A Musical Culture in Crisis

The longer I spend working in church music—conducting, singing, rehearsing, teaching, composing, arranging, copying, stapling, along with the myriad other things I do as a full-time church musician to try and improve the musical state of affairs around me—the more fundamentally pessimistic I become about the general state of Orthodox church music in America outside my own immediate sphere of activity. Granted, I’m a native New Englander, so a certain degree of pessimism goes with the territory (what do you expect from a place where more than half the year Nature is trying to kill you?), but my trepidation about church music goes beyond the normal everyday sort. I’ve been telling people for years that Orthodox music in America is in decline, a fact that I think should be obvious to anyone but the most recent newcomer to Orthodoxy. However, I now think the actual state of things is quite a lot worse than that. I believe now that, with few exceptions, liturgical music in American parishes is currently collapsing, and further, that if we fail to take measures to address the collapse, both locally and collectively, we will shortly face the very real prospect of a majority of parishes in which it is simply not feasible to maintain even a mediocre standard of singing.

I realize this may sound alarmist to some people—it even sounds alarmist to me as I write it—but I don’t think I’m wrong, at least as far as I can tell. An important aspect of my job is traveling around and visiting different Orthodox parishes, and either singing for them with my colleagues and students, or talking to them about music, or getting them to sing, or some combination thereof. This, together with the countless other informal encounters I’ve had with the musical life of Orthodoxy in various parts of the country (as well as abroad) over the past twenty-some years, has given me what I think is at least a passably accurate picture of what church singing is like in America today (though admittedly an anecdotal one). Bright spots, while they do exist, are much more rare than they should be. And while there are certainly churches out there with talented directors and singers who work to maintain high musical standards, I wonder how many of them have meaningful strategies in place to ensure the sustainability of those standards in the event of one or two key figures leaving the parish. I suspect it’s very few.

The most significant crisis we’re facing right now in church music is a rapidly deepening lack of competent musical leaders. There simply does not appear to be a new generation of Orthodox church musicians waiting in the wings.

When I first started being involved in church music more than two decades ago, I did so in a parish where many of the young people were doing the same. I also attended an Orthodox summer camp where singing in services, and in particular, singing well, was a fairly big part of daily life. As a result, I knew literally dozens of Orthodox young people who were actively involved in music. Of these, a surprising number—at least fifteen that I can think of off the top of my head—went on to study music in college in some capacity. When I myself went to conservatory I met several practicing Orthodox Christians among my fellow music students, along with three or four others who would later convert.

So, here’s the problem: out of the some two dozen young Orthodox musicians that I knew growing up—all of them trained to work in music at a professional level—I am the only one I know of who is currently working full-time as an Orthodox musician. Some of them, of course, are church choir directors, or active members of their parish choir, and at least two have at one point or another worked full-time in Orthodox music as seminary professors, but now do so no longer. None, however, appear to be practicing Orthodox music as an actual full-time profession today. A disheartening number either work full-time in music outside the Church—some in non-Orthodox churches—or have left the Church altogether, but continue to pursue a musical career. And some no longer practice music at all. The reasons behind people’s life decisions are often complicated, and maybe some of my friends and acquaintances would have left the Church regardless of what it had to offer them, materially speaking. One simple fact, however, is abundantly clear: there are not really any jobs, so none of them could reasonably have pursued a career in Orthodox music even if they’d wanted to. The Church effectively said to them, “if you’re musically talented, you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want a job.”

I’ve already written an article on the subject of why Orthodox church musicians in America are so often unpaid, or paid very little, so I won’t belabor the point here. However, I want to address the basic question, why are there no jobs? In talking to older members of the Church over the years, and hearing their stories about what things were like when they were young, I find that it was not that uncommon for Orthodox churches in the first half of the 20th century to have full-time choir directors. Many of these choir directors were highly trained, often overseas, and, while choirs were frequently gifted with dozens of capable and dedicated singers (thanks to the flourishing ethnic parishes of yesteryear), it was expected that a director would bring a special level of vision and expertise to the table beyond that of a merely competent singer. Or, to put it another way, it seems that the Orthodox of past generations maintained a serious musical culture. So what went wrong?

Before I answer that, a brief aside: there undoubtedly are deep socio-economic currents at work here, and the overall demographic decline of Orthodox parishes is undeniable. However, those currents have affected all mainline Christian denominations, not just Orthodoxy. They don’t account for why Orthodox musical culture is so particularly prostrate today.

So here’s what I think happened, in a nutshell. The first generation of Orthodox in America, the same generation that built so many of our churches, built a musical culture as well, or at least the foundations of one. They frequently had full-time choir directors, they taught their children to sing, they formed musical associations, and they established a generally high level of musical life. But the next generation, either because no one told them what they had to do, or simply because they felt they didn’t need to do anything, largely failed to maintain that culture, and instead lived on its accumulated capital. Volunteerism, eventually raised to an almost sacrosanct level among American Orthodox people during the second half of the 20th century, became the norm. The phenomenon of the professional Orthodox church musician gradually disappeared. Facilitated by a robust standard of music education in American public schools—a standard all but entirely gutted in many places today—amateur musicianship spread and ultimately prevailed. Over the last generation this amateur culture worked fairly well, but sometime in the past twenty years or so it stopped working, and I fear it’s about to get a lot worse.

Continued in Part 2, Addressing the Crisis

*Update (1/13/17): I wrote that I had at least two friends who at one point had worked full-time as seminary music professors, but do so no longer. In fact, one of them tells me he was not actually full-time, but a part-time contract employee.

