The Sacrifice of Praise

Nighttime choir rehearsal at Vatopaidi Monastery on Mt. Athos. Source: asceticexperience.com

In almost every Orthodox service we pray at some point for “those who labor and those who sing.” I once quipped to one of my students that we should add “and those who labor at singing.” If you’re trying to give it your best, church singing is hard work.

For those with training and experience enough to have the rudiments of singing come fairly easily, it remains a considerable challenge to convey meaning and intentionality in every word, every note, every phrase, and to never allow your work to become routine, no matter how many times you do it. For those who lack training and experience, the challenge is even greater (I know from my own experience), since you have to do all of the above plus think about the fundamentals of music, diction, vocal technique, and everything else that makes for good singing. And then there’s the challenge of making our singing liturgical, keeping pace with the order and flow of the service, managing our attention and trying not to get distracted, recovering from distractions when they inevitably arise, and somehow channeling all this towards God in a way that inspires people to pray. No wonder we beg God’s mercy on “those who sing” every time we have church.

Given all the work church singers have to do and think about, it’s not uncommon for one of them to ask me something like, “but how can I hope to pray while I’m singing?” Based on the advice of a few people much more experienced in prayer than I am, I’ve come to the following conclusion: prayer is not so much something we do as something we receive.

St. Paul writes that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” [Rom. 8:26 ESV]. Prayer—true prayer—is a gift from God, an indwelling of divine grace, and therefore not something that can be manufactured. This is not to say that we have nothing to offer. On the contrary, the work of any human being is to try to be receptive to prayer. To paraphrase a friend of mine, the principal prerequisite for receiving the gift of prayer is a loving and obedient heart—and cultivating such a thing is work enough for a lifetime.

So this is what I tell my singers: give your best. Do everything asked of you willingly, eagerly, humbly, assiduously—especially when you don’t feel like it—and you’ll be doing the work of prayer. Throughout the Old Testament, and throughout most of human history, worship has involved some kind of sacrifice. In the Liturgy, the “reasonable and bloodless sacrifice,” it’s no different, except that now we don’t offer victims, but we offer our love, our obedience, our energy, our resources, our intellect, our ego, our selves. This is the deepest kind of sacrifice, the “sacrifice of praise,” as we say during the Anaphora, and it isn’t easy.

If we find ourselves in a state where singing in church is something more of a hobby or a pastime, something we do as the spirit moves us, or because it makes us feel good, without much thought as to how well-prepared we are to do it—that is, on our own terms—then we haven’t yet discovered the true work of liturgical singing. However, if we find that we have to steel ourselves to the task at hand, to marshal our strength yet again to sing a service or attend a rehearsal, giving our best regardless of how we feel, then I think we’ve entered the arena. And the rewards for this kind of offering, the “sacrifice of praise,” are infinitely greater than the fleeting pleasure that singing on our own terms has to offer.

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If you’re interested in getting involved in the work of church singing, consider buying my book of common chants for the Divine Liturgy.

10 comments:

  1. I am a convert who attends an Orthodox Church where communal chanting/singing is encouraged. Our Pani Matka is a gifted vocalist who offers instruction and encouragement to those who wish to improve. There is a wonderful spirit of community and prayer during the Liturgy when we chant together. I truly grasp your account of struggles when singing during a service. I have nowhere near the spiritual tools that clergy and monastics do ( very much a work in progress!), but I emerge from each service where I chant feeling uplifted and just a tiny bit further along the path of my journey.

  2. As Orthodox faithful, how about going back to the ancient tradition of teaching the whole of the parish to participate and lend their voices in Liturgy. The formalized choir has replaced much necessary involvement by “the people ” who too want to be vocally included in expressing their faith during services. Perhaps we should open up the music stand and save the choir for only a few featured hymns so that we can labor & sing TOGETHER as Orthodox Christians.

    1. Some of “us” ( I am Byzantine Catholic) do this. Half the time we do chant with a cantor at the Divine Liturgy. The people sing along and many spontaneously harmonize. Half the time the choir sings. Some of the settings are harmonized plainchant and there is a limited repertoire of choral pieces and people sing along with the choir. It helps that we share a common Ruthenian tradition of singing together a well defined chant system and that the choir director has 50 years of experience.

