Building your Church Music System, Part 1: Core Singers

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).


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.


  1. “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.”

    This has transformed Holy Week and Pascha from an unrealistic musical headache to a beautiful choral offering in my experience. I recommend this practice.

  2. I think these are wonderful suggestions if the person or people who actually lead the choir have the freedoms to do these things – which is not always the case. It is helpful if the choir leader is given some autonomy to lead, and to be trusted. You made a comment once that “The devil is in the cliros”- I have found this to be very true unfortunately.

    1. The relationship between priest and choir director is a complex one, and there has to be trust and respect on both sides. You’re right that that’s not always the case. Obviously, the priest is the authority in the parish. But in a good working relationship the priest will delegate a good deal of authority to the choir director in managing affairs within the choir, just as the bishop has delegated a good deal of authority to the priest in managing affairs within the parish.

  3. Thank you for these thoughts, you made me realise that having reliable “core singers” is actually why my church choir works so well, although I had not yet understood it was so.
    I’m just a bit bothered by what you said at the end concerning the section leaders : by mentioning “young vocalists” in nearby universities or so who would be willing to do this for money, are you saying we should offer this to non-Orthodox persons (as I suppose young Orthodox vocalists are much harder to find than young vocalists in general) ? This would be a little bit problematic, as singing the liturgy and any other service is an ecclesial act, where the community represents the fullness of the Church, and the canons forbid “praying with heretics”. It seems to me, therefore, that having non-Orthodox persons in the choir, although sometimes permitted for pastoral reasons (economia), cannot be institutionalised as a way for such a central element of church life to function.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I’m glad to hear that you have a good core group of singers. To your question about having non-Orthodox section leaders, no, I’m not specifically advocating that, but neither do I mean to preclude the possibility. You’re quite right in saying that finding young Orthodox people who are trained vocalists is very difficult. I would say it’s almost impossible in many cases. (For more on that you can read my post from last year called “A Musical Culture in Crisis.”) I’m certainly aware of the canons you refer to about “praying with heretics,” and I know some people interpret them to mean that non-Orthodox cannot take part in liturgical singing. I know that some even interpret them to mean that non-Orthodox cannot attend the Divine Liturgy. Without entering into a theological debate, suffice it to say that I think there are other ways to understand these canons, as well as discernment needed in applying them. Ideally, though, I would say that it’s only right that the people who sing in the services be believers. That’s as it should be. The difficulty is that, to a great extent, we’ve allowed our musical culture and standards to decline to the point where we Orthodox can no longer sing our services competently, let alone beautifully. We need help. And if we want to do better, we may have to appeal to those outside our walls, at least in some cases. But I would also add that, in my experience, asking people who love to sing and who love beauty—and this describes almost any professional singer—to offer their talents in an Orthodox service often affords that person a deeply meaningful experience. I know from friends in Russia that many non-Orthodox singers who get church jobs (and lots do) end up converting as a result of their work. However, I know for some people this still seems like too much of a compromise, and I understand. Whatever is done has to be done with discernment and in the right spirit.

      1. I remember reading the post you mention, and not completely agreeing with you on how much we’ve lost. Maybe living in Paris makes it a bit different, although I recognised much of what I can experience here in what you described in this “culture in crisis”. And again, the parish where I sing and sometimes conduct is a bit of a miracle.
        And it is true that, as I was writing this answer, I caught myself thinking that offering non-Christian persons that possibility could lead them, in a number of cases, to convert. Again, maybe this is different because I live in France, but I also know some people who often sing in Orthodox churches while not being Orthodox, and have no intention whatsoever of converting. Usually this is because the Roman catholic church, which has been going downhill for the last decades, makes many of its faithful believe we are really the same and unity is almost a fact. In such cases, which I don’t believe are circumscribed to France, the possibility you mention can be a problem, and that is why I raised the question.

        1. An other issue — and I might make some people angry here — is to what extent the conversions that happen on this basis in Russia are meaningful, when you know how superficial the spiritual experience can be there, especially when it comes to attending the services.

  4. An alternative to hiring paid non-Orthodox singers (and possibly creating future problems) might be to use available funds to hire a professional musician to come in and help bring a willing and committed group of core singers from the parish up to a better musical standard by means of a series of workshops. Our choir has also benefitted from the enthusiasm of individual singers to improve their own ability to sing (and thus to help lead others) by taking private music lessons. I have done this myself, now over the age of 60, by studying conservatory voice with the teacher who taught my daughter (our current director, a long time singer but without a degree) as a teenager, and after a lifetime singing in choirs, I cannot say enough good about how much -easier- and less effort it is to sing after training up individually in proper technique. Two other members of the choir have also been taking formal lessons. It has made a noticeable improvement in everyone’s technique, and though we still have a long way to go, our overall morale and confidence has improved a great deal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *