Posts Tagged 'american orthodox music'

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 observation.)

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.

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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.

CD Review: Archangel Voices, Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God

I-112Archangel Voices is an Orthodox vocal ensemble that specializes in liturgical choral repertoire by present-day composer, particularly focusing on English-language settings (either composed for English texts or adaptations of existing settings for English). Their Artistic Director is Dr. Vladimir Morosan, a scholar of Russian Orthodox choral music in particular (he is the translator of Johann von Gardner’s venerable series Russian Church Singing, volume 1 and volume 2, he has his own monograph on Russian church choirs right before the Revolution, and he has published several critical and performing editions of Russian choral repertoire), and an advocate of Orthodox liturgical music more generally.

Archangel Voices is one of the outlets for Morosan’s advocacy, and Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God is their sixth release on disc. The intent of the recording is to represent the vast diversity of Orthodox hymnody about the Mother of God — hymns from the daily cycle of services as well as the Marian feasts, special services, and also para-liturgical compositions. There is not only a rich collection of hymns but also composers; there are many Slavic composers such as Chesnokov and Bortniansky presented here, as well as composers active in present-day North America, such as Benedict Sheehan, Morosan himself, and Psalm 103 project composers Richard Toensing and Kurt Sander.

This CD is a different kind of aesthetic than that of some of the other recordings of Orthodox music that are out there. Cappella Romana’s approach is to do a variety of repertoire, make informed stylistic choices for the performance, and be as consistent with those stylistic choices as it can — an “early music” approach, if you like. Kurt Sander’s As Far as the East is from the West sought to reproduce the aesthetic of a large parish choir in a Russian choir loft. Holy Cross’ recent release was simply the sound of their chapel services transferred to disc. Samir Cohlmia’s recording of Dormition chants captures the aural experience of the Byzantine cantor as soloist. And so on. Archangel Voices does something a little different; rather than model themselves on a particular existing Orthodox musical aesthetic or attempt to be stylistic chameleons, they are more along the lines of a Western-style chamber chorale, made up of well-trained musicians who are flexible enough to sing pretty much whatever is put in front of them and make it sound good with a consistent, well-blended, shimmery, warm sound. Perhaps one could argue that Archangel Voices represents one model of what a good American parish choir could be; good enough musicians to sing virtually anything as themselves instead of trying to sound like something else.

It’s an approach that certainly does sufficient justice to most of the repertoire on this disc; particularly nice from the Slavic selections are Chesnokov’s general canon to the Mother of God, Nikolsky’s Megalynarion for Pascha (I am thankful to Morosan and co. that they opted for something less overdone than Balakirev’s setting, which is generally treated out here in the Midwest as the national anthem of American Orthodoxy), and Lvovsky’s Exaposteilarion for the Dormition. In general, I will say that the North American composers who are writing for the English language tend to stand out a little better; perhaps it is not surprising that music written for and sung in the same language sounds better than adaptations. Among this group, Morosan’s Koinonikon for Marian feasts, Nazo Zakkak’s setting of “I have thee as a fountain” from the Paraklesis service, Sander’s Megalynarion for the Divine Liturgy of St. Basil, and Toensing’s setting of “Awed by the beauty” from the Third Mode kathismata are all particularly lovely.

The recording isn’t completely flawless; there are a handful of moments that are a touch rough-feeling, where the ensemble doesn’t quite shimmer as much as they normally do. The ornaments on the ubiquitous paraliturgical Georgian hymn “O Vineyard, fair and new” don’t work as sung; they’re a mismatch with the style the choir employs otherwise, and as a result they sound like mistakes and baubles rather than specific ornamentation choices. To the extent that there’s a pastoral model here for choirs, I would suggest that the lesson here is, ornaments need to be treated as organic parts of a chosen style, not merely additional notes to be sung; if that’s not a practical or pastoral possibility, then it is an acceptable choice to leave the ornaments out. Also, given the ensemble’s stated objective in the booklet “to embrace various traditions and styles of Orthodox church music as they are manifest in the practice of parishes in North America”, it seems like something of a missed opportunity to not include any of the Greek-American composers who have written Orthodox choral music in English, or to use any of the growing library of settings of Byzantine chant composed for English (polyphonic adaptations of what are already themselves adaptations of Byzantine melodies aren’t really the same thing). Sometimes “pan-Orthodox” appears to mean, in practice, “everybody but the Greeks”, and opportunities like this would seem to be appropriate settings for trying to combat that. Alas; I’m sure there are reasons for such choices.

