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!”
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.
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.