Did We Create Culture in Saratov?

This past month, I had the enormous privilege and joy of taking part in a new recording of sacred music in the provincial Russian city of Saratov. This was the second such project, hosted by the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music Institute (PaTRAM). The first occurred three years ago, a project which included 41 singers from three different countries singing together for the first time. That recording later won a Grammy nomination, only to lose in a field crowded with (of all things) recordings of Russian Orthodox sacred music! (You can purchase that amazing recording here).

This time, it was 55 singers from six countries. And the sound was even better. The whole experience was filled with a spirit of concentration and joy that is rare in such recording projects. All the men came together in sound and in heart, and I’m pretty sure the result will be spectacular. Here’s a sample (unofficial) of a take from this recording:

But why are we doing this?

As I was standing during hour four of an eight-hour session, trying to focus my sound enough to sing beautifully, but not obtrusively, I was suddenly struck by a rather inconvenient thought. Why are we doing this? I mean, existentially. Obviously, we’re doing it to make a beautiful sound and because we can. But what’s the real point of it? Especially in terms of culture creation.

I came up with several possible answers:

  • Because we want to provide a standard of musical performance that will inspire American choirs to improve church musical culture in general.
  • Because we want to give people joy in a beautiful experience.
  • Because we want to win a Grammy

To win a Grammy

I’m going to approach these backwards. I’m not trying to be flippant when I include this reason in the list. I think there’s a legitimate reason to try for a Grammy. The harsh reality is that, at least in the Russian diaspora, there’s a very lackadaisical attitude about Church music in general, a kind of “apathy of the just good enough.” If we were then able to create a product that reached universal acclaim of the Grammy kind, it would do more than make ourselves feel good about ourselves. It could be a gauntlet thrown to liturgical music practitioners everywhere–we can do something truly amazing.

But there’s a problem with this reason. For all the rhetoric, it’s still ultimately self-serving. So I’m just going to say it–I hope that this isn’t the primarily reason we dedicated hours upon hours of time and energy to such a project.

To give people a joyful experience

I know from experience that a well-produced and beautifully-sung recording of church music can really turn a life around. For me, that was Robert Shaw’s recording of Rachmaninov’s Vigil. I never knew church music could sound like that, as in, a true experience of “I knew not whether I was in heaven or on earth.” In the digitally-obsessed world we live in, such an experience of simply sitting place, closing your eyes, and letting music wash over you for an hour can be a truly transformative experience.

So that’s a good thing. But it is enough of a reason to make such a CD? I’m not sure. There are already some pretty spectacular disks out there, and I’m not yet convinced that either this repertoire that we sang or the performance of it will truly reach the heights of someone like Shaw. So this in itself, though a good reason, is not enough for me.

Plus, there are other, more effective ways of using experiences of beauty to inspire people to transformation in their life. I’m going to talk more about that in a future post.

To create a standard of musical performance

This is the trickiest one of the bunch. It’s very tempting to believe that the work we do will set such a high bar for liturgical singing that everyone in America will up the ante and begin to take their own parish choirs to the next level. Once they’ve heard what can be done, then, naturally, they will do all they can to try to reach the same heights. Right?

I don’t think so. Benedict Sheehan has outlined many of the problems we face as church musicians in his wonderful blog The Music Stand. They are significant enough to call it a crisis. There are many ways of addressing this crisis. But this kind of recording, in and of itself, is not enough to address it.

What’s missing in all this is something that I don’t think we honestly give enough thought to. We should be doing all of this first and foremost for the glory of God. Did we do this for the glory of God? I asked myself that again and again. And I couldn’t, for the life of me, answer in the affirmative. If we do it for the glory of God, that isn’t the main reason. And it should be.

But what does that mean? How could such a gathering of professional singers become an act of glorification? Is it enough merely to sing a molieben service, to start each session with prayer, to have the conductor make mystical pronouncements about intonation being the same thing as humility?

I don’t know. I really don’t know.

So where do we go from here?

I keep coming back to Ivan Ilyin’s little book, Foundations of Christian CultureIn it, he speaks at length about the importance of allowing the Spirit of God to infuse the individual’s creation of culture. To imbue one’s own creative spirit with the creative potential of the Holy Spirit. I think what that means is to make the creative act an act of asceticism. How might that work in the context of church music? Here are some ideas:

  • To battle personal frustration in the midst of bad/mediocre singing with intense prayer
  • To set aside hours, not minutes, for rehearsals with your church choir
  • To work on your own time on breathing techniques and vocal exercises to make sure you can be the best singer possible
  • To actually pray during the singing of hymns

This last one is the most difficult, and I suspect, the most rare. But without it, no ecclesiastical culture can flourish. And I’m not the only one to believe that ecclesiastical culture has to be the source of inspiration for secular culture. Jonathan Pageau speaks about this at length and often.