These are minor issues; Panagia is a high-quality effort overall from a high-quality ensemble, and very much worth checking out.

“Always start out with a few good jokes” — a choir director’s initial and parting thoughts

I had my last rehearsal with the All Saints choir last night, and I gave a little bit of a farewell speech. I found some prepared notes from my very first rehearsal with the All Saints choir seven and a half years ago, and they still seemed relevant, if clearly pre-dating some things that I’ve learned in the intervening time. I prefaced all of this by mentioning that my favorite quote from my teaching evaluations this fall was, “Needs dumbed down”, which I find wonderful on several levels. Anyway, I didn’t read all of this last night, just some select chunks, but here’s the whole thing:

2 July 2005, All Saints Choir Rehearsal #1

Always start out with a few good jokes:

Music vocabulary—

Bar line: A gathering of people, usually among which may be found a church musician or two (usually Episcopalians).

Tenors: Most choirs have either a) none, or b) too many. When wholly absent they leave an aching void. When too numerous, they fill the void without removing the ache. Tenors rarely sing words and often produce regional sensations rather than actual notes. During the mating season, they draw attention to themselves by sustaining high notes while the rest of the choir has gone on with the phrase.

Seen in a church bulletin: “At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What is hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.

The Scriptures on singing in worship

Romans 15:9—And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name.

1 Cor 14:15—What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also: I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also.

Ephesians 5:19—Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord

Colossians 3:16—Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.

Hebrews 2:12–Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.

James 5:13—Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

The Church Fathers on singing in worship

“Let us consider the entire multitude of angels, how standing by you they minister to his will. For the Scripture says: ‘Ten thousand stood by him and a thousand ministered to him and cried out, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Sabaoth, the whole creation is full of his glory.’ (Isaiah 6:3) Let us, therefore, gathered together in concord by conscience, cry out earnestly to Him as if with one voice, so that we might come to share in his great and glorious promises.” (St. Clement of Rome (c. 96 A.D.), First Epistle to the Corinthians, italics mine)

“…you make up a chorus, so that joined together in harmony, and having received the godly strain in unison, you might sing in one voice through Christ to the Father, so that He might hear you and recognize you through your good deeds as members of His Son…” (St. Ignatius of Antioch (c. 100 A.D.), Epistle to the Ephesians, italics mine)

“We want to strive so that we, the many, may be brought together into one love, according to the union of the essential unity. As we do good may be similarly pursue unity….The union of many, which the divine harmony has called forth out of a medley of sounds and division, becomes one symphony, following the one leader of the choir and teacher, the Word, resting in that same truth and crying out, ‘Abba, Father.’” (St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 200 A.D.), Protrepticus)

A modern Christian writer on singing in worship:

All quotes from Why Catholics can’t sing by Thomas Day.

“[T]he sung ritual [is] a symbol of a burning faith […] The [sung] liturgy in any language [is] the symbol of faith so intense and filled with joy that it [has] to burst forth in almost continuous song.”

The Great Unwritten Law of Church Music: “[M]usic for the church must not clash with the liturgical function; it must take its place in the objective liturgical setting and not seem like an intrusion. [It] must display a degree of quality and craftsmanship which will be agreeable to a prince and peasant, male and female, young and old. Everyone who […] hears the music must sense a group endeavor, a group prayer: maybe something performed by the assembly or by a choir acting in the name of the assembly […] that seems to sum up the highest religious aspirations of a whole people. [T]he icon painters [pray] and [fast] as they [struggle] to put the holy images into the exacting forms prescribed by tradition. You must try to do something similar.”

Music in the Church is best when it “(1) expresses the noblest aspirations of the communal, cultural, tribal consciousness and (2) seems to submit to the higher purposes of the rite itself.”

So, what does this mean for us?

