunity to chant more of them than I have), and I love just being there as a supportive onlooker. If you’re listening to the words (or following along with a booklet if it’s in Greek or Slavonic or what have you), there’s no way to get around how grounded in the Scriptures it is, so ideally, I think the wedding service should serve as a way to make the non-Orthodox feel more at home with what’s happening, and I think it’s unfortunate that that isn’t what happens. The message of the service is, plainly, You’re married, and now God’s in charge, and it seems to me that that should be entirely unproblematic.

At the same time, what is evident from some of the weddings I’ve seen is that however earnest the participants, that message can be obscured by how the receiver sees the sender, and there isn’t an easy way around that.

If I were to make what would be intended as helpful suggestions — first of all, to everybody concerned, perspective is your friend. The wedding is a big event, but it’s not the marriage. Whatever happens at the wedding, theoretically you’re going to have to deal with each other for the duration. Compromise and getting along is part of the deal, both between spouses and with family; start now.

Second, to the couple, include your immediate family in at least some of the discussions with the priest. If you let them participate in those conversations, and give them a chance to ask their questions in the presence of the priest at a meeting that actually matters, they will at least feel included, what’s going on the day of will seem a lot less daunting, and there will be a lot less tension about things unexpressed. To the family, if your kids ask you to come to one of those meetings, go. Everybody will be happier.

To bride and groom: the great thing about an Orthodox wedding service is that it’s purpose-built. In terms of the specific parts, you don’t need to customize anything. If you want specific settings of the hymns or whatever, a specific cantor, specific choir members, particular crowns, multiple priests, that kind of thing, okay, but really, it’s already all there and ready to go. That’s a gift, not an imposition; it means you have less you have to worry about. The less you make it about you, the less subjective you make the service, the less you’re going to have to freak out about, and the less everybody else will see reason to be concerned.

To the groom, whatever the convert/cradle situation might be for you: part of Orthodox tradition is that, ideally, you get married in the bride’s hometown. What that would indicate to me is that there is supposed to be some visible deference on the part of the groom to the bride’s family, to say nothing of the bride, who is easily the most vulnerable person involved. To the extent that you’re able to do so, when the bride’s family says something, smile and keep your mouth shut. If it’s an issue with the service, let the bride handle it, or, if you’ve been good about inviting the family to the meetings with the priest, tell the priest, and let him handle it with the family. Most important: let it go, whatever it is — start keeping a ledger of your sacrifices now and you aren’t likely going to stop.

To the bride: it’ll all be okay.

To everybody else: it’s an hour out of your life. You’ll live. Listen to the service, read along, whatever, but keep in mind that the message is, You’re married; now God’s in charge. Every part of the service expresses that somehow; if you want something to do to engage what’s going on and watching and following along isn’t enough, then ask yourself as the service goes on, how does this part of the service express that message? If that doesn’t do it for you, well, again, it’s an hour out of your life, and it’s not about you. Don’t worry; if it’s a proper Orthodox wedding, the reception is going to be a blast.

Suggestion to all concerned: wear comfortable shoes. Whatever the circumstances, you’ll be a lot less inclined to be grumpy by the end of the service.

Okay. I’ve got to write about the Akathistos hymn now. Pray for me.


Richard’s Twitter

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