Benedict Sheehan

About Benedict Sheehan

Benedict is Director of Music at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery, and Artistic Director of the Saint Tikhon Choir, a professional vocal ensemble. He also guest conducts Cappella Romana and has collaborated with numerous other leading ensembles around the United States, including the Clarion Choir, the Kansas City Chorale, and the Skylark Vocal Ensemble. Together with his wife, vocalist and educator Talia Maria Sheehan, Benedict is a frequent clinician and speaker in the field of Orthodox choral singing throughout North America. A composer and author, he has a variety of published works, including the album, “Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan” (2015), and an anthology of arrangements entitled “A Common Book of Church Hymns: Divine Liturgy” (2016). He and his wife have seven daughters and live in Pennsylvania.

63 comments:

  1. I’m curious about the shift to the next generation that you say they felt they didn’t have to do anything. It would be interesting to locate some folks from that generational transition and get some stories. I also like that you make this a labor issue: Where are the jobs? I think about how there is a devaluation of the arts in America in general, short of the virtuosos or celebrities. When in Europe, the feeling of support for the arts is so different. I wonder about the shift from Russia to America there.

  2. I have been in both situations as an Orthodox choir director: paid and not paid. For me, not paid is better. Today I am poorer than I have ever been. Sometimes I need to borrow money from a parishioner to buy gas to drive home. But I would never take money from the church. Priests have no training in employment issues. They also relate differently to men choir directors than women. If I’m unhappy at the parish I can leave anytime because there is no financial string holding me there. God will provide someone to take my place. Maybe not as well as I do it, but differently. I’m thankful I have a key to the church.

  3. Unfortunately, part of the problem is the minimalist attitude that infects much of what we do in these busy and distracted lives. Liturgical Music suffers from the “let’s keep this plate spinning even if it is wobbling badly” mentality. It is not the only area of liturgical life that is suffering these days. Thanks for focusing us on the problem, Benedict!

  4. In my opinion, the purest expression of Orthodox liturgical music is that of sincere, reasonably decent singers in the small parish, not that of highly trained musicians and mulitply degreed perfectionists. The latter will be consistently disappointed and frustrated with simple people who are doing the best they can, and who deliver the most humble and forthright liturgical music for divine services.

    1. I find this comment part of the “anti-intellectual” mindset that has infected this country and even made its way into the Church. Would we accept a “reasonably decent seamstress or icon painter” to make substandard vestments and icons? NO
      Our music which is our worship, is way more important than either of these two, and yet, the idea of humble, even if it isn’t any good, gets pitted against “those musical elitists” . As Benedict said, in the old country, to be trained as a musician to serve the church was an expectation. They had no problem with welcoming highly trained directors or singers, realizing that these folks had the ability to help a parish offer God its most beautiful worship. Think that St. Vladimir’s representatives would have been as gobsmacked with the beauty of the worship at Aghia Sofia, had that “sincere humble singers, who had only average skills” been the norm? I think not.
      As usual neither extreme is desirable. Well trained directors are the key. I used to think that the success of a choir was 50/50 director and singers. I now realize it’s 70/30 director and singers. A knowledgeable director can bring out of a group of average singers so much more, than “somebody who knows where middle C on a piano is”. By choosing music that is a better fit for the ranges and skillset of the singers, a skilled director can improve the musical ministry in a very short time. I have experience with this in a mission parish where I was called to come in and direct….. So it’s not just a theory.

      1. You better start studying. Intellect is ego….ego is the destroyer of your spiritual life……you actually have the nerve to put down things as “anti-intellectual”? amazing. get off your high horse. There is nothing wrong with wanting a better choir, but your attitude needs an adjustment. You would be better off studying for your spiritual soul than trying to push an intellectual reason for your argument. Intellect is heresy basically……you are not educated enough in that area, so start reading your scripture and Elders, and Monastic books so you can grow more…..I pray for your soul…..

          1. Thank you Benedict. I think there are many people right now who are praying this discussion stays on higher ground so that progress can be made. Pauline is spot on.

  5. In our small parish, Orthodox church music is, in actuality, nearly dead. No leadership, no education, little knowledge of the form, and almost no concern from the priest. I fear we are not long from Liturgies that are void of all but the smallest amount of singing. The obligatory “kyrie eleison” and nothing else. This is personally distressing.

  6. hello Benedict, and thank you. I could have written the exact same article. I’m a generation older than you and remember the full time directors – full time pay, benefits, housing! up until the mid 80’s. Parishes declined, people left, priorities changed, and the choir director was lucky to get a small stipend that usually went along with a bit of grief about it too. I agree, our musical state of affairs is getting worse, our parishes are declining and membership at least in my diocese OCA – DOMW, is falling.

  7. Thank for your thoughtful article on the state of Orthodox music in the U.S.

    As a former Anglican musician, I converted to Orthodoxy 30 years ago in order to participate in the True Church. It was a wonderful personal transformation and escape from the changing Anglican Church which was slowly abandoning the theology of the ancient church.

    As an Anglican I learned that music was liturgy and, as every other parts of the worship structure, needed to be worthy worship of the God who visited our small spot in Gods kingdom. There was no compromise in the dignity of the worship. Whether we were lighting candles, vesting the clergy or kneeling in contemplation, we were engaged in the most sublime expression of humankind. Music was always an integral part of that dignity.