As an Orthodox choir, our job is not to sing one or two “anthems” or “offertories” at specific points in the service as in a Protestant church. Our job is to help the congregation sing the entire service. With a 90% sung liturgy lasting close to an hour and a half, that’s no small feat. We sing liturgical music, which means we sing the music that comes out of the work of the people (the literal meaning of “liturgy”) [NOTE, 21 Dec 2012: this is the main spot where obviously my thinking has changed, and I would find a different way of putting this today]. That means, simply put, our worship is work. Given our leadership role in the work, our job is not to be individuals who just happen to stand in a different place in the nave from everybody else; our job is to lead the rest of the congregation into the ideal of “one voice” in worship. By definition, to do this takes time, effort, and commitment to taking that leadership role seriously.

It also takes the choir functioning as a community within the community. From one perspective, the expectation is quite high: we’ve gotten up early so our voices haven’t completely woken up yet, and if we’re receiving the Eucharist we haven’t been able to do the normal things that help get the throat and vocal cords going the way they need to—drink water, coffee, tea, eat something, and so on—but we still have nearly an hour and a half worth of singing to do, more if we’re singing in the Matins service. The only way we can do that well, not to mention healthfully, is to support each other, personally and vocally, so that no one person in any section is carrying everybody else for the entire Divine Liturgy. What it takes is simply time, effort, and commitment from all who are willing to give it. It’s that difficult and that easy.

To that end: In consultation with Fr. Athanasius, while I am directing the choir, we will take the following steps:

1) Incorporate the choir into Saturday evening Vespers for the four-part portions of the service, and rehearse either before or after Vespers. We will try rehearsing after Vespers for the time being; we might very possibly try it before Vespers if it is found that this works better all around. I have deliberately scheduled the rehearsal around an already existing service, and I will never take up more than an hour of your time at any given rehearsal. Ideally, there will be rehearsals where my agenda for the evening will take up less time than that, and we will only continue through to the end of the hour if there is something that the group wishes to work on. These rehearsals will consist of a combination of vocal warm-ups, sight-singing warm-ups, announcements, polishing music we already know and learning new music. The balance of these various components will vary from week to week, based on the service requirements for that week and coming weeks.

2) Warm up as a group either at 9:35am on Sunday morning or after the Matins Gospel, whichever comes first. Starting Sunday, 17 July 2005 (that’s two weeks from now), this will be the skeletal minimum with respect to my expectation of you if you intend to sing that morning. If you cannot make a Saturday evening rehearsal at this time, then I absolutely need you to warm up with the group Sunday morning. For those of you who sing in the Matins service, we will devise a regular rotation so that one week you may finish out Matins, the next week you will warm up with the choir, and so on.

3) Gradually phase out the use of soloists for verses and replace them with unison chanting. We will talk about this more as we go, but for Psalm verses and whatnot, I would like to see an alternating “left choir/right choir” approach, where perhaps the women sing one verse, the men sing the next verse, etc. We will experiment with this over time to see how it best works with this group. The vocal and acoustic circumstances are simply not ideal for solo voices, and where it is practical to use an ensemble, we will.

I will also do the following:

1) Put out a calendar outlining rehearsals and services coming up a month out (perhaps two months out, if I find that it’s necessary). If you know you won’t be at a rehearsal or a service, please sign out on the calendar. Additionally, if you plan to attend a service or a rehearsal, should something happen at the last minute preventing your attendance please call me or e-mail me as soon as you possibly can so that I know what to expect for that rehearsal or service. I offer you all the same courtesy—if something happens to me, I will let you all know as soon as I possibly can.

2) Make myself available for work outside of regularly scheduled rehearsals and services. For example—if you need help with something musically, want extra sight-singing practice, if the tenor section needs extra help and wants a section rehearsal, if you need to talk to me about something privately, or if you just want to chat, please give me a call or send me an e-mail and we will find time to do so.

3) Make rehearsals as fun as I possibly can. I want you all to want to come to rehearsal, not feel like you have to come, which in my experience will only ensure that you want to come even less. I want our rehearsals to be a friendly, positive working environment, because I think we’ll all get more done that way.

My final point for now is this: a no is as good as a yes, as far as I’m concerned. If, after hearing all of this, you are thinking to yourself, “He’s going to have to count me out,” that’s fine. I’m not mad at you, and neither is anybody else. What I ask, however, is that you not make a snap judgment now. I ask that you give it some time to see how it will work—perhaps you’ll surprise yourself.

