Posts Tagged 'st john of damascus society'

This year’s gift ideas

Christmas gift ideas are something I’ve done before, and it’s that time again, to say the least. Christmas is a week from tomorrow, so probably you want to order whatever it is you’re going to order in the next couple of days if you want to make sure it’s received on time. Here are this year’s gift suggestions, from me to you:

– Fr. Ivan Moody’s new book, Modernism and Orthodox Spirituality in Contemporary Music. I’ll be review this book shortly for Orthodox Arts Journal, but I’ll go ahead and recommend it to you now. It’s a fascinating look at how 20th/21st century art music from around the world engages Orthodox liturgical music and vice versa, and really turns on its head the idea that “Orthodoxy doesn’t do art”.


– Keeping with the theme, the CD Arctic Light: Finnish Orthodox Music, with Fr. Ivan Moody conducting Cappella Romana. I reviewed it here, and it’s a terrific stocking stuffer for the lover of choral music who might like something a little different.


– The world-music collective Dünya has a really fascinating recording out titled A Story of the City: Constantinople, Istanbul. It’s a collection of Byzantine music, Ottoman classical music, and more; I highly recommend it.



– One more CD suggestion: Christmas in Harvard Square, by the St. Paul’s Choir School, Harvard Square. I just blogged something about the school, so they’re on my mind; plus, it’s a really nice treble sound.



The Tom Bihn Checkpoint Flyer briefcase was a gift suggestion here three years ago; this year, I’m pleased that I can finally suggest the Parental Unit, their brand spanking new diaper bag. I remain pleased with my Checkpoint Flyer three and a half years after buying it (as well as with Tom Bihn’s customer service; they’ve been as good as their word on the lifetime guarantee), and while the Parental Unit came along a little late for our needs with Theodore (as in two and a half years late), it looks like it’ll be great for future consideration. (Not an announcement, by the way.)

– Sometime in, I think, 1989, I read an interview in the long-defunct Comics Scene magazine with an animator named Richard Williams. He had just won two Oscars for his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and he talked about how this was allowing him to finish, at long last, his decades-in-the-making masterpiece, The Thief and the Cobbler. The story of why this turned out not, in fact, to be case, why instead Disney released its, shall we say, fascinatingly similar film a few years later (arguably getting away with murder), and why you might find a $2 DVD in grocery store bargain bins titled Arabian Knight using some of the animation produced for Cobbler is nothing less than one of the artistic tragedies of the twentieth century. Over the last few years years, there has been something of a renaissance of interest in Cobbler, with an unofficial, so-called “recobbled” cut having been produced by one Garrett Gilchrist. Over the last year, there have been a couple of screenings of Williams’ workprint, both at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and at the British Film Institute. Filmmaker Kevin Schreck has also produced a documentary about Cobbler and why you never saw it titled The Persistence of Vision, and it has been very well-received in the festival circuit for the last year or so. While it’s a difficult film to license commercially for a number of reasons, Kevin has been able to produce a limited edition 2-disc DVD release of the documentary, and it also includes Williams’ workprint among the special features. It is available for what it is officially being called a donation of $25, and I recommend it highly — it really is fascinating.

– Averil Cameron’s new book, Byzantine Matters, is a concise, readable overview of the state of the field of Byzantine studies, as she sees it. There’s a lot here that’s worth thinking about, and while much of it is prompted by her ongoing feud with Byzantinists who work a bit later than she does, she is up front about that disagreement and what she thinks the problem is.


– Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery. I’ve spoken my piece about Twin Peaks here already, so hopefully this speaks for itself. Just get it.



– If Twin Peaks is your thing, there’s also Reflections: An Oral History of Twin Peaks, a behind-the-scenes treatment of the series by Brad Dukes. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks really interesting.




StJohnDamascus-logo-color-420x230– Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, and there’s also a book called 75 Years of DC Comics that would be right up my alley. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this. Or even this.

Okay — Christ is born! Glorify Him! May you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!


How you get better as an Orthodox musician

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!”

theodoros protopsaltis

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.

THBII alleluia notation

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.

Need last-minute gift ideas?

It’s Monday of the week before Christmas. Do you have all your Christmas shopping done? Of course you don’t. So, here are some suggestions:

The Gifted Pan prosphora baking dish. For the would-be ecclesiastical baker who feels stymied by handheld seals that seem to have never been applied five minutes after what seems like pressing down with all your might.