    But as a convert to Orthodoxy, I was faced with a complete new definition of the place of music in the Great Offering. It was no longer worthy of the best we had to offer but was acceptable as an offering of the frailty of the people. No rehearsals, no commitments, no standards, no renumeration for the choir master or the singers. And it welcomed any visitor or stray who wanted to “join” their voices in songs for any particular Sunday.

    I believed that in all manner of Orthodoxy worship was special,- beautiful vestments, sublime Liturgies, gold altar instruments, icons, icon screens, , candles, domes, crosses. – except for the music. It was a poor offering of ineptitude. If the rest of Orthodox worship matched the music, we would offer the sacrament in paper cups, the clergy would wear shorts and the deacons would be anyone off the streets. Our entire service is sung, but Is It worthy of God’s presence in the Liturgy?

    For us American born and reared with Western music, we are also offered a foreign music, more distant and even less acceptable than the foreign languages that we sometimes have to endure. Eastern chant, modes, and manner of speaking-worship-in-tones is offensive to our Western trained ears.

    It is no wonder that it is so difficult to attract the American spirit to the Orthodox Church when even the worst music done well (as mega churches do it) is better than foreign music done poorly. We are a church of distracting music that can drive away even the least discerning musician among us.

    He who sings worship twice.
    (He who sings poorly is an embarrassment.

    1. I hear your frustration. You are not alone. Many excellent points. As a very wise man in our Archdiocese has said, “If it isn’t beautiful, it isn’t prayerful.” And to anyone raised with a Western ear for music, Middle Eastern music is not beautiful or prayerful. It works great in the Middle East because it is the musical style and sound of their culture, both religious and secular. If we want to bring Americans to Christ through the Orthodox faith, we have to put our beautiful
      texts to music that enhances the text and touches the American heart. Thankfully there are talented people doing just that. Have you seen any of the music by Nazzo Zakak?

      1. I just couldn’t disagree with you two more. I am definitely not Middle Eastern, nor was I raised in the church, nor do I attend a Greek or Antiochian parish (I have always attended OCA since converting); yet I don’t understand how anyone can find Byzantine Chant anything but prayerful and beautiful. Although I will say if done poorly, it IS really awful. But if done well it is amazing. There isn’t a whole lot of middle ground though, so maybe that’s where you’re coming from.

        1. Yes, that is where I am coming from. Done carefully it can be beautiful. Unfortunately much of what we hear is nasal. Someone told me Byzantine is supposed to be nasal.
          To the Western ear that is neither beautiful or prayerful.

          1. Would like to modify that comment a bit. Again suggesting you look at the music by the new composer for the Antiochiam church, Nazzo zakkak. His music is written to enhance the text while being easy to sing. This makes being prayerful and focused on worship easier for the choir and the congregation.

          2. If what you’re hearing is neither beautiful nor prayerful, maybe it’s the singer or maybe it’s the hearer, but don’t blame the music. Byzantine chant has been around for more than 1500 years. (It was based on the ancient Greek modes, but developed in its own way.) The entire experience of being in church is supposed to be a foretaste of heaven; therefore, everything we see, hear, touch, smell, touch and taste there is supposed to be turning our attention toward that, not toward our everyday earthly worldly life. It’s SUPPOSED to sound different than a Bach cantata (which is also beautiful in itself, but inappropriate for worship).

        2. I agree with you, Rdr Nicholas. I know so many Orthodox Americans, in particular, who love the sounds of the various traditions from all over the world. Some seem to have more “depth” than others, or maybe it’s just that they reach or touch you in different ways. But, yes, when any of these “traditions” are done badly, I think that even those of us who don’t have a musical background can tell that something’s wrong.

          On the other hand, I tend not to like the sound of a “too professional” sounding choir, if that makes sense. I think because it seems to come across more as a concert performance than worship and, as a result, some parishioners feel like they can’t, or shouldn’t, participate.

          I was told that parishioners are supposed to participate and that the purpose of the choir is to lead them in that participation. So, in that sense, the choir director should know what he/she is doing because the bottom line is that it’s about worship.

          I love to sing and I would even love to join the choir… unfortunately, I sound like a cross between Johnny Cash, Janice Joplin and Kermit the Frog, so, out of consideration for my fellow parishioners, I “whisper sing”… even though my heart is “belting it out”!

      2. Yes, again I hear the tired refrain of “Americans are just incapable of appreciating or understanding Byzantine chant.” What utter B.S.! I’m a convert (well, who isn’t, really? Be honest) and amongst us converts we are the ones trying to preserve the Byzantine modal system not because of some moribund fascination with esoteric things or to purposefully keep people away from Orthodoxy but because Byzantine chant has brought many people into the faith (What about those emissaries from St. Vladimir? They weren’t hearing Tchaikovsky) and has helped preserve the faith? Why does everyone assume Americans are just too stupid or too uncultured or too (insert pejorative here) to appreciate Byzantine chant? Why must Americans be singled out as being special (for better or for worse) that they must have their own music for the liturgy? The worst thing about this whole scenario is that this worldview is not only promulgated by the laity (mainly cradles) but also by a good amount of clergy and hierarchy. The solution is NOT for Orthodoxy to use exclusively or predominantly music composed by people like Mr. Zakak whose music sounds like it comes from an Anglican church? Orthodoxy is distinctive. It is not supposed to sound like the church down the street. We have also done this with our church architecture (though I think that might be changing). But music seems to be main sacrificial lamb. If ours is the true faith, then why do we seem to only make music in the image of our contemporaries? We don’t do that with our icons (I know some are and they are rightly chastised for it) and we should not do that with the medium that has so well praised our God and communicated the faith. Orthodoxy is not going to grow by being like everyone else. It will grow and thrive if it remains faithful to what it has been given.

