Addressing the Crisis

Part II of the Musical Culture in Crisis series:

Orthodox church music in America is collapsing. What can we do? The first step is simply to recognize that a collapse is taking place. However, before I propose any concrete solutions, let me enumerate some of the more obvious remedies that I think do not work.

1. We can’t continue to lower our musical standards

Humans have a remarkable capacity to inure themselves to almost anything. When faced with bad church singing, and being uncertain of what to do to address it, it’s only natural for us to accept reality and lower our expectations. This process has been going on for a long time in many, many churches. However, confronted as we are now with declining church membership across jurisdictions, and a very real need to either grow or perish, we then have to face the almost impossible challenge of attracting outsiders to a liturgical experience that no reasonable person of good taste would take seriously. This problem does not only affect “old guard” parishes, but it touches missions and missionary dioceses as well, who either receive their standards of musical culture from the old guard, or, what is much more difficult, must attempt to establish a musical practice of their own from scratch without clear models or leadership. The basic problem is that bad singing is a sign of an unhealthy parish, and it will necessarily stunt its growth. If our strategy for coping with mediocre church music is just to accept it as normal, we will almost certainly lose in the end.

2. “Simpler” music doesn’t solve anything

Often I hear people say, “We just need simpler music! Enough with the fancy stuff, let’s get back to basics!” While it is always prudent to tailor your repertoire to match your ensemble’s capabilities—in fact, I strongly advocate it—it’s wrong to assume that doing so will solve fundamental musical problems. A choir that sings out of tune in 8-part music will continue to sing out of tune in unison. In fact, unison singing often makes defects in tuning more noticeable (a fact which may account for why some people think they don’t like unison chant). Orthodox choirs, at least within the historically Slavic churches, are required to sing a cappella, which is a significantly more difficult task than singing with instrumental accompaniment. This means that there is a fairly high level of musicianship demanded of singers in order to sing even the most basic repertoire beautifully and accurately, and, more important (and elusive), in a way that inspires someone to pray.

3. “Congregational singing” won’t solve anything either

There is probably no single theme I hear more often repeated in response to my concerns about church music than, “if we just went to congregational singing, everything would be fine,” or something along those lines. Without wading too deeply into what is a complex —and sometimes heated—topic, let me point out two basic difficulties in this line of thinking.

First, there is the fact that “congregational singing” is an inherently ambiguous term. What does the congregation sing? If the answer is “everything,” then how do we manage services like Vespers or Matins that are primarily made up of changeable hymnography? Perhaps the answer is to supply everyone with service books or packets that include everything needed for a given day. Well and good, but be prepared for the host of practical challenges that necessarily accompany an effort of that kind, and in particular the need for someone competent to take the lead in assembling singable music in a usable form. If the answer is “some things,” then how to establish order? And in that case, you still need a choir or a chanter that knows what they’re doing.

Next, there is the problem of the congregation learning hymnography in the first place, and, though it may seem quite mundane, the practical problem of starting the singing in the services. Both of these things require capable leadership: one to know the hymns and have the ability to teach others to sing them (assuming they come to rehearsals); the other, the vocal strength and musical skill to start each hymn on the right pitch, in the right mode, and to carry dozens of other singers along with you who will inevitably be dragging half a beat behind. While this is not an impossible scenario, it hardly seems like a simple one, or one with a high chance of rendering satisfactory results. And it requires capable leadership, the lack of which is the whole point of this article. Of course, it may be that a congregation already knows a large body of liturgical repertoire and has been singing it for generations, in which case both aspects of the problem are somewhat mitigated. However, it is precisely these kinds of vibrant traditions that are suffering today from the demographic declines in many churches, as well as from the overall loss of musical culture I mentioned in my previous post. Cultures like this have to be energetically maintained, and that has not been happening in most places for more than a generation.

So let’s ask the question again, what can we do? How can we start producing leaders who will help rebuild an Orthodox musical culture in America? It takes years of training, often including college and even graduate school, to become a truly competent church choir director or head chanter, and in many ways the technical challenges set by even the most basic Orthodox repertoire and liturgical structure are more intense than those encountered by the average music director at a Protestant or Catholic church. We also demand a LOT more hours out of our musicians. One simple answer for what to do, then, is create jobs. If there are real jobs out there for church musicians, then young people will train and study to prepare for them. Here are three concrete ideas for how we might create jobs for church musicians:

1. Have churches work together

No professional in America today—and trained musicians are professionals—would reasonably be expected to offer his or her services for less than $40-50K per year. (Many Protestant and Catholic churches in fact pay significantly more than this.) Now obviously, this is a significant investment for a church, especially one that’s struggling to pay even its priest a living wage. A possible solution, then, is to have a group of, say, four parishes band together and share the investment in a full-time music director. Perhaps one of the parishes—the best established of the four—could invest a little more, and act as home-base for the director, who would then over the course of each month travel around and work in each of the other three churches. As a full-time professional, his or her job description would include teaching musicians in each church, and helping them organize their music programs, so that the standard of singing in all four would gradually rise over time.

