Posts Tagged 'madeleine choir school'

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.

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?

Two more last-nanosecond gift ideas

I meant to include the following items in the previous post, and, well, it just didn’t happen. So, here we go:

All Creation Trembled: Orthodox Hymns of the Passion Service, by the St. Romanos the Melodist Byzantine Choir of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (reviewed here). This is a half-in-Greek, half-in-English recording of Orthros for Holy Friday, and it’s a fantastic aural snapshot of what services are like in Holy Cross’ chapel. It’s chanted by the seminarians under the direction of Grammenos Karanos, the professor of Byzantine chant and protopsaltis for the chapel, and it’s a great addition to the growing number of recordings of Byzantine chant composed specifically for the English language. The St. Romanos Choir is a men’s ensemble; a recording of Holy Cross’ women’s chant ensemble, the St. Kassiani Choir, was made during the same sessions and will be coming out soon.

 

The Choir (reviewed here). A fascinating documentary on a truly admirable musical institution in this country, the Madeleine Choir School. The Madeleine Choir School is a ministry of the Cathedral of the Madeleine (Roman Catholic) in Salt Lake City, and they do some amazing work. The DVD gives a look at the experience of participating in the academic and musical life of a choir school — an experience that might be relatively common — or at least not unknown — in England, but is esoteric in the States to say the least. This is a wonderful gift for anybody who is a choral singer or a music educator.

The Choir: “I remember playing tetherball in Latin”

I have spent a decent amount of time trying to advocate for the idea of adopting the choir school model in an Orthodox setting, and one of the problems I’ve always run into is that nobody seems to have any idea of what the model I’m talking about looks like. I spend a lot of my time trying to explain what I’m talking about, and I describe examples like St. Thomas Fifth Avenue in New York or Westminster Cathedral Choir School in London, but the description can only go so far to bridge the gap between frames of reference.

http://utmcs.org/news-and-updates/item/218-documentary-the-choirThe Choir is a documentary about the Choir School of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it could be just the thing to bridge that gap, I think. It paints an extraordinary picture of an extraordinary place, and it gives you a great sense of what the school means to its teachers, its students, its alumni, and the people in the pews who hear the school’s singers from service to service. To be a chorister at the Madeleine Choir School is to have a rarefied kind of educational experience that prepares one for more than just opening one’s mouth and making pretty sounds; the experience imparts to the kids a lasting understanding of discipline, dedication, resilience, and, of course, faith. Oh yeah, and Latin (“I remember playing tetherball in Latin,” one alumnus says. “That doesn’t happen at any other school”). And, almost forgot, you also get to sing for the Pope.

The guides through this unique school are the students and alumni themselves. Certainly, Gregory A. Glenn, the founder and pastoral administrator of the School (as well as the Cathedral’s director of music and liturgy), and Melanie Malinka, the Choir School’s director of music, are both present throughout, the Papa Bear and Mama Bear so to speak. It’s not the adults, however, but rather the kids and graduates — some of whom have gone on to singing careers, acting careers, church music careers, and so on — who give you the most insight as to what it’s like. “It’s a lot of dedication,” a seventh grade girl tells us, “because you always need to be giving 100% so that the whole choir sounds good.” A fifth grade boy nervously explains, “You have to be in every Mass, but you can miss three. You can’t miss more than three or else. I don’t know because I haven’t missed,” he makes sure to emphasize. “You have to be at all the places on time or else you have to sign the log.” “It’s a lot of our own time, our own commitment,” a chorister says, “but we also get a lot of fun things out of it… [like] we get to go to Italy.” International travel aside, “[The dedication] was the big reward,” an alumna concludes.

Self-confidence is also a fruit of the School’s labor, as we hear in a discussion of what it’s like for kids to sing their first solos. “They put me right in the center of the altar, I was right in the front,” one alum tells us in a fairly typical anecdote, “[and they] had one of the adult members sing with me because my voice was so shaky.” Still, the lesson was valuable: “You just have to do it, you have to get over the nerves, because you know you can do it, you just have to trust yourself… I think it really boosted my confidence… if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of the things I’ve done [since].” Along similar lines, a current student says, “[W]henever I make a mistake like crack or something, I just keep on going,” a current student says. A classmate agrees: “Now I feel very confident to do it because I’ve already done it.”

The picture that emerges of the life lived by students in the School is intense, to say the least. Regular classes, music classes, violin lessons, choir rehearsals, services, concerts, tours. Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are very upfront about what it means to be a performing choir school: “[P]erformance tours are not really a luxury for a choir school, they’re a necessary part of the curriculum,” Glenn says. “It’s not a vacation,” Malinka concurs. “They are at school when they’re on these tours… We drag them from museum to museum to really enrich the experience as much as possible, and then in the evenings they have to sing a concert or a Mass.” But, Glenn insists, “what they learn on a performance tour is really remarkable.”