        1. What is most often presented as Byzantine is vastly different from Byzantine. It is more of a village tradition where people may have sing sincerely, but were clueless of tradition. I doubt that we will even know what exactly emissaries of Vladimir have heard, but it surely was not one hears in parishes that use Byzantine Chant now. There are very few, but there are Greek, Russian, Serbian, Georgian singers and choirs that try to work on bringing back traditional singing that could pass for ecclesiastical singing tradition in general area of the Byzantine Commonwealth. But, please, don’t call those honest and pure, but talent and knowledge devoid music performances in the parish as Byzantine singing. I say that as a lamentation, not as criticism. Benedict and other comments talks about the real state of affairs, not about what it could be, or what it is “by the book”. Alas.

        2. When Orthodoxy was brought to Russia, they used Byzantine music for many years, almost 200, until a national style was developed – Znamenny chant. They made it their own under the tutelage of the original. Every Orthodox country has it’s own body of chant melodies, so of course it makes sense for America to have it’s own melodies too, and it already does have many beautiful Orthodox hymns and chants by American composers. The important thing is for composers to work within the Orthodox tradition and learn from the chants of the past, and have a liturgically informed approach, so we have a truly Orthodox body of music. It is easy for one who loves Byzantine music to insist that all Americans can learn to love Byzantine music, but not so easy for whole parishes of converts to be told to throw aside music they love and connect with and learn something completely foreign. All things take time and slow exposure.

        3. I think you see the answer to your question with some of the comments above. It is the height of hubris to assert that one’s “ear” or taste in music reflects that of an entire culture (really, is there an NIST standard for “Western Ear”?), so we have not one, but at least two commenters doing just that. In addition, to then declare, with this self-grandeur, that another form of music is therefore offensive? Spare me.

          Well, I have a Western trained ear, and many years of experience under the direction of a highly trained musician and find Byzantine chant absolutely compelling. I also find a great number of other world musical styles fascinating.

          1. Patrick – two things: a) it might also be the height of hubris to claim that you speak for the musical tastes of 99% of Americans (correct me if I’m wrong, but people are not beating down the doors); b) there is absolutely beautiful byzantine style chant (mostly, in my experience, done in monastic communities), and there is the form I have found in most parishes. The problem in this instance is probably not the director, it is the singers, most, if not all, of whom have received no training, and the results speak for themselves.

          2. YES! Here’s what would be helpful to me, as a choir director. I would love to have a list of capable professionals who would be willing to come and do a weekend retreat for parish choirs. I don’t think that going to a symposium is necessarily as helpful as a professional who could come in and work with the dynamics of a particular group of people who sing together two or three times a week. If this person was also able to help choir develop its singing, and help the director (most of us are not trained) with some specifics to improve his/her conducting for church music (very different from conducting a piece for a concert), I think we would see a great improvement in church singing. I know that our choir would LOVE to have access to a local weekend retreat. We have some dollars budgeted for such a retreat.

          3. You are correct. I was out of line. But I do strongly believe Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy regardless of musical style. Byzantine is difficult, maybe more difficult that our unpaid, unprofessional people can handle well. Many more of us know how to read Western notation. Thanking God that in the Antiochian Archdiocese we have talented people writing beautiful music to help our choirs.

    2. The comments on this thread are becoming a little ugly. I think I may have contributed a little to that by being critical. Please understand that I know there are those who love Byzantine. I don’t have a problem with that. But when the focus of worship becomes performing the Tone of the day as it does so often and when unskilled or inexperienced chanters like me massacre the text and the Tone in an effort to make them fit together, are we really worshipping? Are we really helping our people pray?
      If we can make the music beautiful and reverent, yet easier to sing for people not raised in a Byzantine church, (namely 99% of the non-Orthodox Americans we are called to reach) do you really think God would not bless that? Praying God will lead us in the right direction.

    3. I am only a convert of 30 years now. I have been an organist in the choir of volunteers. That disappeared to chanting. I am now in a singing church. With all volunteers or whoever feels they can contribute to singing that day, including the children. However, whoever is leading, they are doing so as a praise to God! Out of their hearts! To say a bad singer is embarrassing is so incredibly judgemental! Prayer and worship come from the heart andmovement in the soul by the Holy Spirit. Just because they are not professionally trained means nothing! Granted, sometimes is hard to hear the weakness of it. Regardless, the woman who gave her last penny was treasured the most by Jesus…….what has been lost seems to be the humility of those who had the beauty and failed to maintain it. Those left carrying on are doing their best and obviously more than what all of you feel is below your level, so to speak! I am glad this issue is brought up as we pray that we dont lose the music, but to speak as tho anything less than the “right” way is an embarrassment, one should humble oneself and ask for forgiveness!!!Off key and out of rythym is still treasured by the Lord I am sure because it takes a humble soul to sing out to God even tho they sing poorly. This shows their true love of him for sure!

      1. See my response above to the person who talked about ‘humble and average vs multi-degreed singing. Off key and out of rhythm is not treasured by anybody, and it is NOT judgmental to point it out. To say that the Lord still loves it is completely a subjective opinion. You speak for God now? I would never have that kind of hubris.
        It is better to have one person cantor a service who does it well, than an untrained group being off key and out of rhythm bringing attention to themselves by being a vocal trainwreck, and away from the prayerfulness of the service. I am so dismayed by this kind of Our Gang or Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland, “Come on kids, let’s put on a show!” attitude, not caring about offering God the best we can do, that I could pull my hair out!

