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.


14 Responses to “An Orthodox choir school: how I’d do it”

  1. 1 Amy Hogg 19 December 2014 at 1:03 pm

    I think that An Orthodox choir school is a great idea. Right now I have my hands full developing Byzantine Beginnings so it is hard for me to imagine traveling the country (and world) researching choir schools. I am definitely interested in discussing curriculum, teaching methods, and teacher training for the Byzantine chant side of things. I received literally hundreds of hours of training during my first two years of teaching elementary school and it made a HUGE difference.

    • 2 Richard Barrett 19 December 2014 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Amy — the thing to do is to try to get some momentum behind the concept, which hopefully then might lead to the resources to get the initial steps accomplished. Please, share this around, and when there’s a step forward we can take, I’ll make sure everybody knows it!

      And I’m *so* sorry that I haven’t returned your call — the weeks since Thanksgiving have seen me running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Let’s try to touch base in the next few days.

  2. 3 Anne Schoepp 19 December 2014 at 1:42 pm

    Dear Richard,

    I have been teaching general music classes once a week and one choir rehearsal per week to children in the St. Lawrence (Orthodox) Academy in Felton, CA. This is a parochial school in a sizable Orthodox parish that serves 46 children in grades K – 1. I have been doing this for 20 years or so. The children’s choir sings a minimum of two concerts a year, sometimes sings for the ill or at other events, such as local Orthodox festivals. They also sing every Divine Liturgy in the parish that falls within the school week and hours, so Feasts of the Theotokos, Cross, St. Nicholas, Mid-Pentecost, as well as Lazarus Saturday. A small group of adult choir members also sing these Liturgies, so it helps the children become confident on harmonies and various melodies. They also sing morning prayers everyday, and this year I trained a group of them to lead the singing for that service. A fifth grader gives the pitches and a seventh grader directs. They know an incredible amount of liturgical music by now, an they can graduate 8th grade and join our adult choir if they wish.

    I love your idea of a choir school, but it seems like a lot of effort to put into one location. It seems to me that supporting music education in the existing Orthodox Academies around the country would be perhaps a more feasible place to start, because there are already children gathered and structures in place. Most of these schools are functioning on a very tight budget and there may little funding for music. While I am a paid choir director in my parish my work with the children is volunteer. I am a parent of five children that went through the school (19 years as an Academy parent), and more than filled my required volunteer hours with this. (I also directed two musicals per year with the children, although now I am only directing the Christmas musical.) There may be schools that have more resources than ours. We have many families with many children and very little money, and at least half of our students are on scholarship, so just keeping the school running is an ongoing challenge.

    Obviously this concern is very dear to my heart too, and I am thankful that I have been able to contribute in this way. I would love to be in this conversation, and would love to see the Madeline school information.

    May God guide bless our efforts.
    Anne Schoepp

    • 4 Richard Barrett 19 December 2014 at 2:36 pm

      Thanks, Anne! In terms of being a lot of effort for one location, what I’ll say is this. I spent 11 years in a location that was, theoretically, fairly central in the United States, but as far as Orthodox Christianity went, was about as isolated as you could be without being in Wyoming. Almost anything and everything the parish there took on could be (and often was) fairly described as “being a lot of effort for one location”, right down to building a church. It still needed to be done. Along the same lines, the Madeleine school is certainly “a lot of effort for one location” (in Salt Lake City, no less!), but it’s still worth doing.

      The other thing I’ll say is that musical efforts in particular often get problematized in “American Orthodoxy” (whatever we mean by that) as “reinventing the wheel”, that reduplication of effort doesn’t accomplish anything. I have certainly received that kind of criticism for establishing The Saint John of Damascus Society. What needs to be recognized is that not all wheels will travel on the same roads (the wheels that I have been told I’ve reinvented certainly weren’t rolling through my town any time soon), people and institutions need to play to their strengths, and dispersion of effort that hangs everything on the energies of either one person or a tiny handful of people is a disaster waiting to happen. The Madeleine Choir School is not the only Catholic school in the Salt Lake City metro area, for example, but its existence allows for the faculty and students to play to a particular set of strengths, and the result is an example that is inspiring. Supporting music education in existing Orthodox schools is a great thing to do, but it also seems to me that establishing a model school that focuses particularly on that aspect will allow for a level of excellence to develop and be made manifest publicly. I think we accomplish a lot more when we’re able to work together than when we’re isolated; my experience is that most of us Orthodox musicians are too isolated from each other as it is, and that that is a bad thing.

      If you can send me an e-mail with your address, I’ll send you a copy of The Choir. richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org.

      • 5 Anne Schoepp 22 December 2014 at 5:58 pm

        Richard, Gathering musicians together is a great thing, but you’re going to have to gather the kids too, and they come with families, who tend to be rooted where parents have jobs. What I wonder is what city has enough Orthodox families with children who would participate? Perhaps it exists, I don’t know. It’ll take some hunting around and checking out communities. I’m not bashing your approach at all, if it works that would be wonderful, I’m just thinking from the family point of view.