2. Establish full-time positions at the diocesan level

Throughout the Orthodox world, the bishop’s cathedral has historically served to set a liturgical standard for the rest of the diocese. Major cathedrals tended to staff their choirs with excellent singers (the Agia Sophia in Justinian’s time had 25 full-time singers on their payroll), and to employ directors who acted as musical leaders for the diocese as a whole. Such does not appear to be the norm in America today. Many of our cathedrals now have little more in terms of musical resources—and sometimes significantly less—than an average parish. One way to remedy this would be for dioceses to rally their resources and hire full-time diocesan music directors. These directors would be tasked with assembling a sufficient core of singers to maintain a high musical standard in all services at the cathedral. They could even, if necessary, travel with the bishop on his visits to other parishes, thus helping to ensure an appropriate level of liturgical beauty and solemnity wherever the bishop was present. In addition to leading music in services, the diocesan music director could also help provide liturgical and educational resources for the other churches in the diocese.

3. Take music education for children seriously

Music education in American public schools is weakening today, no question. However, we in the Orthodox Church should see this as an opportunity rather than a handicap. There are still lots of parents out there who want their kids to learn music—every Orthodox parent should want this—and we can help supply this market. Many private after-school music programs, both choral and instrumental, are flourishing right now because schools have dropped the ball. Orthodox churches, either individually or as a group, could undertake to create music programs for children that, in addition to offering employment for perhaps as many as several full-time employees, would have the added benefit of providing badly-needed musical education to our own children.

All of these are only ideas, and maybe none of them will work in some situations. However, it is absolutely crucial that we as Orthodox Christians in America start coming up with creative and practical solutions to our current musical problems. We have to do something. Given the trajectory of liturgical music in America over the last twenty-five years, I fear that, without a serious collective effort to reverse the trend, another twenty-five will take us to a point of no return. However, we can take a little a comfort in this: if musical standards are languishing at your church, you’re not alone.

43 comments:

  1. Bring interested children to the cantor stand. If they are d enough to stand and pay attention, say 8 or 9, they are old enough to begin with the cantors.

    1. What if the cantor is a terrible one (and in my experience they abound)? The children, then, learn to be terrible cantors themselves. The solution, IMHO, is if you want good cantors, then your parish, or diocese, pays for them to go to school.

  2. Dear Benedict,

    Thank you for your thoughts. My wife (BA, harp) and brother-in-law (MA-in-progress, piano) and I were discussing these themes just yesterday. Your 3rd point was the focus of our discussion, and the measure you suggest (extracurricular activities) is great, but often like offering tutoring to kids whose parents don’t care. The climate of the home is critical to a child’s engagement with any subject. If Mom & Dad don’t care about it, why should the kids?

    The answer to this is difficult, and challenges adults (who often don’t like to spend the sustained effort to learn anything truly new). Grown-ups must model musicality. We are to model prayer, kindness, almsgiving, responsibility, wisdom, etc. to our children – so we must model music. For those of us (like me) with a meager musical background, this means the effort of learning, coupled with real, visible expressions of the joy of music in the family. Our children bring into church the level of reading, listening comprehension, and behavior instilled in the home, so they will bring in the musical skills of the home, too. Plainly, this is a bottom-up approach that will take generations to bear fruit, and does not promise change rapidly. The task of training adults can proceed more or less quickly, depending on the time and resources brought to bear (by both students and teachers). But it’s still an organic thing.

    As to the autopsy of American culture in discussion of how we got this way…that’s a long conversation best had over dinner or a beer. But I think of CS Lewis’s comment: “We are far too easily pleased.” We have spent our time and money in service of amusement, rather than glory, and given our best to ourselves rather than to Christ in the church.

    In Christ,
    Mark
    (a recovering Protestant)

    1. Although totally against the spirit of this post, don’t be depressed. Believe that God hears your worship, and when it’s joined with that of the angels, it sounds beautiful. Just do what you can do.

    2. Lord have mercy! They do strike me as purely worldly solutions. Why not instead ask the angels and saints, who not only are present at the services but who wrote many of the same hymns we attempt to sing, to assist us, not to sound pleasing to the ears of men but to glorify God?

      1. It needn’t be either/or. But I don’t see what is ‘worldly’ about churches co-operating, dioceses making it a priority to help parishes improve their music, or parents and churches making music education a priority for their children.