        1. I guess your church or the churches you have been to must have lazy people who do not give it their all. according to you. I personally have never seen that. The people in the choir all did their best. I have been in 4 churches and never seen people in the much needed choir who did not do their best. And yes, YOU are judgemental, I didnt say I spoke for God. Read your scripture and you will gain an understanding. I will pray for your understanding.

      2. Jesus also honoured the woman who spent all for a precious jar of myrrh to anoint His feet. She might as easily have bought something more in her personal price range and given it with all her heart, but she herself was not satisfied with that. The Lord commended her for showing the love in her heart with an outpouring of material treasure, the best that could be procured at great cost.

        It seems inevitable that these kinds of discussions always end up in either/or territory. But it simply isn’t true that to strive for more beautiful and accomplished music is automatically anti-spiritual. Badly done music is as much of a barrier to worship and to outreach as is concert-style music in a language not understood by the congregation and visitors.

        Of course many small parishes have little and give what they can in the area of liturgical music; but it does not denigrate their love for God to encourage them to aim higher, even if only a little and bit by bit.

        I once heard the suggestion that “God is easy to please, but difficult to satisfy.” It is so in all areas of our lives, including our corporate liturgical music. It is so not because God is a perfectionist, but because He wants us to grow and mature. We not only, yes, embarrass ourselves and others with poorly done, discordant music; but we even shortchange ourselves of what God wants for us when we are not only satisfied to maintain our status quo, but even to make a virtue, nay even to glorify, the painful sometimes necessity of beginning at a very poor level of musicianship. We all love our preschool kids’ stick drawings and display them proudly on our refrigerators, but surely we are concerned to help them progress beyond such beginnings.

  8. I spent years in the choir of a Carpatho-Russian parish. All of us were requir had advanced degreesed to rehearse, often for hours each week. Our choir director had an advanced degree from St. Vladimir’s. She spent many hours each week preparing music for us all, and our choir books were fantastic. Still, the music is difficult, the service requirements are difficult and confusing. Much of our music was transcribed from hand notation, a time-consuming, difficult process. All of the choir members were either working full-time or they were retired, but all of us had multiple demands on our time. Because of my work and school schedule I could not be at many of the services throughout the week on a regular basis. We strove for perfection, but if there were any difficulties, such as a congregant with a hideous voice passionately singing with the choir, the choir received complaints and ordered to do better. We paid for our own music, our own music software, and did it all on our own time. We learned masses of music each year, and many of us dedicated ourselves to the Lenten, Holy Week and Paschal services.

    In “the old country” (apparently) churches are supported by the state, hence their fabulous cathedrals. Here, I understand, we do not even tithe an average of 10%. Our priests are paid a pittance in many parishes, though not all diocese are the same in this regard. There is more here than a simple lack of respect for music.

    I disagree with some commentators that it is the fault of music that is foreign to the western ear. I have learned (and sung) liturgy in English sung in Greek, Russian, Carpatho-Russian, Ukrainian, and Arabic styles. Is it foreign? Yes. Is that bad or ugly? NO!!!!! Should we begin creating icons in the style of Andy Worhol? Grandma Moses? Should we have vestments designed by Tommy Hilfiger so that they suit the American sensibilities? God forbid!

    Should we place more of an emphasis on liturgical music? On learning it, singing it properly? Men like David Drillock are helping by providing education for choirs and choir directors on the OCA website. This is a good step, it seems to me.

  9. Thank you, I appreciated these honest words. Our tiny mission parish has a wonderfully hard working unpaid choir director and a small choir with some converts who struggle. We are learning slowly but surely. BTW can you recommend a book I can read about liturgical music as a beginner? I’m a classically trained pianist but I’d like to learn more about liturgical music.

    1. There’s not really a lot out there in terms of a general introduction to liturgical music, at least not in English. The best way to start is just to begin learning repertoire. Consider buying my recent book of music for Divine Liturgy, which is designed for today’s smaller ensembles. There’s an ad in the sidebar that will take you to it.

      1. I have often used the AFR podcast by Stephen Koury, Glory to Thee. In the absence of more formal training this has been very helpful.

    2. Consider picking up Johan von Gardner’s “Russian Church Singing Vol 1”. There may be others like it for Byzantine Chant but it’s a good introduction.

      The recommendation to pick up a copy of the “Divine Liturgy” from SVS press is a good start. I would also recommend looking at some of the resources on the OCA website such as the one for “Learning the Tones” (https://oca.org/liturgics/learning-the-tones) . The Divine Liturgy music book is largely composed while the tones are chants that are applied to continually changing texts. Both should give you a good perspective.

  10. The biggest problem I face as a new church choir member is that Byzantine music is so difficult and abstract. Its almost impossible to get answers to simple questions. Add to that the fact that everything has 8 possible variations (modes) it quickly overcomes the novice. The amount of work in being a choir member (let alone a leader) is much greater in the Orthodox church than in any Protestant tradition.