Scapple. If you’re a Scrivener user, this is an excellent companion application that basically allows you to doodle your ideas without having to go quite to the intellectually self-conscious extreme of “mind-mapping”.


– Turning to Tradition: Converts and the Making of an American Orthodox Church by Fr. Dellas Oliver Herbel (Oxford University Press, 2013). I reviewed the book here; in short, it’s a great book for anybody interested in North American religious trends or Orthodox Christianity in the United States, with a lot to digest in a very reasonable length.


– Stocking stuffer 3-pack of CDs: Cappella Romana‘s Tikey Zes: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (reviewed here) and Robert Kyr — A Time for Life: An Environmental Oratorio (reviewed here), with Archangel Voices‘ Panagia: Orthodox Hymns to the Mother of God (reviewed here). Three very different kinds of recordings of what one might broadly call “Orthodox music”, and each very good in its own way. The Kyr is an oratorio informed by Orthodox liturgy; the Zes is an Orthodox liturgy that at times feels like an oratorio; and Panagia is a themed recital of Orthodox choral music about the Virgin Mary. What’s funny is that the Zes disc is sung entirely in Greek but often seems quite Italian; Panagia is all in English but feels quite Russian. What can you do (or, if you like, Τι να κάνουμε)?

– Sweet Song: A Story of Saint Romanos the Melodist by Jane G. Meyer (reviewed here). A beautifully-illustrated (and not distractingly anachronistic) children’s book set in sixth-century Constantinople during an episode in the saint’s life. If you’ve got a young reader who’s interested in singing in church or who has started to develop an early fascination with Byzantine and hagiographic arcanity, this is the book you want.

– 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking by Paul Levitz (Taschen, 2010). And this would be the book for the reader who is simply a geek and unashamed to admit it. Like, you know, me. (Just sayin’, just sayin’s is all.)

– Finally, if none of these speak to you, I offer the possibility that you could make a donation to The Saint John of Damascus Society. We’ve got a lot of different things that we’re working on, including the Psalm 103 project but also much more, and making a gift in the name of somebody you care about would be a lovely gesture for all concerned. All gifts are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law. The above link will take you to our website’s “Support” page; click the “Donate” button and PayPal will take care of the rest. If you’re interested in giving a gift but want to have a conversation with a person about it, get in touch with me (either via the combox here or by e-mailing richardbarrett AT johnofdamascus . org), and I’ll be happy to talk to you.

And, should you for some unknown reason be looking to give me a Christmas gift, well — you can certainly give something to the Saint John of Damascus Society, and it will definitely make me happy. I also wouldn’t sneeze at 75 Years of DC Comics. And, hey, this blog has its own “Make a Donation” button. If those options don’t speak to you, well, there’s always this.

Okay — may you all stay well the rest of the fast (and beyond, of course)!

Support The Saint John of Damascus Society on #GivingTuesday

Hi all, both of you. I’ve been blogslacking. I know this. I’m teaching, dissertating, childrearing, my wife is doing the same, I’m applying for grants and fellowships for next year, I’ve got a commute to church I didn’t have a year ago, and this has been a very busy fall for the Saint John of Damascus Society. I have a few posts that I will have up in the next week or so, and then hopefully I can sort of get back to normal.

SJDS GivingTuesday LogoIn the meantime — today is #GivingTuesday, the day that’s intended to provide balance to Black Friday and Cyber Monday by focusing on giving to charitable causes rather than gifts of a retail, commercial nature. The Saint John of Damascus Society, as a non-profit charitable organization, is participating in #GivingTuesday, and I invite you to consider celebrating today by supporting us. My full appeal is here, but you will be supporting efforts like the Psalm 103 project.

Giving to the Society online is very easy; go to, click the “Donate” button, and PayPal will walk you through it from there. If you’re interesting in making a gift but want to do it another way, or you want to talk to me about it further, then by all means get in touch with me by e-mail — richardbarrett AT — and we can chat.

Thanks for your consideration. Semi-regular blogging will resume soon.

The Psalm 103 project on Ancient Faith Radio

I’ll say more about this in official channels (like my Director’s Notes blog over on the Saint John of Damascus Society’s website), but Ancient Faith Radio posted a pretty lengthy interview about the Psalm 103 project yesterday; give it a listen, and help spread the word!

