A lot of people who visit St. Tikhon’s Monastery nowadays remark on how beautiful the music is. I know this sounds self-congratulatory, but I don’t mean it be. The funny thing is that people tend to tell me this, as if I as the choir director were somehow singlehandedly responsible for the beauty of an entire cycle of services that involves a significant number of people knowing their job and executing it well, and not once, but over and over again, day in and day out. When someone tells me after church that they thought the music was beautiful, I usually respond with something like, “I’m so glad you thought so—we’re trying!” And that’s usually where it ends.
Now don’t get me wrong, as a longtime choir director I’m well aware of what I do and of the importance of my role. And of course I appreciate positive feedback as much as the next guy. It’s always nice to know my efforts aren’t falling on deaf ears, and my ego certainly doesn’t mind the boost. But I wonder sometimes if our focus on the role of the Arm-Waver-in-Chief hasn’t caused us to overlook the fact that beautiful church music is actually the result of a successful coordination of effort on the part of a large number of people, and really, of the parish institution as a whole.
Church music, at least in my experience, is actually a system, and one with a lot of moving parts (no pun intended). The choir director is only one of those parts. What’s more, when the system is functioning well, the choir director, while essential, is not necessarily the most important part. To be honest, I more and more tend to measure my success as a choir director by the extent to which things go well in church without my active involvement.
I think it’s critical to understand this notion of the “system of church music” for one simple reason: A lot of parishes now are trying (and, unfortunately, often failing) to find competent choir directors—and may God help them in their efforts—but we have to realize that a good choir director acting on her own without a functioning system to support her work will ultimately be able to do very little to build up music in that parish. Parishes need good choir directors (or head chanters)—that’s a given—but they also need a functioning system of music.
Over the course of the next several articles, allow me to outline what I think are some key components of a working system of church music—at least, one that works for me—and how they fit together.
1. Core Singers
At the risk of stating the obvious, I will point out that church choirs are made up of people. This means, among other things, that in any church choir there will be both varying levels of ability and varying levels of reliability. This is normal. However, for there to be a functioning system of music in a church, it’s crucial that no given service be entirely at the mercy of who decides to show up that day, either for good or ill.
In order to achieve a measure of stability within a church choir, it’s important to identify and cultivate a group of core singers. These need to be people who are both the most able and the most reliable. It may be the case that your choir has singers that fall into one or the other category: people who come all the time but don’t sing confidently, or people who sing well but are, at best, occasional participants. Beware: neither one nor the other will suffice. Your core singers have to be people who can do whatever is required of them—and do it well—and who can also be relied upon to be present and attentive.
Once you’ve identified your core singers, the next step is to make sure that they know they are valued. One way I’ve found to do this is to give them opportunities to sing in smaller groups, or even as soloists in some cases. This gives your core singers the chance to sing more challenging repertoire, and hopefully with a more satisfying result. It can be demoralizing for a skilled singer to have his greatest musical challenge in church being the effort to hold another less-skilled singer on pitch. People who love to sing need to be reminded why they love it. Without that, a good singer will sooner or later lose interest in being part of the church choir. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon many times.
Another critical component relating to core singers is that your choir’s repertoire has to be flexible enough, and realistic enough, that services can be sung by your core group alone if need be. Many choirs make the mistake of having lots of repertoire that they can’t actually handle. I’m planning to go into more detail on this subject in a later article, but I will say here that I’ve found it useful to maintain a healthy degree of pessimism regarding repertoire. Everything we sing in church should be beautiful, but singing music you don’t actually have the forces to pull off will never be beautiful, no matter how great the music itself may be. “For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it?” (Luke 14:28). If your core group of singers is a soprano, two altos, and a baritone, then select music for your services that will sound good with only those voices. There’s lots of options available based on the traditional chant melodies of the Church. This way, adding other less-confident singers will mean that you have a stable foundation to start from and things won’t fall apart as easily. And if things do start to fall apart you can quickly trim the choir down to the core group and glide through the rough patches. I do this with my choir frequently.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that you can’t have bigger repertoire for special occasions when you know you’ll have plenty of personnel. But just as you need a core group of singers that you know you can rely on to sing any given service beautifully, you need a core body of music that you know you’ll always be able to do well.
A final observation about cultivating a core group of singers. In many churches outside the sphere of American Orthodoxy—and I mean both Orthodox churches in other countries and non-Orthodox churches here in America—one of the most common ways groups of core singers are cultivated is by having paid section leaders. We do this in my choir. For various reasons this practice hasn’t yet caught on in most American Orthodox parishes. I know budgetary concerns loom large for many, but I also find that among some Orthodox in America there’s a certain ideological opposition towards paying church musicians. (More on that here.) Whatever the reasons may be for not having paid section leaders, though, I have found the reasons to do it end up being far more compelling. Never having to wonder whether there will be singers equal to the task of singing a given service is worth quite a lot to everyone involved. It is also an immense help to the less-skilled singers to have someone to follow and imitate. The choir as a whole actually gets better over time. And honestly, it’s not that expensive a proposition, so I think it’s worth seriously considering whether your church has the means. Especially if your parish is near a college or university with a decent music program, I guarantee that there a young vocalists within a reasonable distance who would jump at a church singing job for $50-75 per week.
But however you arrive at a core group of singers, I’ve found that cultivating such a thing deliberately and methodically makes for a better liturgical experience all around. Perhaps some may level a charge of elitism at me here, but I prefer to think that I’m just being realistic. We need singers who can sing our services well. What’s more, I believe that if we claim that our services are a living icon of the Kingdom of God, then we need to do our best to live up to that, outwardly as well as inwardly. As the Apostle James reminds us, “What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? Can faith save him?” (James 2:14).