Not an April Fool’s joke — a sincere invitation

I don’t know who you might be, or what your circumstances are. Regardless, if you’re an Orthodox Christian (or are in the process of converting) and a musician, I’d like to invite you to come to Bloomington, Indiana.

Maybe, it being college decision time of year, you’re a graduating high school senior who has grown up singing in your choir or chanting at your analogion, you’re trying to figure out which of your many college acceptance offers to take, and Indiana University is one of your options. Maybe you’re a grad student who’s considering coming here. Maybe you’re an adult who’s at a transitional point for one reason or another and Bloomington has something else you’re looking for. I really have absolutely no idea to whom this invitation might speak, but I feel like it must be extended.

I will be frank. I have absolutely nothing to offer you. I have no means by which to negotiate a recruitment package. My own stipend is modest at best, and it’s as much as can responsibly fit into the parish’s budget, so I have no way to pay soloists or section leaders. In the long term, I am working on a way that eventually there might be scholarships that we can offer to incoming students who are interested in Orthodox music and are willing to make a commitment to the choir while they’re here, but that’s a few years off yet at least. It’s a building that’s a challenge to sing in, to put it mildly. I will expect you to make music here a priority — at the very least, to come to rehearsals on Thursday evenings, and I will hope that you choose to come to Vespers and Matins as well as Divine Liturgy. You will need to have a car, because the parish isn’t accessible any other way.

However, we are trying to build something at All Saints. We’re trying to develop the music at All Saints into something we’re proud of, to turn All Saints into a home for Orthodox music fitting for the only Orthodox church in the town that hosts one of the best schools of music in the United States. Right now, for a number of reasons, we’re focusing on Byzantine chant, and trying to do that as well as we can with what resources we have available. We’re hoping that very soon we will have concrete developments that we can announce with regard to a new building that will be, if all goes well, the best place to sing in Bloomington. We’re not there yet, but we’re trying as hard as we can to get there as soon as we can. The St. John of Damascus Society — and we’re still waiting for our tax-exempt status to come back, which is why I haven’t made any humongous formal announcement about anything we’re doing quite yet — is part of how we’re trying to get there.

So, again, if you’re an Orthodox Christian with an interest in and an aptitude for our liturgical music, and you for some reason or another might be considering a move, I invite you to consider Bloomington, Indiana. There is an Orthodox church here, we’re hoping to be able to carry out some big dreams, and we need your help to do it, if you’re so inclined to take a leap of faith. I’ve got no idea at all who you might be that you are in a station in life where what I have to say might speak to you. There’s nothing to lose by trying at least — but if there might be people out there and I don’t try, then nothing will have been accomplished. So, if you’re out there, give it some thought and some prayer.

If you have questions, you can reach me at rrbarret AT indiana . edu.


5 Responses to “Not an April Fool’s joke — a sincere invitation”

  1. 1 Ole Kern 3 April 2012 at 5:20 pm


    Just want to say that your invitation hasn’t gone completely unread. I can’t come an help you out, but I admire the effort. Many parishes need much more of this “effort” with regard to their music. From all the parished I’ve visited, while I do have preferences as to the type of music (which means “varied” so I don’t get bored), I really just want a parish do whatever they do WELL and not just go through the motions, which unfortunately happens way too often.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 4 April 2012 at 12:31 am

      Thanks for the kind words, Ole. I will say that a couple of my attempts at casting a broad net (or throwing a Hail Mary pass, depending on how one looks at it) have had unexpected results in the last couple of days.