Still, to give a brief rundown as to where things are at —

SJDS networks of echoes flyer 2 med resAll of our composers are coming into town next month; they’ll all be here by Friday, 11 October, and they’ll have a working weekend where they put together their creative scheme for the composition of piece. As part of the weekend, they will do a public presentation called “Networks of Echoes: Collaboration, Community, and Creativity in the Musics of Eastern Orthodox Churches”. Each composer will talk informally for probably 10-15 minutes about their approach to collaboration, what specifically they bring to the collaboration, how they see the different repertoires people are working with fitting together, etc. There will also be a 12-piece choir on hand to sing representative musical examples chosen by the composers, and it will be conducted by Christopher Grundy, a doctoral student here at the IU Jacobs School of Music who is the former Assistant Conductor of the Yale Russian Chorus and the Yale Glee Club. After each composer talks for a bit, there will be a roundtable Q&A with everybody. It’s free and open to the public, and it will be at 7pm on Saturday, 12 October at First Christian Church in Bloomington, 205 E. Kirkwood Ave (right off of the square on the main drag in the center of town). It’s the same day as All Saints’ Festival on Fairfax; that goes until 5pm, and we start at 7, so if you’re coming into town for the Festival, please stay for our event!

We’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with the Indiana University College of Arts & Sciences Themester 2013 effort; they’ve been very generous, and we’re very appreciative of the support. Also, this program has been made possible through a matching grant from Indiana Humanities in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Humanities. The IU Institute for European Studies, the Russian and East European Institute, and the Modern Greek program have also given us substantial support.

This is a couple of months ago now, but Come Receive the Light on Orthodox Christian Network also ran a bit about us over the summer, and that’s definitely worth a listen.

In any event, we’ve got no shortage of publicity at this stage of the game — what we need to make sure we have now is an audience sitting there on the evening of 12 October. So, please — if you’re anywhere nearby, make time to come and see what we’re doing, and help us get the word out!

Some contributions elsewhere

I’ve been catching up with blogging here, yes, but I’m also catching up with things I’ve been supposed to write for other sites as well. I did a writeup of some of what the Saint John of Damascus Society has been up to during the summer (TL,DR: quite a bit, actually), and I also posted part V of my “Notes from the Psalterion” series over at Orthodox Arts Journal.

Also, this morning, I got the offprint (that is, in this case, a pdf reproduction) for “‘Let Us Put Away All Earthly Care’: Mysticism and the Cherubikon of the Byzantine Rite”, which is showing up in Studia Patristica LXIV, Vol. 12: Ascetica; Liturgica; Orientalia; Critica et Philologica. This is my second peer-jockeyed article as a historian, and it came out of the paper I presented at my first big-boy conference two years ago. I’ve uploaded the pdf to my profile, so give it a look if you’re curious.

More thoughts on crowdfunding

Almost three months ago I posted my thoughts on Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, and I hinted at the end that The Saint John of Damascus Society would be trying its own hand at crowdfunding. We unveiled the project on 16 April, and I’m happy to be able to say that when the clock ran out at 11:23am on 16 May, this is how things looked:

sjds kickstarter final tallyMany thanks to all who pledged; there is much more to come where this project is concerned, so if you want to support us as we go forward, you most certainly can — just click here for SJDS’s PayPal button. If you don’t want to do it electronically, that’s fine too; send a note via this form and we’ll work something out.

To share some observations about the campaign that hopefully others might find helpful —

We really learned a lot by just muddling through on this one. The original thought was, hey, let’s make pledging as economically accessible as possible. We want lots and lots of $1-$50 pledges, not a smaller number of $100-$1000 pledges, and we structured the pledging rewards along those lines. The first video was also basically just my disembodied voice presenting a Keynote slide deck as though I were doing a grant proposal. There were a lot of issues that I felt we had to overcome; we’re a new organization without any kind of a built-in audience or name recognition, so we’ve got to sell who we are, we’ve got to sell the project as a whole, and we’ve also got to explain the breakdown of the phases and exactly what is being paid for when. Also, we don’t have any rights to any musical excerpts ourselves, so we seemed limited to what we could do visually. Anyway, I made the snazziest slide deck I could, narrated it as clearly as I could, converted it to QuickTime, and hoped that it would speak for itself.

