- Principle #0: The act that you are performing as a singer in church is the sung worship of God according to the practice and tradition of Orthodox Christianity. One may fairly insist that this is something different than a concert; one may also fairly insist that this is also something different than a campfire singalong, an exercise in nostalgia, the affirmation of somebody’s childhood, or the salving of one’s insecurities. At any rate, understood this way, singing in church is at once a privilege, a craft, and a discipline.
- Principle #1: As the object of this sung worship is God, it is to be performed as prayerfully, skillfully, and within the parameters of the traditions governing the chosen style of music as the singer is capable of doing.
- Principle #1a: This assumes that “performance” and “worship”, properly understood, do not constitute a dichotomy but parts of the same whole.
- Principle #2: The easiest way to establish a tradition of good singing in a parish is to do it right from the start.
- Principle #2a: At the very least, “doing it right from the start” means identifying and cultivating and talent (assuming you don’t have somebody from the get-go who knows what they’re doing), and providing the person who has that talent with the necessary resources to continue to improve.
- Principle #2b: It will be far more practical in the long run to pick one musical idiom that you can do well than to try to do several and do them all at varying levels of mediocrity. 19th century Russian polyphony and Byzantine chant were never intended to coexist in the same service, and they require two entirely different musical skill sets.
- Principle #2b.1: When picking this musical idiom, fight your weight. If you have a choir of five or six people and are meeting in borrowed office space, big Russian polyphony probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.
- Principle #2c: ”Doing it right from the start” requires the will to do so from more parties than just the cantor or choir director.
- Principle #3: Musicians are your friends. They are the ones trained to think about how musical matters need to be addressed, much as how an iconographer is the one trained to know how something is supposed to work with an icon or an architect is the one trained to know how to design a building. If they hear something you can’t, that’s a good thing; that means that they’re doing their job.
- Principle #3a: The best musicians will also be able to teach the non-musician how to do it properly. Let them.
- Principle #3b: In the same way that you would expect to pay an iconographer or an architect, expect to pay your cantor/choir director. The worker is worthy of his wages. If this is simply not an option, then there needs to be some way that the value of the cantor’s job is expressed.
- Principle #4: The amount of singing in our services, to say nothing of the number of “moving parts”, as it were, in any given service, means that rehearsal should be considered a non-negotiable point. If you wish to be among those singing in the choir, it is your responsibility to come to rehearsal. This is the “discipline” part of the equation.
- Principle #4a: Along these lines, always be mindful of improvement; don’t be satisfied with maintenance. If we truly have God as the object of our worship, then there is no “good enough” as such.
- Principle #4b: If you are fortunate enough to have a choir of people that can read music in multiple notation systems and four different languages more or less perfectly the first time, then you might be able to reconsider the need for rehearsal.
- Principle #5: Another non-negotiable point needs to be provision of physical resources for the singers. At bare minimum, these should include proper acoustics, an intentional space for the choir, necessary liturgical furniture, and necessary liturgical books. Acoustics and space cannot be afterthoughts; a cantor who has to make up for a dead room will not be able to do so indefinitely — it really constitutes a physical danger to the voice, and I cannot stress that enough. In terms of space, people (and music stands) still take up space no matter how small your building is, and you must plan properly for that. There are traditional places for singers to stand, and generally those places work very well if planned for.
- Principle #6: The various systems of modes and special melodies (and yes, even notation), as impossibly complex as they may initially seem, are actually there to help organize and simplify the cantor’s job. The better you learn them, the less stressful of a time you will have in the long run.
- Principle #7: Good liturgy and good music aid each other. Good settings will do a good job of cooperating with the liturgical action that they accompany; clergy that are celebrating properly will also help good settings fit in naturally with the liturgical action. In other words, a good Cherubic Hymn will be long enough to cover what’s happening at the altar while it’s being sung, and a priest will find that a properly-set Cherubic Hymn means that he doesn’t have to rush through everything in preparation for the Great Entrance.
As I said, this has all come out of my experience as a church musician. As with the building principles, it’s a set of “core ideals” rather than a step-by-step guide — this doesn’t tell you when to schedule rehearsals or how to run them or what repertoire to choose and so on. These are all very, very important things, to be sure. This is, put simply, what I suggest as what the base assumptions should be.
So — thoughts? What am I leaving out? What do I have wrong?