  11. I’ve been directing our choir for most of the last 27 years. I will make a pretty bold statement. More important than being a master musician, it’s most important for the choir director to know rubrics inside and out, and to be able to relate to the singers what the meaning of the hymns is, to get them to sing prayerfully, and understand that they are giving voice to others’ prayer. I have no training other than what I got singing in the SVS choir and a class with Fr. Sergei Glagolev in liturgical music. Though I’ve had the honor of singing under some of the best Orthodox directors in the country, I am not a musician. I do have the advantage of having a masters from SVS. Our choir struggled for years for lack of good voices. In the last 5 years it has blossomed into an absolutely beautiful blend, with young singers who are extremely capable, and have been trained well in the (public) schools in voice, band, and music theory. I count on them to help me with the technical aspects of the music, while I give direction in the flow, prayerful singing, and rubrics. (I told someone recently who praised me for our choir…I’m kind of like the president. I get to create the direction we are going to go in, but I rely on my adivisors to help make it happen.) We also have in our choir, those who have sung for 40 years, whose voices are not so beautiful, but without whom, the choir would feel a bit empty. (I work hard to help them blend, but I would NEVER tell them not to sing.) We allow children in the choir…even three year olds, who take their singing very seriously…at least for parts of the service, and then they are gently guided to settle down, or go back to stand with their parents. (This is how we have developed the teens’ liturgical singing. They have all sung in the choir since they were toddlers). Long intro to say: I think this article is off the mark. First, if we as a culture value music, our schools would value music and teach it (our high schools do) and secondly and more importantly, sometimes the beauty of the musical prayer is in the purity heart that offers it, not necessarily in the talent that executes it. God honors the intent. Liturgical singing should be as beautiful as we can make it, and that may not be beautiful in worldly terms. It should be an honest and pure offering. It is not a concert, it is not a performance. As far as being paid, it would be nice for the director to be paid, but honestly, our readers aren’t paid, our subdeacons aren’t paid, our deacons aren’t paid…so, should I be paid? It’s a ton of work, but it’s an offering. Here is our choir. Not perfect, but they love each other and sing as beautifully as they can from their hearts. I don’t think liturgical music in this country is in decline. I think it’s on the upswing.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vOH2Oe6yJjs

    1. I have a similar perspective and if I there is anything I could add it’s that our tradition is a Chant tradition not a Performance tradition. While it is not always the case often times I run into situations where a Western professional training in music is actually an impediment to understanding and singing within the Church. I don’t want to paint too broad a brush but the best musicians that I know are steeped within the Church’s tradition some having professional training while many do not. I am not trying to slam Western training either as it provides valuable insight and skills but I think it needs to be treated carefully as Western Musical tradition is not part of the Church’s tradition (with the exception of 19th Russia) and is infused with a completely different ethos. Part singing and harmony is good and helpful but 16part Baroque compositions of the Cherubic Hymn are probably best left for the concern hall.

      Finally, I whole heartedly agree that anyone who pursues music absolutely needs to understand Liturgics inside and out or at least know how to look it up and when to look it up. Unless your parish just serves the Divine Liturgy, a working knowledge of the Typikon, Ochtoechos, Menaion, Triodian, Petecostarion, and Horologion is essential in addition to knowing the appropriate tones and Podobni. If anything is lacking in our parishes, it seems to me it is a lack of understanding and support for the role of the Protopsaltis.

    2. Matushka, I am glad you have an upswing of liturgical singing in your parish, but I believe it is because God has blessed your circumstances. Perhaps you ask Him to, which is a necessary part of our lives as liturgical leaders. But I think that Benedict is right in general. While there are islands of beauty, such as your parish, the musical life of many parishes is in decline. An unsupported music ministry is not sustainable, most trained Orthodox musicians are working outside of the church, and most parishes have under-trained musical leaders and singers. I believe the two things most needed to improve this situation is funding for music leaders in the parish, and training for those same musicians. If a parish has a trained musician, there is someone to teach others. If there is no support for this person, they will find work elsewhere. As trained musicians, who know what it takes to create beauty, our task is the same as in the public schools. We have to become advocates for liturgical music. It is not enough to just make our worship beautiful.

  12. Well said, my friend.
    As one of the musicians you were no doubt referring to, I can say this:
    If I were still a believer, I would absolutely still be an active part of Orthodox Church music. It is my foundation; it is something I miss deeply in my life; a core beauty that defines my aesthetic being. But I cannot reconcile non-belief with active participation, if that participation is only linked to my connection to the music I grew up with.
    So I remain, outside of the flock, with fondness and love.

  13. Another problem is parish income. We are small (60 families) and we are in the red, unable to meet our priests salary. It would be impossible to also pay for a musical director, although we have one parishioner who is completely qualified. So a larger problem is increasing Stewardship and bringing new saints into the church. I would love to see the music brought to the general public in recitals to attract interest and potential new Orthodox.

  14. One of the hierarchs of the OCA related a story of a bishop and other accompanying him going to a service, getting stopped in one of those traffic jams where nothing is going anywhere and people get out of there cars and visit. There was a van full of Protestant musicians going to a performance / service. The bishop said let’s each sing something, and the Orthodox went on to sing several pieces, such as “from my youth”, a capella from memory. They then told the Protestants it was their turn to sing. They could not sing the first song without their music, organ, etc. The point was that though sometimes not done well during the Liturgy, we should strive to do everything as well as possible (but not necessarily with professional ringers). The comment above from Luke, with all due respect (and I really do respect his decision not to sing because he says he cannot reconcile it with his non-belief) offers great insight. I think there is a much deeper significance, spiritually than just how technically good the music is. Some of the most meaningful services for me have been those (unfortunately) sparsely attended with congregational singing by the few in attendance.