I believe this is a group who is capable of a lot. If we can commit to putting in the time and the effort, and remember that this is not about us but about the glorification of God, I believe we will be able to accomplish a lot.

Okay, I’m done talking now. Let’s sing.

I also mentioned some passages from +BASIL’s essay, “The Ministry of Church Singers”. I think parts of this have to be contextualized as a bishop being pastoral and pious, but there are nonetheless some things he says unequivocally:

There are few ministries of the Church that require the devotion and the dedication that church singing does. You who lead the singing as well as you who follow the leader are precious gifts to your parishes. You are as important to the parish as is the holy table itself. As there can be no liturgy without the holy table, there can be no liturgy without you. This is not to compliment you or increase your pride, but rather to put a little fear and awe in you, so you know what your responsibilities are. Church singing is not a hobby. Being a choir director is not something one does for personal fulfillment. It is first and foremost a duty, a duty of those to whom God has given musical talents. It is sinful, in my opinion, for someone not to sing who has been given the gift to sing. Sinful! You join the angels, and do that which the angels do perpetually. That’s not an interest, avocation, or a hobby; it is a duty. Angels were created to serve and to praise, and you have been given voices for that same purpose.

[…] It’s a holiness. It’s not your ministry. It’s a ministry that belongs to the Church, and you respond to the call as well as recognize that the gift which you specifically fulfill in the church was, traditionally, and in some sense still is, an ordained ministry. The choir was not some club that existed in Church for those with some particular musical talent. To be a church singer was an ordained office within the Church. Canon 15, from the Council of Nicea, the Council of the 4th century, makes its point clear that only canonical singers should be appointed for that kind of ministry in the Church. That means “one set apart” for that particular ministry. Today we might call them Readers. While I’m not saying that every choir member must be a tonsured Reader, I do say that if we fulfill at least the spirit, if not the law of the Canon, that each choir member ought to see his/her participation in the choir as seriously as the ordained clergy take their ministry. I don’t know any priest who thinks that he can say on some Sunday, “I don’t want to serve because I want to sit with my wife,” or, “I don’t feel like serving today,” or, “I’m angry, one of the altar boys offended me, so I don’t want to serve this morning.”

[…] We jump in and we jump out. Some of us jump in on time and some of us jump in a little bit late. In my opinion, being in church for that first “Amen” is a sign, an indication of one’s humility. And where humility is, indeed, a virtue, its opposite is a sin. The sin is not disturbing other people. The other people in the church are not the object of our worship. It is rude, but not necessarily sinful, to disturb other people. But it is sinful to be presumptuous and prideful that one can jump in and sing with thousands of archangels and ten-thousands of angels at one’s own whim. “This Sunday I feel like singing, and next Sunday I won’t sing. I want to sit with my wife.” Leave that Hallmark—card kind of sentimentality for restaurants, concerts, and cinemas. You sing with angels, that’s secondary to sitting with any husband or wife or children. We stand before the throne of God, and when we realize that, every other consideration, all of our own personal likes and dislikes, become secondary. I’m giving my opinion now, and hopefully it humbles all of us. It’s a humiliation, that in its end, should be something that elevates us, that exalts us, something that gives us wing.

[…] You and your choir need be as aesthetically perfect as you are able. God not only expects, but He accepts only our best.

As I said to the choir last night, I’m a convert, not a cradle, and every convert brings with them some baggage from their previous experience. My background is one that places a high value on liturgical beauty and music, and that value is practical, not just theoretical. Church music is a profession. It is not unheard-of for church musicians in my former communion to have terminal degrees and to have half-time, if not full-time, salaries. While I have always known that such a set of circumstances would never even come close to being reality at All Saints, I have always tried to fulfill the musical function at All Saints as though those were the expectations of me — and I should stress the “of me” part, because certainly the point was never to turn the All Saints choir into an opera chorus. Rather, the point was that, if I was excited about what I did and took it seriously in the way +BASIL describes, hopefully everybody else would catch the spark, too, and get excited about it along with me. It was an experiment to see if one could build a fully-functioning music ministry at the only Orthodox parish in a town that was home to a Big Ten university and one of the best schools of music in the country. I’m happy that the experiment has borne fruit, even if it won’t specifically be attached to the parish anymore. All told, this (as well as the ongoing annotation and discussion of it here) represents a pretty good snapshot of my thinking of how the effort worked, and how I would approach such a project if I were to start afresh now.