        The Psalms are the songbook of the church. They were written for use in the temple– which had a cadre of highly trained, full time professional musicians. In all the verses about singing to God from the heart, it is -already taken for granted that the music will be good-. Nowhere is there an exhortation to sing sincerely as opposed to singing well. The two are just expected to go together.

      2. Justin, do we ask the angels and saints to paint the icons in our churches or to make the vestments, candles, incense, crosses, etc.? Is paying an excellent iconographer to adorn our churches or going to art school as a budding iconographer to better one’s art skills considered purely worldly solutions to you? Shouldn’t church music receive our best efforts? I’m tired of music being the most shafted aspect of Orthodoxy in America. God deserves our best, in everything.

  3. The problem is simple. Too many Orthodox Churches worship in languages that people do not understand. This does great damage to the Church. Nobody speaks Koine Greek or Church Slavonic. When the Church does not respect families enough to worship in the language speaks at home it will lose people.

    1. Wrong. This is a red herring. Besides, the vast majority of churches are bilingual or entirely English. The excuse that language keeps people away is convenience with NO ACTUAL statistical evidence to back it up. And anecdotes are not statistics.

  4. Are there good resources online for people to learn if there isn’t a professional chanter/choir director at a nearby parish? I don’t expect to have the same level of education as someone who studies at university, but do these resources exist?

    1. yes, to some extent. If you are in a Slavic parish, some instruction in choir directing and the tones are available here: https://oca.org/liturgics
      unfortunately, learning about the form of the services is another matter, and to my knowledge no classes exist, other than at the seminaries

      1. They exist. ROCOR has been running a summer program on Liturgical Music in Jordanville for the past 25 years – its graduates have included students from other jurisdictions, including the OCA. There’s also PaTRAM (which is more oriented towards master class type work for people who already have some experience); there are US-wide and diocesan music conferences held on a pretty regular basis, where people exchange knowledge/music; there are numerous websites with Orthodox music (in both English and the “ethnic” languages), and so forth. There is also (at least within ROCOR) the rising phenomenon of youth choirs, kids picking up their parents’ mantels and singing on rather high levels, without “professional” music education or renumeration. It’s not all rosy, and there are things that can be done to augment existing resources. But it should be noted that not all is bleak on the Orthodox music scene: people of good will are laboring to make it better, and in some places its bearing fruit.

  5. Unfortunately the situation is even more dire in Canada. With a smaller population and more physical space between parishes, our resources are much scarcer.

  6. While I totally agree that music is so critical to the liturgy and there needs to be competence with the choir leader, what you suggest is not feasible. Many parishes today can’t even properly support their priests, much less pay for a choir director. Parishes often hobble together the choir, as best as they can, with whoever is interested. This is especially for new and smaller parishes. Having led choir before (and no, I do not have a music degree, but I have been involved with music for decades and also sight read pretty well), I experienced many a week spending lots of time getting prepared for the weekly services and learning the rubrics well. Fact is, very few people were even willing to come to practice to properly learn the tones and melodies for the week, and even when they did, it was complicated for them. But I did have my core dedicated few who knew the tones and though we were small, we actually sounded ok.

    The reality is that choirs in many parishes are strictly voluntary participation and people often just are not dedicated enough or don’t have the time it takes to learn the services and music well. I also think there is a fine line between trying to keep the music prayerful and worshipful and beautiful, and turning it into some sort of performance or gig. While there may be some people well enough trained to sing some of the complicated music, I heartily disagree that we need to turn the services into some sort of concerts, where most folks are strictly bystanders. There has to be room for perhaps less artistically complicated melodies, and more attention paid to prayerfulness and really singing the simpler melodies with skill.

    In saying this, I am not saying that a lack of skillfulness, or the ‘clucking chickens’ is at all desirable (something it has felt like before when any old singer is accepted–even if they are off key, tone deaf, and unable to read music)! In those cases, I think it is far better to have one singer who is skilled and knows what they are doing, then to have several people who are off key and distracting like alley cats.

    Guess the bottom line to me is balance and a commitment to really learning the music well, while not imposing some sort of unrealistic expectations that every parish choir should sound and be professional. In the end, it comes back to prayerfulness and helping all the parish to focus and enter into the liturgy and other services.

    1. This has been my experience as well. One thing that amazes me is that there is no mentorship that I know of within our churches. For example:

      A new mission is starting up and no one is a trained chanter or choir leader. Often they are on their own. Why not assign them a mentor from the nearest parish who is more experienced? With Skype and modern communication it doesn’t matter how far away they are.