The Choir does a really amazing job of giving the viewer a sense of what being at the Choir School is like, and what the School contributes to the life of the Cathedral (and I have to imagine that the filmmakers drew some inspiration from the tantalizing little hint of the proposed series about the Westminster Cathedral Choir School that’s on YouTube). It’s a great ride; you know what a choir school is by the end of the film, you have some idea of what kids get out of being there as well as what they have to put into it, and you hear a lot of wonderful sacred music being sung very beautifully along the way. Still, they’re also very clear to make sure that, tours to Italy aside, the link that all of the great music and discipline and cute kids in choir robes has to the Christian faith is understood: “Even when the choir is giving a concert outside of the context of Catholic liturgy,” one of the Cathedral’s priests tells us, “they’re still evangelizing, they’re still praising God, they’re still giving glory to God[.]” Even so, as another priest says, “[M]usic and… liturgy go hand in hand. Without one, the other is a pauper… For someplace like a cathedral, which is the mother church of the diocese, it is very important to have a choir that is top-notch.”

There are stories lurking around the edges of what the filmmakers show us; how the heck did a Roman Catholic choir school wind up in Salt Lake City of all places, for example? Brief narration at the beginning ties it to a restoration of the Cathedral in the early ’90s, and Greg Glenn having the big idea that a musical institution like a choir school would go along nicely with the Cathedral’s renovation. That’s fine, but how did a building like the Madeleine Cathedral get built there to begin with? In general, the film dances around the Catholic/Mormon thing a bit (it tries to get around it with comments here and there from the conductor of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir); this is perhaps understandable, but the question looms regardless.

One also gets the impression that Gregory Glenn and Melanie Malinka are something of a yin and yang — Glenn perhaps the administrator and idea man, Malinka the teacher and musician. We see Glenn be energetic and vigorous, painting in big broad strokes in a rehearsal with older kids as well as in a performance; we’re also told in an outtake that Glenn didn’t allow any breaks during choir rehearsals, and it was only with Malinka’s hiring that the rehearsals became a little more humane. Malinka is quite enigmatic; she will take you down with the raise of an eyebrow during a Mass, but she also seems to edge towards getting teary-eyed when she talks about classes graduating (the Choir School is preschool through 8th grade). There seems to be a story here about the relationship between these two people at the center of the School, and there are moments when you find yourself curious to know more, but it’s not the story the film is telling.

Of course there is music throughout the film, and for the most part it’s fantastic. The filmmakers show you rehearsals where things don’t go so well, and when the adults react they make it clear the level of responsibility and effort they expect. There are some Morton Lauridsen things they included that I wasn’t thrilled with, but at the same time, you get them singing “Having beheld the Resurrection” from the Rachmaninoff All-Night Vigil in the Chiesa del Gesu in Rome (a very nice early moment). There is also a handful of isolated performances on the bonus disc — a chorale from a Bach cantata, an excerpt from Cherubini’s Requiem, and “Deep River” — and these are all also lovely.

If you’re somebody who does anything with music education of children in a sacred setting, you really owe it to yourself to watch The Choir (order it here). There is much here to learn from, much here to be inspired by, much here worth trying to adapt and reproduce for other contexts. I maintain that this is a model worth pondering in an Orthodox context, and I think this film will be a good tool for getting across what excellence in children’s sacred music education can look like. As Tom Hardy’s character says in Inception, “You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Watch The Choir, and I dare you to not be inspired to dream bigger.

Some interesting choir school stuff…

I’ve banged the drum about as loudly as I possibly can for at least starting a conversation about the choir school as a potential model for youth musical education in Orthodox Christianity, and nobody can say that the idea wasn’t given something of a popular hearing; it’s just clear that it isn’t anything anybody wants to talk about any further right now. Well, for a lone blogger, I guess I could have done worse. But what if I’m not just a lone blogger anymore…?

Oh, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Anyway, I’m morally obligated to pass along interesting tidbits about choir schools as I find out about them (I’m kind of the Ain’t It Cool News of the topic, I suppose), so here are a couple of them.

  • A few years ago, the then-blog of Westminster Cathedral in London posted an eight minute promo reel for a proposed documentary series about their choir school. It was a major inspiration to me, even in those eight minutes, but alas, the series never got past the promo reel, and then the rightsholders asked that the video be taken down. Well, recently, it’s been put back up. Here it is:
  • The Choir School of Madeleine Cathedral in Salt Lake City, it has just come to my attention, is also the topic of a forthcoming documentary. The Choir. They are at present finalizing their festival schedule, I’m told, so I have no idea exactly what the release pattern might look like, but I’ll be fascinated to see what the end result looks like. Here’s a trailer:

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