If each one of us singers begins to think this way about creating ecclesiastical culture, maybe we can closer to a practical and effective method for creating secular culture in our post-Christian time.

I hope so.

I encourage you all to lambaste me, to hurl epithets at me, and to ask me questions about this most important topic in the comment section.


  1. The recording is beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    I don’t have any lambasting or epithet-throwing to do, but I have a thought to offer. In our culture of specialization, of the making of many ‘experts’, there seems to develop a divide between the professional and the amateur. This divide has a culturally recognized upside, which is that the professionals are able to produce high quality work on a consistent basis.

    But I think there’s also a downside. Yes, amateurs make more mistakes. But it seems to me that we build a community more reflective of the Kingdom when we worry less about technical perfection and more about the heart of the matter. You said yourself that praying while singing seems to be difficult for many– but perhaps it should be the first and most important criteria.

    I forget where I read it, but I’ve heard it suggested that cathedrals and churches pay for professional choirs and musicians, so that the standard of beauty in their performance reflects our desire to do beautiful things for the glory of God in the Liturgy. I think this sentiment wrong-headed.

    Maybe the offerings of the amateurs are like the widow’s mites? Not really comparable to the quality of the professionals, but of some spiritual value for which we don’t have eyes to see.

    Sometimes I think about my mom (a revert to Orthodoxy during her final illness). She loved to sing, and sang her whole life. Many of my memories are of her singing– in the car, in front of the piano just-for-fun (with her best friend who harmonized), when we said something that reminded her of a lyric. She didn’t have a professionally trained voice by any stretch of the imagination, but she could keep a tune– and she prayed as she sang. She used to say that she hoped God would give her a pretty voice in heaven, and let her sing in the heavenly choir.

    I think there’s a place for projects and endeavors done by professionals. But, like in all things, we need more (and not less) spiritual discernment.

    Yes? No? 🙂

  2. Like the previous poster, I’m not going to lambaste you or hurl epithets at you, but would like to address several of the points you raise at the end.

    • To battle personal frustration in the midst of bad/mediocre singing with intense prayer

    This, in and of itself sounds like a worthy goal, though I would submit it is more difficult to achieve than may appear. In fact it might require specialized instruction by a knowledgeable and experienced starets (elder), who has personally fought such battles himself. (But where are such ‘musical’ startsy among us?) Without truly grappling with the essence of the task, the statement risks sounding like a platitude.

    We are also in an extraordinarily complex situation when it comes to actually defining/recognizing “bad/mediocre” singing. Maybe it’s like Justice Potter Stewart’s famous phrase w.r.t. pornography — difficult to define precisely, but you know it when you see it. What exactly constitutes “bad” church singing — choice of repertoire, poor ensemble technique and intonation, or the lack of the proper “spiritual” interpretation, flowing out of the state of mind/heart of the singers and/or conductor? One could spend days or weeks unpacking each of these topics. Perhaps topics for future blog posts!

    • To set aside hours, not minutes, for rehearsals with your church choir
    No doubt this too is a worthy standard. But if one is going to spend hours rehearsing, one needs to know how to rehearse and what to rehearse. IOW, the conductor must engage in the complex process of score analysis and preparation (before the rehearsal), and the exercise of personal communicative and technical conducting skills (learned and honed over time from master teachers, not necessarily during a two- or three-day workshop or conference) in order to purposefully achieve a desired musical conception of a given hymn or other piece of music. All these things require years of multi-faceted musical education, training, and experience.

    • To work on your own time on breathing techniques and vocal exercises to make sure you can be the best singer possible
    Here, too, it’s not enough to simply resolve to “work on your own time….” Where is the schooling, what are the breathing techniques and exercise routines one is to follow? (For those interested, there is a chapter on the vocal methods employed by Russian church choirs in the 19th and early 20th centuries in my book “Choral Performance in Pre-Revolutionary Russia” available from Musica Russica). And where are the experienced vocal pedagogues who will provide the feedback to ensure that one is being the “best singer possible” –something even professional singers crave and require? Over a period of about 8 years of my undergraduate and graduate musical education, I had 6 or 7 different voice teachers, yet nowadays, some 40 years later, I wish I had a coach I could turn to at times, because, as one ages, despite all the technique one has learned, my voice is not always what I’d like it to be.

