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Choir schools

Westminster Cathedral Choir School boys in action

This is a repost from the .Mac blog. It was one of the postings which was published as a graphic rather than text, hence the reposting.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m interested in the ability of the traditional, historical Christian faith to engage and transform the culture in which it finds itself, and looking at ways to do this. I have a concrete suggestion which relates to both music and education, and I would like to start a conversation about it with whomever will listen. I’ve tried to discuss this with people involved in PSALM, I’ve tried to discuss it with people who run some of the existing Orthodox parish schools, and either nobody gets it or nobody takes it seriously; I can’t tell which it is.

The following article was written two months ago, inspired by an article in The Word which seemed to perhaps open the door to talk about something like this. I submitted it to The Word but I don’t know if they’ll run it; wanting to do something, I present it here for the consideration of anybody who might be interested.

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They say things come in threes, and Bryan Smith’s article in the April 2007 issue of The Word, “Education in Christ: The Growth of Orthodox School,” was the third time in a week I had heard about the classical Trivium model of education being promoted within Christian circles. A traditionalist Roman Catholic friend of mine told me about a conference he had attended in Cincinnati, OH where the Trivium was being advocated for homeschoolers; I discovered that the planned Orthodox Christian Preparatory Academy in Seattle (my old stomping grounds) is forming its curriculum around this model; and finally, Mr. Smith’s excellent piece showed that this idea is gradually coming to the point of critical mass. As people who will eventually be raising children in the Orthodox Christian faith, it is heartening to my wife and me that there might very well be educational options that will be edifying to mind and soul. I encourage those involved with Orthodox schools, however, to give serious thought to a necessary segment of the curriculum which is largely absent from Mr. Smith’s discussion: music. More specifically, I exhort these people to consider the possibility of in fact establishing Orthodox choir schools.

The general benefits of music as part of a child’s education have been exhaustively covered in many other venues, so I will limit myself here towards talking about the particular characteristics of a choir school. First off—what exactly is a choir school? For many, the images conjured up by the term are of rood screens and stone chapels and malnourished-seeming boy sopranos vested in cassocks and ruffs lining up in stalls. If we are talking about eighteenth century England, this is not necessarily wrong, but neither is it exactly what I mean. Rather, in its ideal form, a choir school combines the concepts of Christian education, community and worship, and further enhances them by training students to sing the music of the Church. Music becomes an educational cornerstone; in addition to the rest of the curriculum (in the case, the Trivium), the boys and girls are taught to read music, to sing, perhaps as well to play an instrument, and then this is applied in the context of worship by having them sing services on a regular schedule. By singing services, this becomes something beyond mere musical education; it is also liturgical catechesis. In other words, not only is their education improved, but so is their liturgical life—as well as that of the parish community housing the school!

While it is true that the most well-known inheritors of this tradition are Anglicans in England, such schools exist today in the United States, such as the Choir School of the Madeleine (Roman Catholic) in Salt Lake City, UT or St. Thomas Choir School (Episcopal) in New York. Even in England, the Roman Catholic Choir School of Westminster Cathedral has been a wonderful example of such an institution. As well, the school of the Moscow Synodal Choir of the late nineteenth century provides a relatively recent Orthodox precedent. Looking at these examples, of course, it is clear that not every aspect is necessarily desirable or practical. Certainly an all-boys boarding school is not likely to be an option many are going to want to pursue; on the other hand, the Choir School of the Madeleine provides a useful model of a co-educational day school.

This is not born of any kind of desire to keep up with the ecclesiastical Joneses; rather, to refer back to Mr. Smith’s article, it is in keeping with the desire to create for Orthodox Christian students an educational environment “of Orthodox spirituality and piety to all that is true, good, and beautiful.” What better way to do this, and have the entire community benefit, than as a fundamental part of their education for them to sing daily services?

There is also the practical matter of tomorrow’s choir directors, singers and psaltoi being not likely to simply appear out of thin air. I am fortunate enough at my parish to have a good number of teenagers who are interested in singing and chanting, making it possible to have a youth choir singing a Liturgy by themselves once a month—but in general, we need to be making sure we are teaching our children how to sing the music of the Church, and developing an Orthodox choir school curriculum would be a wonderful step to take towards this goal.

Are our children capable of learning this kind of material? Of course they are! Our young people are going to have a far easier time receiving this kind of musical instruction at their current age than they will when they are older. In January of this year, John Boyer, protopsaltis of the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of San Francisco and member of Cappella Romana, participated in a pilot residency at the Agia Sophia Academy in Portland, OR, teaching three classes of children from grades one through six to sing music written in Byzantine notation. Music teacher Kathleen Powell, who invited Boyer to Agia Sophia, said that his interdisciplinary approach stretched the students in a number of directions. “The children enthusiastically responded to [his] techniques,” she said, “which required them to use not only their musical skills, but also their Greek language, mathematical skills, and scientific reasoning.” (Source: Cappella Romana website) If elementary school students are able to do this after three classes, how much more will they be able to do with sustained exposure throughout their education?

Are there challenges involved in developing this as part of the curriculum for an Orthodox Christian school? Absolutely there are, and I am by no means suggesting that this is something easy to pull off. However, many of the pieces required are already described in Mr. Smith’s article—chapel services, learning the Hours, and so on. Good planning and the devotion of some resources can go a long way towards expanding that framework.

I do not pretend to have a comprehensive, detailed plan about how to accomplish this, nor is this intended to be an exhaustive treatment of the topic—although, as a topic near and dear to my own heart, I could most certainly go on for volumes if given the opportunity. Mr. Smith’s article makes clear that Orthodox Christian schools are an idea whose time has come, or at least draws nigh; I only suggest a direction some of these schools could take. Consider this an attempt to start a conversation, nothing more.

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