      Another way to deal with this is to establish on the one hand a standard for education at the diocesan level. Readers, for example, should not be ordained unless they are trained. On the other it needs to be cultivated with regional association, much like local clergy deanery associations, with at least annual meetings. The role of the chanter should be understood as being nearly as important as the Priest and it should be treated accordingly.

      At the same time a lack of good and consistent resources are a big part of the problem (BTW a big thank you to Benedict Sheehan for all the hard work and dedication compiling the latest “Divine Liturgy” book. I ordered a copy as soon as I saw it and it is very good and very helpful). Just speaking from my own experience I have been had to develop an almost sixth sense to snag old photo copies of music and books that have gone out of print. If musical collections go out of print why can’t the rights be purchased and then released online? For example: I would be happy to donate towards a Kickstarter program to release Ledkovsky’s Vespers online which has been an invaluable resource over the years. Other books and resources remain out of print such as the St. Tikhon’s Horologion. Need Cannon Tones? Hope someone has a photocopy of Heckman. How many years was the St. Vlads Divine Liturgy Music book out of print (I made due with third hand photo copies for years)? Need to get ahold of the SVS Pascha book? Good luck. I was fortunate to find a dusty old copy at the Jordanville bookstore. Anyone who has worked with Liturgical Music going back decades is familiar with this problem. While it’s true that things are better than they were 40 years ago (for example: until SJKPress and HTM there were no english language full Menaions) it’s still a persistent problem. Sadly Fr. Gregory Williams who ran SJKPress fell asleep recently at it is not clear when they will resume publishing. While I am very grateful to Fr. Gregory and SJKPress, I am confused why the OCA did not take this on as a priority years ago. Especially when you consider the OCA has three seminaries and the folks at HTM and SJKPress did it on a shoestring. What they did was amazing and we all owe them a debt of gratitude.

      So let me tie it up. I see the problem structural from several levels that paying professional musicians is not going to solve. The only way to fix it is to address the foundation. Only then will parish music improve and professional Church musicians could become a reality.

  7. It sounds to me like you’ve never been in an Orthodox Church that does congregational singing, I have, it worked well, and your objections weren’t problems in practice.

  8. Benedict’s comments about congregational singing are spot on. Leading the music in a parish with a vibrant singing congregation, I can attest to the fact that it requires strong leadership, preparation, careful choice of music and understanding of the congregation’s role. It can be quite beautiful in it’s own way, and it doesn’t replace the choir or take over the whole service. There are regular dialogues and refrains that can easily be sung by anyone, and then there are the variables and the more melismatic portions of the service that are best sung by a choir or chanters.
    For Tom, I say, please don’t be depressed. God does provide, when asked. And we all need to do whatever we can to improve. A little extra training can go a long way. Musical training is available at community colleges, from private teachers, online, and at church symposiums and workshops. Sending a parish music leader off to get some training is a highly valuable first step. As musicians we have to ask the parish to support us in this. It’s awkward, but necessary.

    For Veronica, I would like to say that there is no conflict between singing beautifully and singing prayerfully. If a musician, trained or not, has a humble heart and lifts up his or her service to God, it will be prayer. That is a matter of the heart, not skill. It has been said before that we wouldn’t have people without training design churches or write our icons, and just say, “Well, it was the best I could do.” Benedict is not writing about doing concerts. He is writing about giving God fitting worship. Fitting worship, implies that someone knows what they’re doing.
    But, I do really hear you saying that the offered solutions are not feasible for small parishes. That may be true, but we have to start somewhere, and that is the key. We can’t give in to deterioration. We have to act. Sending parish musicians to conferences, workshops and to local teachers is feasible, and it’s a great place to start.
    I love the idea of a group of parishes pooling resources to support a musician. It seems that having more than one diocesan musician would be good too. Having someone in each region that could work with the locals would be really helpful.

    Thank you, Benedict, for your thoughtful posts.

    1. Thank YOU, Anne, both for your support and for all that you have offered, and continue to offer, toward the building up of Orthodox music.

  9. I agree that quality music is a critical component of our outreach to newcomers, and retention of members in general. While I prefer worship in English, I don’t think language is the issue being discussed. Worship should be beautiful in any language, and bad music in a comprehensible language is still bad music. As a chanter and choir director, the biggest difficulty I face is lack of commitment among the choir members and would-be chanters. They say they want practices, but do not show up. They say they want to learn to chant, but do not come to the chanter’s stand with any regularity.

    1. Irene is correct – you either jump in with both feet or not at all. No toes in the water, no lukewarmth – you either commit or your don’t. People are out there doing it – I know, I’ve met them, I’m one of them. It can be done – institutional support as well as agreement that the received tradition (to borrow someone else’s phrase) is indeed ‘built with strong wheels that can travel on our roads’ is also important. The seminary is arguably the epicenter of chant education in the US, but many of those I have come to regard as friends that also chant are not seminary graduates (or in some cases learned chanting before going to seminary).