      • 6 Richard Barrett 22 December 2014 at 7:34 pm

        Most certainly; I raise this as an issue in this post, and talk about how it could be addressed. Adam Kemner’s comment and my reply also discuss it further. A valid point, and I think that for a first attempt at this, the objective is to find a city with a decent economy and arts support, and where there’s a substantial and diverse Orthodox population with lots of kids and parental involvement, AND where cost of living isn’t oppressive.

  3. 7 Anna Harrington 19 December 2014 at 11:07 pm

    Richard, I don’t have suggestions or anything in particular to comment on. I just wanted to say how inspiring your vision is—For our children’s future.

  4. 8 Adam Kemner 20 December 2014 at 10:25 am


    I have a couple of suggestions. I think your idea is brilliant. Isolation is not something that many understand, so a centralized school is good, although the idea of a boarding school is a little foreign to Americans (the examples provided notwithstanding). At any rate, I would suggest a location like Pittsburgh, PA, Chicago or (gasp) Cleveland/Toledo. These are central locations, generally accessible (international airports, interstates are main arteries, and are accessible by rail). Also, these cities also contain a wide variety of jurisdictions (Pittsburgh more so than the others). Pittsburgh and Chicago also have the advantage of having a high degree of support of the arts, and Pittburgh is best, as there are several cathedrals there, a Byzantine Music society, and the cost of living is less than San Francisco, Boston or New York.

    My second suggestion is looking into the Kodaly method, at least for young students. It is choral based, and focuses on the innate musical abilities of the student and can be taught to children as young as two or three. Teaching of notation is later, and Byzantine/Znamennyj scores become easier to learn, because they fulfil their role of reminding the cantor what the melody is (since they would already know it at some core).

    In Christ,

    • 9 Richard Barrett 20 December 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Thanks, Adam! I will say that a boarding school is not necessarily part of the vision. St. Thomas is a boarding school; the Madeleine is not, and St. Paul Harvard Square is not, either. That’s an element that I would want the planning committee to make a recommendation about; there would advantages and disadvantages both ways.

      Your city suggestions are well-taken; one of the big things I think I’d want to know if planning this for real is, what cities best represent a “sweet spot” between, as you say, support of the arts, cost of living, churches that could support such a school, AND cities where the Orthodox community has a healthy concentration of families with kids. Certainly Chicago and Pittsburgh seem like good places to look at; Cleveland certainly has a lot of churches and support of the arts, but the family situation there is unclear to me. Toledo I don’t know enough about. Maybe we find a less-dense place where there’s a relatively new mission or parish that would be willing to develop their own plans around hosting such a school.

      The Kodaly method is a good suggestion! Thank you. I’m meeting with the Music Director of the St. Paul Choir School sometime next month, and I’ll be curious to hear what he has to say about how he works with young students; I know the Madeleine people use Kodaly to some extent.

      Thanks very much for your suggestions — I appreciate it!

      One of the concrete things that’s needed from here is, simply, resources. Since I appear to have gotten some folks’ attention here, I’ll make that something I address in a followup post.

  5. 10 Lena 20 December 2014 at 9:47 pm

    I live in a very remote area, we have 2 small parishes nearby, but people have “no interest of being inspired” to do anything. Music is done the way it’s been done in the last 30 years. Very few people can read music or sing at all.

    I have some musical background, I am studying singing and conducting with Vladimir Gorbik (PatrAm), and have a deep desire to instill the love of church music into my 2 toddlers.

    I worry that they will inherit the predominant point of view that church singing has to be done the way it is done now. There are very few children around, and we are planning on homeschooling.

    This is a much smaller scale than what you are describing, but perhaps you could give me some tips?

    Thank you!

    • 11 Richard Barrett 22 December 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Lena! If you want, e-mail me at richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus DOT org, and we can talk about this more that way. I’ve got a number of thoughts but want to hear more about your situation, and that’s a conversation probably best had someplace other than a combox.

  6. 13 turtlemom3 17 January 2015 at 9:19 pm

    Richard, I do have a strong suggestion – take advantage of the existing Choir Conferences. The summer program at Holy Trinity Monastery (men, women and teens currently attend) is stringent, but is so rewarding. The more you know, the better you will be able to develop your school. Then once or twice a year, the ROCOR presents a Choir Conference at which many people from many traditions gather to learn and to sing. That end-of-conference performance is amazing!
    Byzantine choir conferences I’m less familiar with, except to say I know there are one or two a year. The Monastery in Arizona has wonderful Byzantine choir materials that are very helpful in learning to chant both from Western notation and from old Byzantine notation. The differences between the two notation as to how the chants sound are amazing to my Western ear!
    So, please utilize the resources that already exist. A summer camp for choir for children and teens could be a good start – and you probably already. thought of it! LOL!

  1. 1 Follow up on choir schools, with a suggested course of action | Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 22 December 2014 at 3:00 pm

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