I got some criticism on the video; too long, too dry, no one’s going to watch it, you pause waaaaaaay too long in between composer names, you sound like Seth Rogen(!), etc. I also got some praise on the video; it’s really compelling how you lay it out, you say everything that needs to be said, etc. The lines seemed to be somewhat age-based; in the end, we went with it.

We launched the day after the Boston Marathon bombing. That was actually really tricky; we were ready to go by the end of March, but we had some administrative hurdles to clear. We decided to launch on 16 April so that we’d be going after tax season — then the bombing happened. We couldn’t really delay any longer because we need to start making arrangements for the fall, so we went with it, and we acknowledged the bombing in our launch blog post. Well, okay, but then the bishops in Syria got kidnapped, which has (appropriately) captured a particular segment of Orthodox social media. All we could do was do our thing, acknowledging that things were happening in the world as it was possible to do so, but I’d be lying if I said that I thought it didn’t hurt us; and, yes, I feel terrible for even acknowledging that. There are things far more important than Kickstarter campaigns.

Regardless, we had a good first few days. We passed $2k in a week, which was ahead of the clock. The trouble was, then we plateaued. We had a few days where we got barely $300 in pledges total. Uh oh, I thought to myself. What’s wrong here? Well, maybe a few things, a friend of mine suggested. The video needs music, the video also needs a face since people give money to a person and not an idea, and you need higher pledging reward levels. Yes, fine, having accessible pledging levels is good, but you don’t want people who want to give more to feel like you don’t want their money. Okay, points taken. With Holy Week coming up, I thought that perhaps we could come up with a new video to reinvigorate the campaign after Pascha; meanwhile, Cappella Romana was kind enough to grant us permission to use some musical excerpts, I restructured the pledging so that there were some higher reward levels, and I also happened to take this picture:

first kickstarter theo pictureWell, right then I knew what to do — promise on the Facebook page that every pledge would generate a new picture of a smiling Theodore.

The combination of the pictures and the higher pledging levels got us another $1,000 of the way there or so, then it was Holy Week. We announced a pause during Holy Week, and posted only links to hymns appropriate to the given day of Holy Week, in various musical styles.

Meanwhile, I was thinking, how do I make a new video? Like, physically and technically, how do I do it?

This turned out to be a question of knowing what I already had. Turns out you can get an attachment for under $20 that makes your iPhone tripod mountable, and the iPhone 5 isn’t a half-bad portable video camera. Also, I found out that iMovie is pretty easy to use, all things considered. So, I got some of my board members on camera at my Paschal lamb roast talking enthusiastically about the project, devised a Theodore-centric framing device, and on Bright Monday I put up the new video, with ten days left to go in the campaign. Within two or three days, the campaign had picked up considerable renewed steam.

There were other issues, though; we got some very puzzling reactions, as well as non-reactions, in certain circles. Some people really wanted to make sure their special interest would be represented before they pledged. “Promise me that one of your composers will include some prostopinije and I’ll pledge, otherwise no deal,” one person said; needless to say, there was no deal to be had, since that’s a creative decision that isn’t up to me, but rather to the composers. (I will say there were a couple of prostopinije partisans who asked very pointed questions; anybody who says Byz chant folks are myopic has never talked to these guys!) Some people didn’t understand that this is intended more as a concert piece than something for liturgical use; other people understood very well that this will be a concert piece and thought that Orthodox composers had no business being involved in such things (one particular jurisdictional music representative said to us, in a nutshell, that the very existence of this project violated most of everything that he had tried to tell people about sacred music over the years, and he saw no good reason to support it), others really didn’t understand why we would bother with the whole science-faith thing, etc. Then there were those who either just completely shrugged it off or who were broke and for whom even $1 was simply too much. It’s possible that we underestimated just how many people for whom this is true who might otherwise be interested in what we’re doing; I’m not sure. In any event, trying to raise awareness in two major avenues of contact for Orthodox musicians produced a certain amount of verbal goodwill (and even there less than perhaps might have been expected, given that the people involved in the Psalm 103 project are largely longtime friends of these groups) but relatively little in the way of pledging.

(Also, I got into a discussion with somebody who was formerly a mover and a shaker in one of the Orthodox music organizations that has been, shall we say, regrouping for a while; this person was in the main supportive, particularly once it was made clear that this work was intended paraliturgically, but did raise the issue that, if we had the resources to start the Saint John of Damascus Society, why couldn’t we have directed those resources to revitalizing an organization that already existed? Alas, as I explained to this person, we actually tried that route quite early on, only to get diddly squat in the way of any kind of interested response.)