      ~7 years ago our parish’s chanter died and I was handed some pretty rough materials and was told to go learn. 7 months ago I received the Certificate in Byzantine Music from the Seminary and yet I’ve only just begun in a lot of respects. What I need to do a better job of is to get others to have the same enthusiasm that I have and work to build this up…but it’s not impossible (even as a guy who didn’t grow up in the Church and doesn’t speak Greek and didn’t grow up hearing Byzantine music). I chalk it up to the need for one general attitude: “take it seriously”. We take our faith seriously, we take icons seriously, we take sacraments seriously, etc. etc. take music seriously.

      What stake in having things “done right” do we have? Are we willing to have a financial stake in it? Are we willing to lovingly chastise those who need to improve? Personal identities and sentimental attachments are unfortunately wrapped up in a situation that’s often not the best…people become comfortable in an environment and no one is necessarily telling them they ‘sound bad’ (so 20-30 years later when someone is told they are doin’ it wrong it’s received with utter shock and disbelief and translated by their brain as ‘you don’t like me’.). It all goes back to enthusiasm and desire – and yet also obedience, that is, obedience to our faith traditions and the willingness to be taught by those steeped in those traditions. The culture of ‘participants get trophies’ doesn’t work well here.

  10. magnificent post, very informative. I wonder why the other experts of this sector do not notice this. You should continue your writing. I’m confident, you’ve a huge readers’ base already!

  11. I agree with this article wholeheartedly. The problem is a lack of mentorship. Occasional conferences and workshops are all well and good, but to really build up the level of Byzantine chant, the hierarchy needs to see that this really is an issue of dure importance and not give into the “narrative of decline” and follow the advice of people like Fr. John Finley who seems to have the ear of at least the AANA and its hierarchs and clergy. We need to bring in people from the “old countries” who would teach our chanters the correct methods of execution and teach them over the course of years, not just a few times and call it good. And as long as parishes are unwilling to pay their chanters and choir director, this decline will continue unabated despite the efforts of all us little people in the trenches.

  12. Thank you, Benedict. While the problems and available resources are somewhat different in the GOA, I found your diagnosis and recommendations to be spot on. I started AGES Initiatives five years ago to “promote and sustain the Church’s music ministry.” The platform we have developed has helped a lot of church musicians in the GOA and throughout the world. I think it could be useful in other jurisdictions as well. Let me know if you’d like to talk about it. Be strong! God is with us.

    1. Fr Seraphim Dedes, Our little mission parish chant stand would hardly be able to function without your work. Until we were able to afford a Menaion, you were all we had. Even now I double check our services against the services you put together. I am so grateful!

  13. I am considering joining an Orthodox Church. The one that is closest to where I live has music that is very difficult for me to hear. I feel that I cannot speak of this to anyone, because tradition is a part of the entire service. I have found another church in a different town to attend. The music is better, but there is beautiful Orthodox Liturgical Music out there. I have several on CD’s and they are not only beautiful to hear they are also uplifting.

    I have sung with the Choir at least twice. I was surprised there were no choir rehearsals – not even for 15 – 20 minutes before Liturgy began just to warm up or to make certain you had all the special music for that particular Sunday. Coming from a protestant background, this just doesn’t seem to add up.

  14. singing in dead foreign liturgical languages is NOT a red herring! It is difficult enough to sing in the language you speak every day in this country – English – without adding that into the mix. Parishes that do this are like people asking you to come to their house for dinner, and then everyone but you speaks in a foreign language all evening. It’s rude and excluding. And no modern Russian or Greek fully comprehends languages from the 9th century!
    In other news, I am in a situation where I’m the only educated musician and I have only 2 singers, both women, who sing with me. I got rid of the 4 part “obihod” Russian stuff, as it was vertical chords, and is awful stuff even with all 4 parts – McMusic. I moved into more horizontal chant-based flowing music that for the most part, had the harmony below the melody, so even with soprano and alto, it was still pretty. A LOT of Romanian music is like this, and we use it. So with only 3 of us, we still have a nice repertoire that changes with the festal and lenten and advent seasons. Even when it’s just me, it’s a lot nicer than hearing that old stuff they used to have.

    1. Do you have a link to some of this Romanian music you use? If it works well for one, or three, it could help a lot of mission parishes out.

  15. Thank you for this blog; I have found it inspirational and hopeful and am looking forward to reading more.

    Our parish is near an Orthodox summer camp, and I am interested in your thoughts on what would be useful to include for a one-week course for children in that setting. (Antiochian Village has a Byzantine chant camp, but that is only for teens, and there are no sessions scheduled for 2017.) My husband was thinking matching pitch, listening, singing in tune, and then beginning with simple, common hymns, but we would both like to hear your thoughts.