      I have found, on the whole, that the culture of Orthodoxy in America has a very, shall we say, complex relationship to its music. I’m going to have to keep some things reasonably close to the chest here, but I can say that the musical “project” at my parish has not necessarily been met with universal support, either locally or abroad. Some people, like yourself, have said that yes, of course, that’s what should be done, because it’s worth doing well. Others have been more critical, and I have to say I’m really fuzzy on the reasons. Some people genuinely seem to think that we’re better off if the music is done without such effort; efforts towards doing it well tend to focus attention in the wrong spot, it tends to discourage congregational singing (I’m also fuzzy on when exactly this became the be-all-end-all of “participation”, but that’s a conversation for a different time), it tends to make it a thing that people with rarefied training do while excluding people of middling to low ability rather than inspiring them to try to take part, it’s a poor use of time, effort, and people for a small parish with limited resources, the kind of time commitment it takes to do this kind of thing just isn’t going to be worth it for Joe Schmoe, who’s to say what “doing it well” means when you’re talking about church and not everybody has a musician’s ears anyway, people just want to sing what they like the way they know how to sing it, and so on. It has always been more than a little strange to me that your average bad Baptist choir down the street would never think of NOT having choir rehearsal on Thursday night and would freely use peer pressure to make sure everybody was there on time Sunday morning, but in the Orthodox world the whole concept of “rehearsal” is, as I said in one of my talks in Emmaus, not by any means well-loved. “Orthodoxy is just different, so that doesn’t work,” I’m told by some, but I haven’t been given any compelling reasons as to why that might be. We have the richest traditions of sung worship in Christendom, and from where I sit, we tend to treat that inheritance as a luxury car we own free and clear but can’t afford to maintain or insure. It’s very difficult for me to understand why this is, but I am familiar with people near and far who passionately believe that the whole concept of an “Orthodox church musician” is simply far beyond where we’re at right now, and we’re better off embracing loud, messy, rough-around-the-edges mediocrity as an authentic expression of who we are at this point.

      Naturally, I don’t agree with any of that. Still, as I say, I have encountered what we might call skepticism and/or criticism of objectives centering around quality of liturgical music from parties foreign and domestic, and in some very surprising contexts. Ah well — what can you do.

  2. 3 Ole Kern 5 April 2012 at 6:42 pm

    My short answer to those that don’t think music needs to be done well:

    Fr. Thomas Hopko, speaking at the PSALM national conference a few year ago at All-Saints in Chicago, emphatically told the participants that mediocrity is NOT acceptable for music in Orthodox parishes. As you know, PSALM has support of Bishops and music muckity-mucks from nearly every Orthodox jurisdiction (maybe not ROCOR, but I could be mistaken). I’ll reply further later.

    • 4 Richard Barrett 6 April 2012 at 4:10 pm

      Yes, I was there to hear him say that. Specifically (consulting my own notes), Fr. Sergei Glagolev said, “We have to have the ability to change, because when things don’t change, they’re dead.” Fr. Hopko replied, “I disagree that dead things don’t change. Rather, dead things become more rotten, corrupted and stinky.” He also issued a rather direct challenge: “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.”

      In aid of this sentiment, he told the following story: a parish started talking about buying a new chandelier. It came to the parish council, and one person stood up and said, “I am absolutely against this. We don’t need a chandelier, we don’t want a chandelier, and we can’t pay for a chandelier.” The priest asked, well, what do you mean? “It’s too expensive,” the man said, “and we don’t even know where to buy one.” (Scattered laughter from the audience.) He went on: “Plus, there’s nobody in the parish who can play one, and it’s not even part of our tradition anyway.” (More laughter from the audience.) He finished by saying, “I just can’t understand why we’re talking about buying a chandelier when what we really need is more light!” (Peals of laughter from the audience.)

      All well-said. I’m not entirely certain how much authority PSALM ever really had, however, and at least from over here in the Midwest, it’s not clear to me how active they are these days anyway. I had a long phone conversation with one of their more involved people a little over a year ago, and that person made it sound like it’s at best on pause for the time being and foreseeable future. The last time I consulted the Yahoo! group for any kind of counsel, it was very clear to me that there are more, shall we say, “interested parties” than musicians involved in those discussions at present, and at least some of those “interested parties” appear to be very critical of anything like the sentiments Fr. Hopko expressed in 2006.

  1. 1 Reminiscences from PSALM, Chicago, 2-5 August 2006 « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 6 April 2012 at 8:09 pm

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