What ultimately really worked was when all of our people figured out how to better leverage their own social networks; mine only got us so far, as I expected, but when our board members started directly engaging their own friends and family, it generated a lot of momentum. By the last couple of days in particular, it had become a real horse race, and the drama seemed to produce a number of pledges all on its own. We finished off the campaign with three $1,000 days in a row, and we still got another $400 in pledges in the 12 hours after we hit the goal. By that point, people wanted to back a winner.

So, what are the lessons here? I could make a number of observations, I suppose — for example, the people with a direct, active interest in your project are not necessarily the ones with the resources to support it, and even if they do have those resources, even minor philosophical divergences can be enough to keep them from giving. Thus, you need to be able to sell the idea to people with a more casual, indirect interest. To do that, you need, frankly, a gimmick, you need to not be boring, and you need routes through your social network to reach those people.

Also, acknowledgment goes a long way. In our higher pledging levels, very little of material value was promised as a reward; it was more a question of how far along in the life of the project will somebody continue to be recognized. While our topmost couple of reward levels got no pledges, we got a surprising number of $500 pledges, and that recognition is the main thing they’ll get.

Judging by the number of notes I got last Thursday saying “Wow, congratulations! I didn’t think you’d make it!”, we’ve gotten some attention as a result of successfully getting funded, and that attention is worth something. The thing is, the next couple of phases after this composition phase are going to be exponentially more expensive than this one. We perhaps could have raised the money through more conventional means, but what we wouldn’t necessarily have on the other side is the 143 people we have who now have an active, vested interest in seeing this project develop, progress, and succeed. Those people will be able to help us raise at least some of the money for the next phases, and we’ll be able to point to them as a built-in audience when we’re trying to sell the project to bigger donors and granting agencies.

Anyway — I’m glad it worked out one way or the other, and I’m glad to have a counterexample to my more pessimistic assessment of crowdfunding. If there’s a way what we learned during the campaign can help others launching these kinds of projects, so much the better.

Onward and upward; we’ve got a lot of work to do now. Thanks again to everybody who supported this!

happy theodore

An update on The Saint John of Damascus Society’s Psalm 103 project

Christ is risen! Truly He is risen!

If it’s not one thing it’s another — exams, grading for finals week, Holy Week, and then I’ve also been working on promotion for the Saint John of Damascus Society’s Kickstarter campaign for the Psalm 103 project.

The campaign is proceeding apace; we’re getting into the home stretch, and we still need everybody’s help we can get to get across the finish line. One very cool thing I can share is that during Holy Week, we got word that a public presentation of our work on this project had been accepted as part of Indiana University’s fall co-curricular program Themester.

Here’s an update video we just posted:

Thanks very much for your support!

For your consideration: Psalm 103 for the Creation of the Whole Cosmos

Today, the Saint John of Damascus Society unveiled a project that we’ve had in the works since last summer — a collaborative setting of Psalm 103 by a group of Orthodox composers from different musical traditions, inspired specifically by last summer’s announcement about the discovery of the Higgs boson. We’re funding it through Kickstarter; here’s the link. I’ve said pretty much everything I have to say about it on the SJDS blog, but the thing I’ll add is that we’ve intentionally gone with rewards for smaller gifts to maximize numbers of people participating over zeroes on a check.

So, take a look — please help spread the word, on Facebook and elsewhere, please pledge if you feel so inclined, and please pray for us as we undertake this effort!

Amanda Palmer’s TED talk

I’m not a humongous fan of Amanda Palmer’s creative output. I like the idea of it more than I like its execution. I find her creative processes and chances to be intriguing, and on the whole I guess I’m glad that there are people trying to push the envelope of the present day economic model for the arts, particularly since I’m also somebody who is hoping that there are alternate funding models out there that can work. I’ve bought some of her music; as I say, it’s more interesting than enjoyable to me, on the whole, but the stuff that’s interesting can be pretty interesting. As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m an Oingo Boingo fan from way back in the day, and her “punk cabaret” thing is sort of a de-professionalized version of the the same idea. Sort of.