    Additionally, our small parish uses congregational singing, with the help of Fr. Seraphim’s AGES project. We have four main singers beside the priest, and each of us is in a season where we are dealing with age, health, and children, so we are looking at how to improve our liturgical worship.

    Also, do you have a general idea on what your a singing participant should do to prepare for a service, perhaps along the lines of Fr. Andrew Damick’s “normal Orthodox Christian” series? https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/roadsfromemmaus/2015/10/07/12-things-the-normal-orthodox-christian-is-doing/
    Even if I fall short, I would be interested in having a goal to strive towards.

  16. Dear Benedict,
    I am not a choir director, but I have sung every week (since before my voice changed!) and have conducted my fair share of services. I am also a conservatory trained professional musician. I live in a major metropolitan area.
    I strongly disagree with your negative outlook on the state of Orthodox music in America. You are basing your points on unsubstantiated assumptions. I believe we can and should approach this situation with hope, faith, and optimism, instead of pessimism.
    I’m really not sure a church choir director (in the US anyway), in most cases, can be considered a full time job. There are simply not enough hours of work to consider it such. How would you get to 20 hours in a week, much less 40 hours? The non-Orthodox churches who pay their music ministers well simply have more money and more members. 300-500, for example. You just can’t compare that with a small Orthodox church made up of 10-20 households.
    Choir directors in non-Orthodox churches tend to be better paid and have more scheduled hours of “work,” but they also tend to work other jobs to make a living. They teach piano lessons; they teach voice lessons; they start up hand-bell choirs; they work in the public schools and local colleges as music teachers.
    As a working professional musician, on occasion I’ve been hired to play services at non-Orthodox churches. These tend to be well-heeled parishes who pay their music directors fairly well and also regularly hire vocal section leaders. Honestly, they do their jobs well, but it usually isn’t anything to write home about. I never leave thinking….wow, I wish our Orthodox church could have singers like these! Very often the result is a poor blend between the “professional” singers who are there because they are being paid and the “amateur” singers who are there because they are parish members. You can both hear it and see it on their faces. Naturally, I am biased, but I would also observe that the quality of the musical writing itself tends to be much lower than even basic and standard Orthodox sacred music.
    The purpose of the church and its parishes is to help us work out our salvation, worship God, love our neighbors and enemies, not to provide full-time jobs for musicians, teachers, administrators, and maintenance staff. The reality is that most Orthodox parishes in the US are financially unable to provide a full-time salary for its priest.
    So, exactly who should be paid, and how much, by the parish to “work” for the parish? The priest, the deacons, the sub-deacons, the readers, the altar boys, the starosta, the treasurer, the head of the sisterhood, the head of the church school, the church school teachers, the random people who regularly scrape the wax off the floor? Yes, of course, being a good choir director requires skill and training, but the same could be said for the parish treasurer and church school teachers.
    I have to scratch my head a bit to hear you speak of “volunteerism” as if that’s a bad thing. Isn’t it more blessed to give than to receive? Isn’t it the spirit of “volunteerism” and its cousin “generosity” that will help build parish budgets thereby allowing choir directors to be paid more?
    I would like to challenge your assumption that Orthodox parishes in the US pre-WW 2 had full-time choir directors. Seriously? During the Depression? I’d love to see some evidence of this beyond a reference to a conversation with an “older person.” It is also quite an assumption to claim a “generally high level of musical life” in that era without real evidence to back this up. Where are the audio recordings from the 1940s that blow away the many recordings being made in the past 10 years in this country by Orthodox singers? Those “ethnic” church choirs may have dressed up and travelled around the state singing folk and sacred music, but how do we really know that they sounded better than the choirs of today?
    How exactly do you measure this calamitous decline in Orthodox church singing? Again, what is your evidence? What percentage of Orthodox churches in the US have you visited? It would be very easy to produce anecdotal observations to support your point, but just as easy to produce anecdotal observations to contradict your point.
    The Orthodox churches I have been to regularly have children and teens singing in the choir alongside adults. I have attended weddings in the past ten years where the choir is thrown together by a bunch of twenty-somethings — and they sound terrific. I have been impressed and greatly encouraged to hear the enthusiasm and quality of youth choirs at conferences and summer camps. I have been to small Orthodox churches in the middle of nowhere and have heard Vespers sung ably by three people who know what they are doing. I have been to Cathedral services where the choir is ably led by a “sub” under the age of 30.
    In order to really prove your point, you would need to have audio recordings of church choirs for example from the 1980s, and then compare them with audio recordings from the same parishes in the 2010s.
    Or, given the growth and emergence of many mission parishes in this country over the past decades….one would need an audio recording of a 10 year old parish choir from the 1980s and compare it with a 10 year parish choir from the 2010s. To be fair, these two theoretical parishes would be of similar size and in a similar geographic location.
    Anecdotally, I can also recall at least two occasions in my personal experience when “outside” choir directors with substantial musical pedigrees were brought in to lead parish choirs. They did not last too long in the job. In my opinion, they were not a good social/spiritual fit for the position. One does not need a degree in music to be able to hum a major, minor, and dominant chord, or to be able to remember stichera melodies. That being said, I usually prefer singing for directors who are “real” musicians, ie trained.
    Church choir directors should be pillars of their respective parishes, not the “best” singer or choir director a parish can afford to fly in from the latest conservatory graduation in Russia, Greece, or New York. The quality of a church choir is defined as much (or more!) by the nature of its singers as by its director.
    To be honest, I think that the problem/challenge is not so much that there aren’t enough trained musicians leading or singing in church choirs in this country. I would venture to make the supposition that the church choirs which are “struggling” tend to be in smaller and younger parishes mostly filled with devoted and pious converts who did not grow up singing Orthodox services, and because of this, are less likely to be able to pick up a cappella singing and all the intricacies of Orthodox chant. And yes, this is exactly where programs such as the Jordanville summer course and the PATRAM workshops have their most value and benefit.
    There are obvious steps we can do individually to improve the musical quality of our church choirs. Take voice lessons. Take piano lessons. Have your kids do the same. If you don’t know a tone so well, google it on your smart phone. Go to choir rehearsal. Be nice and supportive of your fellow choir members. Bring your children up to the choir. Encourage the choir director to start a children’s choir at the church. Listen to good recordings.
    I guess I feel that I need to speak up for the many hard working, long-serving, long-suffering, competent choir directors (I am NOT one!) around the US who ably lead services every week, most of whom are not musicians by training or profession.