    This is not to say all your points aren’t valid. Just that things tend to be a lot more complicated, especially within the narrow confines of our Orthodox church experience. Many folks don’t even realize what they don’t know. And those who do know, or suspect that there is much they don’t know (that requires humility, among other things) would find it challenging to remedy their lack of knowledge, even if provided with a map or guidebook of a sort I have yet to see.

    • To actually pray during the singing of hymns
    See point 1 above. One of our esteemed colleagues has pointed out something he was taught by his spiritual father and mentor, a respected hierarch in the Russian church: Singing in church is an obedience, a service one performs sacrificially in order to allow others to pray during divine worship. One cannot be personally “lost in prayer” and diligently fulfill all that is required of an engaged and committed choir singer — to watch the conductor and to execute the notes and words of the hymns with excellence.

    Again I repeat, my goal is not to disparage the practical suggestions you have made. It is important, however, that those who aspire to become “creators of Orthodox culture” do not shirk from the vast efforts of study, practice, and self-sacrifice that have typically been required of artists throughout the ages. We have a certain “can do” attitude here in the US, and if we cover this approach with some “spiritual talk” we may create home-baked result that may be personally satisfying on some level, but it does not as yet constitute “culture.”

  3. I agree with Vladimir Morosan about the importance of formal classical training, but it isn’t always possible. I myself became (only because the priest wanted it) the chanter at a Greek parish; I knew a bit about liturgics, but almost nothing about how to sing, much less how to sing in the microtonal Byzantine way, and although I studied voice briefly with someone online, I never made much progress, because I could never come up with enough time to practise. I consoled myself by remembering that when I was at Holy Trinity in Boston in the ’80s, I had been very impressed by the sound Walter Obleschuk’s choir was able to produce. Some of the singers, to be sure, were actual or aspiring opera performers, but others were, shall we say, definitely not. However they all felt (sometimes to the mild annoyance of the professionals) that Walter treated them as equals, and the results were beautiful. As Fr. Seraphim Rose supposedly once told an insecure chorister: “Do the best you can, and God will take care of it.”

  4. I have a couple more thoughts about praying and singing, especially after reading your own comment, Vladimir.

    Maybe it’s because I was raised in a variety of low-church Protestant churches, but it seems to me that singing lends itself very naturally to a state of worship and prayer. I have to admit I’m having trouble understanding how praying during singing appears to be such an enormous problem. Is it perhaps because we in the Western world have a tendency to over-intellectualize and over-think things? So much so that we forget ourselves in the mental world of abstraction, mistaking it for the tangible, immediate world of the moment?

    The phrase “getting lost in prayer” is a clue for me. Because prayer isn’t always (or even usually?) about getting lost in a mental world, is it? I mean, if “true prayer” involves such an experience of getting lost, then that means that anyone who has any responsibility during church (the priests, the deacons, the altar servers, the choir, and all of the mothers of children….) is being somehow prevented from fully praying. I don’t buy it. I think when we worry too much about praying the “right way” we’re still thinking too much about ourselves and what we want our experience to be like rather than forgetting ourselves in the presence of the Holy.

    Years ago I belonged to a parish well-known locally for its phenomenal choir. I was so intimidated when I started singing with them, because I assumed that there were boatloads of professionals, and here was little old me with a couple years of high school vocal training trying to play in the big leagues. It was to my surprise and delight to find out that most of the members were amateurs, maybe with a a bit of training and specializing here and there, who sang in the choir for pure love of it. I came to the conclusion that the dedication, love, and prayers of the choir director were the glue that held everyone together— that, and the prayers of the singers themselves.

    So on further reflection, I think that last point, “praying during singing” should be the first and most important. The breathing, the practicing, the growing expertise— maybe “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you…”?

  5. Hi! Your back–yay!!!
    I wanted to ask what you meant in this paragraph–I had difficulty understanding:
    “If each one of us singers begins to think this way about creating ecclesiastical culture, maybe we can closer to a practical and effective method for creating secular culture in our post-Christian time.”

    1. What i’m talking about is something that Jonathan Pageau has said before repeatedly. Good secular culture comes from a rich and varied ecclesiastical culture. Think of how Renaissance sacred music influenced secular polyphony (and vice versa). With no rich ecclesiastical culture, you can expect a flat and forgettable secular culture.

  6. wow, so many good comments! Ok, one at a time. First off, Laura, I agree that amateurs singing in church is like the widow’s two mites, and it’s a worthy offering. However, that doesn’t meant that the amateur shouldn’t do everything in his power to make his amateur offering the best it can be. But that’s where we culture creators come in, by offering practical masterclasses and conferences and private instruction on the parish level. I’m hoping that will happen in the near future in ROCOR, and I know it happens on a small scale already in the OCA, thanks to Benedict Sheehan and co.