  15. I entered the Antiochian Orthodox church in the early 1990’s and did not know any of the music in Arabic or in English though I am of Arab descent born in America but not raised Orthodox. Today, I have embraced them and made them mine. I was not aware of Byzantine chanting or the differences between Byzantine chanting or that of OCA music. I am a proponent of Byzantine music in all the languages of the world. It was Byzantine music that helped spread the growth of Orthodoxy. It has structure and functions well & an ancient past history. Unfortunately, there are not many trained choir directors to assist in this matter. I personally do feel that there is a movement right here in the good old U.S.A. that there is an appetite for Byzantine music. My Orthodox journey led me to connect to the music chants performed in the Middle East. It opened up a huge world of eastern music that I was unaware of maqam http://www.maqamworld.com
    I think many may see the unknown as foreign or frightful and afraid to venture into the pristine beauty of ancient and traditional byzantine music. The English singing world needs an ancient spiritual transfusion of the Eastern world to truly appreciate what we have. As long as we thirst for truth, continue that path towards godly music that will elevate us from earth to heaven. Believe me, I had no one around to consult about the state of our music in the 1990s which I heard mainly as OCA which has nearly returned to Byzantine music. Please don’t misunderstand me as bashing or negating OCA music. It works well for some but not for all. Some perform it well while others don’t & it can be argued with Byzantine music. However, since Byzantine music is much, much older and endured much organic growth it has a way of deeply penetrating the soul. It has helped me connect to the East much more easier than anything else.
    I helped establish a bookstore 15 years ago at my parish and have actively promoted Byzantine music cds as well as others which has done much to influence my parish community. We play music throughout the course of the day. I have thanked over time God for sending talented Byzantine chanters from the Middle East that can chant in Greek, Arabic as well as in English. Ask and you shall receive is that ancient adage.
    Just my $.02 cents.

  16. We hold the key to change. I’m not talking about changing the style of music, but giving God everything that we have in terms of our time, in His Word and in prayer. We are all very individual and He knows how to lead each one of us into a life that will glorify Himself through us. The eagle also goes through a similar process, we all must deny ourselves the things that God hates and together with Him ask for His grace so we can truly say there is nothing in us to hinder. Also, there is a remnant God is seeking to empower as there is a greater glory to experience from heaven.God wants us to start flexing our spiritual muscles as you forget the netflex fantasy time robber and spend more time with our Saviour.

  17. As an Orthodox millennial who actively sings each week, and leads when the choir director isn’t able to be there, I can see where you’re coming from but most of the time, life is so hectic that it’s a blessing just to be able to be there for the very short matins and liturgy. At our church, (which is MASSIVE by the way), we can barely get more than a few people to meet for rehearsal during the week. If we were all paid to do it, then sure, that’s a totally different story. But it’s not realistic as most churches struggle to even pay a priest salary. Maybe my church could foot the bill for a choir director but we are the exception because of our size and social-economic demographic. For now it’s just faithful parishioners who’ve had some sort of musical upbringing but we are certainly not “professionals” – yeah sure, I can sight read from my parents making me play in school band, but so what? We aren’t Rassem. And never will be. If we could all have a Rassem at our church then, heck yes, that would certainly up the anty, but for now it’s people working outside jobs over 50 hrs a week, with very long commutes (since there’s lack of churches), and if we can wing it through sight reading some Fr Seraphim Dedes for matins or Kazan for liturgy then praise be to God. I know that “winging it” isn’t the ideal standard you’re looking for…but it’s what we’ve got for now. My biggest issue with orthodox music is the fact that it’s taken a horrible turn for Westernization. No one knows Byzantine notation and no one learns the tones. No one teaches the tones accept Menios at holy cross seminary. Orthodox music was not originally 4 part harmony…sorry, not trying to knock the ROCOR-to-the-core folks (I love all of them very much), but it’s not Byzantine nor is it traditional and it doesn’t sound “Orthodox”!!! And the 20 somethings like me who will eventually be the white haired ones, (God-willing) running all these church programs will have no idea how to carry on the richness of the Byzantine music unless Simonas Petras is able to lend us some visiting monks to rotate among parishes and carry the torch. But I suspect there’s a better chance of scientifically cloning Rassem before that would happen. Interesting article and thanks for posting. Prayers for orthodoxy and for the continuation of our music throughout America.

  18. Dear Benedict,

    So glad you are bringing this issue up. I am an old woman and convert. I attend an OCA church. The tones are very difficult to learn. I think the church has ignored this problem too long. I can’t comment on professional directors or musicians. I can not read music. I would however love to learn more. There is a nice course available in the tones of ROCOR (Tone Tutor 101). But the OCA is woefully slow. The byzantine chant is unfamiliar but that is interesting too. It is great to have professionals I am sure but even training the people would be good.

  19. I loved your blog! It gives me hope… our churches are diminishing in Canada where we are still transitioning between devout 1st generation ethnic parishioners, that are rapidly disappearing to their heavenly reward, and the 2nd & 3rd generation English speaking children and recent converts to the faith. But now the power of those deep, rich, and fervent voices, raised in sung prayer is almost a memory. No longer do the walls reverberate with the passion and depth of the Liturgies of the past with people that endured untold sufferings in wars and gulags… now we are a remnant and our churches have very few young people. I am holding fast to the promise that “the gates of hell will not prevail against us” and that the most beautiful liturgy on earth, the “sung” Byzantine Liturgy, will once again convert a hurting world. Carry on soldiers for Christ… I am praying for you.

  20. We live in an area where many parishes are hard pressed to pay for a full-time priest – a growing phenomenon across North America, I think, and certainly the norm for most missions.

    Christian churches have been part of the majority culture, right into the 1990s; this is no longer going to be the case, as secularism steals away many souls on one side, and entertainment-style seeker-sensitive Protestant groups peel away many souls on the other.