    1. Sasha, I appreciate the comment. Certainly, my conclusions are based on anecdotal evidence (albeit evidence gathered from manifold acquaintances over the course of years), and on the strength of my own personal observations, both of which are undoubtedly limited compared with quantifiable data. The reason for this is simply that no data exist, as far as I know. No-one has undertaken a broad based historical study of the state of Orthodox music in America. Your proposal to compare audio recordings from the 1980s to recordings today wouldn’t really prove much beyond telling us how tastes have changed. Recordings rarely present a realistic picture of what singing is like in an average parish. If there were field recordings, that might be more helpful, but gathering genuine field recordings from the 80s to today, and analyzing them according some kind of objective criteria, would be a simply massive project. I’d love for someone to do such a thing, though I’m uncertain as to who would commit resources to a project like that, nor am I sure how having hard data would change what we do today.

      Honestly, I’d love to be wrong about what I say. If Orthodox music in America is doing well, so much the better. I have nothing invested in things going badly. Quite the contrary, what I’m talking about is a threat to my own long-term professional livelihood.

      I’m sorry you feel I’m attacking the average long-suffering church choir director. I meant to do nothing of the sort. Rather, I mean to attack the problems that mean so many of them ARE suffering: from lack of resources, lack of institutional support, lack of educational opportunities, even in some cases outright opposition from their parish priest, and a pervading sense that their efforts go under-appreciated. (I should add here that none of this describes anything about my own circumstances, which are radically different, thank God.)

      I actually agree with many of your other points about what makes for good music in a parish. I hope you continue to stay engaged here.

  17. My 3 sisters and I began wandering to the choir to sing when I was 8. The choir director would tell us she had room for 1 or 2 of us. This is how we learned the tones, rubrics, a little bit of Slavonic, etc. As teenagers and young adults, we were often the only singers in a moderate-sized parish for vespers, matins, and weekday services—there literally would have been no choir if we had not had such an inclusive director when we were young. As long as young singers are attentive and prayerful, inclusion is the key to molding the next generation of singers, and it’s a way for children to engage in the services.

  18. For those interested in an intensive summer program in Russian Orthodox Church music, please see the Summer School of Liturgical Music site: http://sslm.hts.edu . You attend the school for 3 two week sessions over 3 summers at Holy Trinity Seminary and Monastery, Jordanville, NY. This program just celebrated its 25th year this past September. Among the students who attended were parishioners from the OCA, Byzantine Catholics, Carpatho-Russians, Ukrainians, non-Orthodox, even a military musician from Tonga. Most of the classes are in English, with translation provided for the two non-English speaking professors. All of the teachers are highly professional and well-known in the Russian Orthodox music world.