Δόξα τῷ Θεῷ πάντων ἔνεκεν. As always, we’ll see what happens next. I thank All Saints, Fr. Peter, and those who sang with me for the chance to serve over the years, I hope that I was able to communicate some small element of what I love about our Church’s music despite all of my own faults and foibles, and I wish all of them, as well as whomever my successor will be, many blessings. Again, I crave your prayers for myself and my family as we make this transition.

Notes from the psalterion

I have been the choir director and cantor at All Saints since the summer of 2005. I sang there for two years before that, and I had been a professional church singer in Anglican circles for several years before that (in fact, an Episcopal church was the very first place that ever paid me to sing). As an Orthodox church musician, I’ve tried on several fronts to contribute to the conversation about our liturgical music; if you’ve followed my blog for any amount of time, you’ll be familiar with some of the ways I’ve tried to contribute, so I won’t recap all of that here.
Lately, I’ve had a number of discussions with people about what the operating principles should be for music in our churches. What is the function of the cantor/choir director? How should they conceive of doing their jobs? How should the quality of their work be measured? In the spirit of my recent post about principles regarding church buildings, I wanted to try to list some of my conclusions. There will be some definite overlap with the principles about building; in a way, the person who sings in church interacts with the building in a manner that others do not, so perhaps this should not be surprising. Some of this I also talk about here,
  • 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?

The St. John of Damascus Society

I have been making random references to something called “The St. John of Damascus Society” for a few months now, and I can finally say something a bit more concrete.

The really short version is that in the planning for the Orthodox Music Symposium at Indiana University, it became apparent that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for there to be a group that had administrative and financial independence from the church for purposes of putting together such things. We were piggybacking onto the parish for our tax-exempt status, and that nearly cost us a couple of our major supporters; plus, it would just be cleaner if we were able to have our own checkbook. The initial idea was something like a “Friends of Music at All Saints” or “All Saints Music Boosters”, and I went to Hal Sabbagh, a longtime chanter at and founding member of All Saints, to see what he thought. He was supportive of the idea, and was willing to help out however he could.

We incorporated as a non-profit in the state of Indiana last July; the next step was tax-exempt status, which meant assembling a board. Our Advisory Board consists of all of the presenters for the Symposium — John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Kurt Sander, Richard Toensing — as well as Matthew Arndt, an old friend of mine, one of the cantors at St. Raphael of Brooklyn Church in Iowa City and music theory professor at University of Iowa (as well as a former student of Richard Toensing’s). Our Executive Board consists of: Hal Sabbagh, president; Vicki Pappas, national chair of the National Forum of Greek Orthodox Church Musicians, vice-president; Laura Willms and Brian Rogers, two more very supportive cantors at All Saints, are secretary and treasurer, respectively; rounding out the Executive Board are Franklin Hess, coordinator of the Modern Greek program at Indiana University, and Patrick Michelson, the newly-hired (as of the 2011-12 academic year) Russian Orthodoxy specialist in IU’s Religious Studies department.

All of these people gave generously of their time, effort, and advice. By November we had everything we needed to assemble our application for federal tax-exempt status, and that went in the mail on 14 November.

As Hal found out over the phone with the IRS two days ago, our application for federal tax-exempt status was granted on Monday of this week, and we will be receiving a letter within the next couple of weeks with our number. So, time to get serious.

The St. John of Damascus Society, with everybody who is involved, has developed its scope significantly beyond being All Saints’ music boosters. The basic idea is to promote the idea of excellence in traditional forms of Orthodox music as good outreach — that singing well and singing prayerfully not only do not constitute a dichotomy, but it can serve as a powerful witness to those around us. We have a number of ideas about things we want to do locally, regionally, and nationally, and while we’ve waited for tax-exempt status to be sewn up before we went public with anything, I can tell you you’ll be hearing more very soon, including ways you can be involved.

We hope to have a website up shortly; in the meantime, if you’re interested in the St. John of Damascus Society based on this little teaser, would you mind filling out this form? That’ll make it really easy for us to get announcements to you as we make them. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Thanks very much, and I will have more to say very soon!


Richard’s Twitter

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