    1. I like the idea of professionals sharing their skills as culture creation– buuuuuut I think in order to make it work– to make it real, organic culture creation that reaches society at all levels and gets American Orthodoxy outside of its middle class comfort zone– you’re going to have to get the 1% (or even the top 10%) of parishioners to sponsor/patronize that kind of thing.

      I can’t be the only Orthodox Christian who’s lived below the poverty line. A couple of hundred dollars for a masterclass (or a conference) isn’t something that I can whip out of my pocket without saying, “Sorry, kids— no Christmas this year. Mommy wanted singing lessons.” 🙂

        1. That’s a neat trick if you can do it. 😉 When it comes to money, Americans are quite often Americans first and Christians second. It’s heartening to hear that there are people working on it, though.

          On a side note, what I’d love to see in the next 5-10 years is an online PDF database of all Orthodox music (across all of the jurisdictions) that’s in the public domain. Every parish I’ve ever been to sings off of a collection of broken-spined books, 50 year old Xeroxes, and the occasional computer print-out, held together in decrepit 3-ring-binders with duck tape and office tabs. 🙂

          If everyone with a little musical notation downloaded MuseScore and worked on 5-10 songs, I’d say we’d be done in a year.

          1. LOL— honestly, I WOULD do it, gladly, if I was hooked up with the right people. Give me a half a dozen volunteers who have connections to choirs with large databases who are willing to share, and are willing to put in two hours a month, and I could make it happen.

            I just need one of the volunteers to be social media and marketing savvy, since that is a skill that lives on the other side of the moon from my wheelhouse.

            Know anyone? 🙂

  7. I read the article and the comments with great joy and recognition and would dearly love to be part of this conversation.
    I come from the other side of the pond in two ways, I’m from the UK, and I’m not yet Orthodox, though God willing, I will be Christmated next month.

    I am also a voice teacher and choral director in secular world with many years experience, and I long to encourage others in singing in Church – feeling this is where I’m being led. Though I have so much to learn regarding tones, the changes in liturgical year, and most importantly being sensitive to the needs of the Priest, choir members and congregation to enable flow and a deeper experience of the Divine.
    As a trained singer singing what I can in the liturgy is deeply moving, drawing the words in and a sense of all as one voice.
    If there is any way I can be of help, please let me know.

  8. I appreciate reading your reflections on faith and culture, along with the helpful thoughts of others.

    As I read this post I thought of the idea of incarnational or sacramental living. Richard Foster writes about this in his book Streams of Living Water, where he describes the incarnational life as ‘making present and visible the realm of the invisible spirit. This sacramental way of living addresses the crying need to experience God as truly manifest and notoriously active in daily life.’

    The sacramental tradition is an attempt to bring the presence of God into our art-making, indeed into everything we do. As St Paul writes, ‘Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him’ (Col. 3:17).

    This relates to what you write about weaving prayer into singing, and what you’ve written about creating a culture which draws others to Christ by its beauty. I think that as we continually give our work and ourselves to God, inviting him to work through us (whatever that work may be, whether sacred or secular), and as we do our best to honour him in that work, it becomes beautiful. Something mundane can become an act of worship. A secular job such as proofreading or carpentry can become sacred. It can become a window through which people experience a glimpse of God’s glory.

  9. Late to the party, but let me start with this: PLEASE let us know when this thing is available for purchase! I’m always on the lookout for good music, especially of the sort that creates a good setting for massage. The more prayerful for me and restful for the client, the better. (Yes, I have spa music, but ugh. I also have a playlist dominated by Valaam chant and another featuring Faure’s Requiem and Rachmaninov’s Vigil.)

    I have been fortunate to be primarily in parishes where the choirs are good and a lot of the singing congregational. There are other parishes that I’ve visited, though, where try as I may, I just cannot get past the utter lack of beauty in the singing. It’s a visceral thing. My innards recoil as adamantly as my ears.

    Interestingly, I do know one parish with notoriously bad singing, but the sweetness of the parish is palpable. Every time I’ve been there, I’ve seen a room full of people who love each other, many of them with obvious physical and intellectual disabilities. This is a rare and beautiful thing. And each time I’ve been in this parish, that sweetness somehow made the awful (completely abled) choir a little less awful. Of the parishes I know with bad music, this is the only one I WANT to go to when I’m in the area. With the others, I have to make myself.

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