  19. For instance, in the Russian parish usage, every parish has a fulltime paid dirigent… but that’s because the smallest Russian parish is normally larger than what we consider “large” here in the American/Canadian diaspora. All too often, there’s not enough money for the priest, let alone a dirigent, sexton/driver, and deacon, as one finds in Russia. That’s the real obstacle… cash. A Russian parish serving 2,000 to 5,000 people isn’t only busy, it has the money and its diocese has the money to properly support it. Like it or not, we’re stuck with “volunteers”. In the parish where I attend, they keep most of the music “stereotyped”, which at least isn’t bad. I’ve been in parishes where the music stinks… but all too often, it’s a case of the “choir director” coming from a “powerful” family/clan, and one can’t get rid of them, even if one wanted to. However, some of the article (and some of the comments) seem divorced from reality. I don’t go to the liturgy to hear the singing (although I submit that bad singing does detract from the “experience”). I go to the liturgy because God is there… full stop.

  20. I would like to say first of all, how much I appreciate your posting on this most important subject. The number of comments seems to indicate that other people also think it is important.
    I know little about the musical state of things in the Orthodox Church in the past (prior to the 1980s) and therefore will refrain from commenting on that part of what you have written. More important, I think, is to recognize the current situation, which in my limited experience certainly leaves much to be desired and come to some conclusions regarding what to do about it. I should also state that my experience is mostly with small and/or mission churches. I will comment on each of your main points in order:
    1. I quite agree that the acceptance of mediocrity is no solution to anything, as long as we are clear that it is the quality of the singing we are talking about, not the quality of the music (see, however, point 2). In my opinion, poor music well sung is vastly preferable to good music poorly sung. Granted, though, there are certainly limits.
    2. I disagree about simpler music. Granted that “A choir that sings out of tune in 8-part music will continue to sing out of tune in unison. In fact, unison singing often makes defects in tuning more noticeable…”. The second part of this statement is, in fact, an important reason for singing simpler music: the choir can hear what they are doing more easily and can be corrected more effectively. Simpler, however, does not mean that the music must be non-melodious or boring. The second half of your paragraph seems to contradict the first half. ‘“Simpler” music doesn’t solve anything’, but it does make it easier (and therefore more likely) to fix basic singing problems.
    3. I pretty much agree about congregational singing. It most definitely requires the presence of a competent leader and choir (although the choir may be small). The practice at my own church is to sing only one, or a very few, settings of those parts of the services that everyone should join in on. Many people do. Other parts are handled by the choir alone (or mostly alone).
    4. As for what we can do: Churches working together to hire a single full-time musician sounds good but is not really practical, except perhaps in a few big cities. In my own area (within 50 miles) there are 4 Orthodox churches: 2 Antiochian, 1 Greek, 1 OCA. If the 4 churches were to hire 1 musician between them that would mean that person would have to know 3 musical traditions and 3 English translations, not to mention learning the local peculiarities and “social dynamics” of 4 congregations. Such a person would, in my opinion, and even under much better circumstances, be quite rare.
    5. As for a full-time diocesan music director, I think that is an excellent idea. I do think, however that the idea of traveling with the bishop to other churches in the diocese would not be very helpful unless either a small group of singers also went with the director, or the bishop’s visit was combined with a choir workshop led by the director. Combining the director position with that of the cathedral choir director seems reasonable, and the production of liturgical and educational resources is certainly very important. Even if a position of diocesan musical director can not be created, there are probably one or more people in each diocese who are competent to lead choir workshops. I have done this myself a few times, and like to think that it was of some use.
    6. Finally, musical education for children is certainly important, but so is musical education for adults. Taking courses at a local college is certainly possible, though probably not often undertaken. More likely is joining a local choral society. I did so myself about a year ago and it has turned out to be both fun and educational.
    Thank you for your contributions to the musical life of our Church.

  21. Our family has been received into the Church just this year after years of exploration, and we’ve found a number of practical things challenging, but music has been the hardest for me. Simple melodies is how we best learn our ABCs, colors, days of the week, how to tie our shoes… Melodies sung together also gives strong sense of unity (I’m not confusing this with the emotion sought in modern Protestantism, simply the people around me in church all tripping all over the music until we’ve all quit singing completely a few phrases in).

    I’m deeply saddened that the amazing theology in these hymns aren’t things I’ll catch myself singing through the week, because I literally have to dedicate myself to study before the melodies would begin to feel natural. And people reference singing hymns with their children, but if I can’t sing them myself I surely can’t lead my family in them, and then my children grow up with a minimal base of songs to play through their heads.

    I don’t want cheesy tunes, but I haven’t been able to reconcile the sacrifice of accessible melodies with a desire to make beautiful music. I’ll continue to follow your blog for inspiration.

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