Ms. Palmer’s TED talk appears to be tearing up the Internet, and there are a couple of things I’d like to throw out there about it.

First off, I recently attended a seminar by a political theorist who is proposing that, along with liberty and equality, dignity is the third necessary precondition for democracy to work — that is, there has to be some way that the intrinsic worth of the participant is going to be preserved in the democratic process. This is interesting to me on a number of different levels, but for present purposes, I will say that it seems to me to be a big part of Ms. Palmer’s point. What she’s saying, essentially, is that if you ask for something in a way that affirms the dignity of both the person asking and the person being asked, rather than demanding in a way that assumes you’re asking from a position of authority or begging in a way that debases yourself as the petitioner, but that just says, “Hey, one human being to another, can you do something that’s in your power to do?” — that is, presents the proposed transaction as something mutual and participatory — then you’re more likely to get what you’re asking for, you’re also more likely to broaden your social network in some way through that person, that person’s social network is reciprocally expanded, and they are likely to feel like they got something of value out of the transaction. It’s a really lovely idea, no question.

I have no doubt that there are game theoreticians out there who will have plenty to say about Ms. Palmer’s model. My amateur’s observations are this:

Crowdfunding amounts to the thought I think probably every college student has ever had — “You know,” they say to themselves, walking to their next class, “if I could figure out a way to get a dollar from every person on this campus, then my tuition bill would be covered.” It’s a perfectly sensible thought if you can just figure out how to do it — why shouldn’t it be easier to get $1 from 40,000 people than to get $40,000 from a single source?

Well, there are a lot of reasons, it seems, why it isn’t easier, but Ms. Palmer starts out by saying, well, that’s the model that I followed as a street performer, and I did okay enough to see it as being fundamentally worthwhile. Here’s the thing, though — what she doesn’t tell you is that she did it in Boston. In order for something like that to work, you basically have to assume a certain size city, with a certain density of people on foot, and you have to assume a critical mass of a certain kind of person with a certain amount of cash on their person.

To put it another way, you couldn’t really do it in Bloomington.

Second, Ms. Palmer presents it as a model of “all you have to do is ask and anybody can do this”, and I’m just not convinced that it’s at all that simple. She at once talks about the value of expanding one’s social network through the average person on the street while also downplaying her own not-inconsiderable non-Average-Joe social network. She’s married to Neil Gaiman, is my point. That’s wonderful that she can get a Neti pot delivered to her at a coffee shop within 5 minutes of Tweeting the need for same; if only it were that easy for me to find Theodore a babysitter that way — but that’s just not my (or my wife’s) social network. Our networks are largely outside of Bloomington, which means they’re not terribly useful for immediate and personal needs — that’s what happens when you live in this kind of town for ten years, all your friends move away.

(Mr. Palmer — er, Neil Gaiman — also has a talk floating out there online that I intend to comment on soon. All in good time.)

All of that said, there is absolutely an art to asking, and fearlessness in reaching out really is the first step. I have found in my own projects that, if you’re hoping that somebody can give you $100, it’s better to ask for $400 and have them give you $200 because they really are happy to help than to ask for $100, have them figure you don’t really need the money if you’re asking for so little, and they give you $50. That doesn’t work in all cases, but it works in a reasonable proportion of them.

At the same time, there is no bigger draw to my blog than the materials under the tab “Greek Resources”. I have put them up for free, there are a lot of links out there to them, and I have tried to suggest over the years — Hey, if you think there’s a value here, then it’d be great if you expressed that value somehowAnd, well, that’s generated all of I think $20 a year since I started putting them up. That’s fine; I’m not going to take them down, and I’ll keep plugging away at them eventually, but that tells me something about how Ms. Palmer’s economic model works — that is, there’s more to it than simply putting up what you got and asking people to pay what they can. Along those lines, the funniest moment in the movie Julie and Julia to me is when Julie’s complaining about what she spends on cooking, somebody suggests to her that she put a PayPal button on her blog, and next thing you know, gifts and checks just start rolling in. Yeah, it’s just not that simple, kids. Would that it were.

The Saint John of Damascus Society is about to try to crowdsource a particular creative project, or at least the first stages of it, and I will be very curious to see how it goes. I do have a particular social network made up of particular kinds of people I’ve gotten to know over the years, and while it can’t get me a babysitter, I will be very interested to see if it can generate support for something creative. We shall see.

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