    Orthodox Christianity is in the process of rebirth in the catacombs, albeit publically accepted catacombs (for now, at least). Comfy, middle class Orthodox communities will continue to fade in the West, because Orthodoxy is simply too much work for most people here.

    I kept asking myself as I read this article, is this author from a wealthy American suburb, with no sense of the dramatic changes going on around us?

    The article reads much like some made-up story about the early martyrs of Rome discussing what colour marble they’d like used to carve their epitaphs…

  21. A couple of other things I will add. While I agree that something offered sincerely, even if not perfect, is undoubtedly blessed by God, I think we all need to challenge ourselves about whether what we are offering is really sincere and whole-hearted. If I show up on Sunday and sing something poorly, is it because I’m at the limit of my ability, and thus it should be accepted, or is it because I let other things, perhaps of lower priority, take my time, and I didn’t study and rehearse? I’m not saying that anyone else out there is guilty of that, but I certainly am.

    Also, we need to remember there is a communal aspect to this. It is not about any individual person, but rather the community of the faithful. As a community, every parish should look at where it spends resources and challenge the priorities. If music has not taken a very low priority, is that really the right place? What is considered more important by your parish? The worship is an offering of the community.

    1. I find it hard to believe that anyone who would put all that energy of belonging to the Choir would do it half way! Choir people are MOVED to sing. If someone is just going thru the motions while singing in the choir, they shouldnt be there in the first place, their heart is not in it. Granted, it can be fustrating due to singers less than perfect (who is?), but the people who attend church should not be making any remarks unless they themselves have done this themselves! At least the people in the choir put their faith in action!

    2. Patrick, I think you are right on the mark. It is a challenge to stay focused. I have found when we have had a visitor who is known to be a very good church musician, such as Marilyn Kreta, my choir ups their game and stays focused. When the bishop comes, the same thing happens. Do you have suggestions for the choir director on how to help the choir stay focused and prayerful? Perhaps there could be a liturgical music seminar (maybe on the west coast) that focuses not just on technical aspects of church singing, but helps develop the spiritual understanding of what we are doing?

  22. It seems to me that the more fundamental question has to be addressed first: membership. Without people in the churches, there is no one to sing – well or poorly! The “party line” for years has been 2.5 million Orthodox Christians in the US spread across all jurisdictions. Of note, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese commissioned a survey in 2010 that arrived at a startlingly different number: 1.1 million adherents. What was more shocking was the underlying data set: of the 476,500 GOA communicants, scarcely 119,000 attended services offered in local parishes on even a monthly basis! There are some numbers that impact stewardship as well as the pool of potential singers.

    As the operator of Liturgica.com, we’ve seen this translate into a different set of outcomes: ever decreasing sales of liturgical music recordings of all forms: Byzantine, Russian, Romanian, etc. If this trend continues, the real concern is that before long sales of Eastern Orthodox liturgical music recordings will be just like Gregorian: limited to a very small number of musically inclined people who have never heard it sung in church services! Setting apart the professional ensembles that record Gregorian chant, it is only sung in the very few parishes celebrating the Latin mass and in a small number of monasteries and convents.

    In the case of Gregorian chant, the principal cause is the replacement of the chant sung service being replaced with the “song and praise” service format after Vatican II. That, and the annual loss of membership to secular trends. Unless the fundamental membership problem is addressed, how can the church music problem possible be addressed?

    We’re talking about the original form of Church music, and its 2,000 years of development. Besides its spirit-enhancing role in the divine services, this is an massive theological and cultural treasure (as the flow chart on the home page at liturgica.com illustrates). There is much at risk here!

  23. Orthodox music was not originally 4 part harmony…sorry, not trying to knock the ROCOR-to-the-core folks (I love all of them very much), but it’s not Byzantine nor is it traditional and it doesn’t sound “Orthodox”!!!
    ==============
    And once again, totally subjective..It’s maybe only to YOUR ears that it doesn’t sound “Orthodox”.
    The first Orthodox church I ever went to, while seeking for my religious heritage, used simple 4-part music (Soroka’s Blue Book) and I can tell you that if I’d entered that church and heard the awful nasal wailing that passes for Byzantine Chant in most of this country, PLUS in a foreign language, I’d have turned on my heel and left. Bishop BORIS of the OCA, once commented “nothing kills a service quicker than ugly music” and he was right!

    The Church’s chants have evolved as they have moved into different parts of the world, i.e. Russian Znamenny and Kievan Chants, Serbian Chant, Romanian Chant, even the native American melodie in Alaska. So to proclaim that Byzantine Chant (and more so, as it exists in the 21st century) is the only authentic chant is ridiculous.

  24. I am confident that Benedict would agree that nothing will turn off a first time visitor than terrible music. Hence, this prime example of opportunity missed. The Roman Patriarch was invited to the Phanar. Whatever service they showed on EWTN here in the States, the “choir” consisted of 5 or 6 men who it became obvious had never sung together before. It was painful, and frankly, embarrassing. They could have brought in 3 monks and it would been beautiful. Second, the Pope was not given a translation of the service (how many times are visitors to your parishes not provided a service book?). Third, EWTN was not provided a translation of the service in English to show on the screen. And, possibly worst of all, it sure seems to me that the RC commentator knew more about Orthodoxy than the Orthodox one, a well known priest in the States. We turned what could been a showcase of our best, into something that I will always remember as something much less.
    Father Hopko once said, we have singers who can’t sing, readers who can’t read…
    Why? Because that’s what we continue to accept. More to follow.

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