      The Great Russian tradition relies more on choirs and where you have people with mixed ethnic backgrounds and converts and inconsistent practices across parishes it is much more difficult to maintain a tradition of singing together.

      All that said, I wonder how we can sustain what we have in the decades to come.

  3. It’s so easy for singing in church to become routine, isn’t it? There’s something about physically saying and singing the words of the prayers that affects us, whether we “feel” prayerful or not. Being there and giving the best that we have to offer is no small part of what it means to pray.

    On a side note – is there a way to subscribe to your blog? I would like to follow but I’m not likely to remember to check back regularly and I can’t find a subscribe option anywhere on the page. Thanks.

  4. The members of our choir are committed to quality, prayerful singing. The reason is because it matters to our choir director and to our priest. It is so wonderful to be in a church choir that it matters how you sing. That is matters that you are singing as one quality, prayerful voice.
    Our choir director insists on stopping and starting at his direction. Staggered breathing. Holding out vowels and putting the consonants onto the next word.
    Paying attention to the director! Talking is discouraged. He sends music by email so that we can review. Choir practice is once a week.
    Our priest has in our bulletin the words to the Prokeimenon/Tropars/Kondaks.
    He also has booklets for Vespers, etc. He supports us.
    We sing music that is Russian, Byzantine, Znamenny, Carpatho-Russian, etc, etc
    (I cannot remember all at this time.)
    The church pays our choir director. He has a musical education and has attended Orthodox music choir/choir director workshops.
    Lastly, let us all remember to pray to St. Romanos the Melodist and/or to
    St. Joseph the Hymnographer. God bless.

  5. Thank you for those helpful thoughts about music in the Church. As an Orthodox Christian from France, I can say our challenges here are pretty much the same, although we generally have it better in Paris than in smaller cities.
    A few things I would like to say based on my experience as a singer and the testimony of many parishioners who don’t sing but still care about it : first, the question of “too complicated stuff” doesn’t so much to do with the number of parts (although 8-part music often falls in the category of “too complicated stuff”) as with how much the music departs from the text itself. When my choir, in a very full parish in Paris, starts singing elaborate Kastalsky stuff, people often end up complaining that they can’t pray and that it is too much – which I agree with. Endlessly repeating the lyrics too fit in the elaborate pattern of the melody, having different parts say the words at different and overlapping moments, alternating solos all through the piece is the best way of making people feel like they’re at the opera, and it seems to me both in France and the US people are precisely running away from that (even former traditionalist catholic converts felt like their church was more a concert hall than a house of prayer).
    There, is, of course, a way of not doing that and keeping it simple. I would simply argue that constantly adapting Russian SATB or even monodic music as our staple resource for church singing is still the same as what I’ve described. The effort spent on keeping those (beautiful ! Quickly after I left my Georgian church, I started my liturgical education in an all Slavonic parish and still love the music I sang there) melodies that were tailored to sentences in a foreign language is just too big for one to say it doesn’t get in the way. Often, even when the transcription is well made, I end up feeling like we’ve done something that demanded disproportionate effort in regard of the actual result. And the fact that there are 4 voices doesn’t help either. History of Orthodox music shows us that monody’s the rule, and that, in Georgia, where Orthodox polyphony (that is, opposed to music-centered pieces of the West) is the most ancient, all efforts were made to avoid parallel thirds, because it was felt that it amounted to mere ornamentation rather than actually building a melodic line (the history of Saint Euthymius the Confessor shows how he constantly rejected parallel third harmonisations as unauthentic when he was trying to preserve Georgian chant in the early 20th century). Russian SATB is Western, and, most importantly, mundane in its esthetic approach. Not to mention that it is usually heavily dependent on the presence of enough people to sing in the 4 voices.
    I know it sounds hard that we should go through losing this beautiful heritage, but by all means our Western orthodoxy is an enterprise of catharsis: in a heavily anti-Christian world like ours, and like pre-Constantinian Roman Empire, everything that is not purely Christ and faith is a hindrance and dead weight. And again, church music was always taken seriously, not only in its performance, but also, and chiefly, in its composition, at least until Western influence flowed in. Today, making sure we do not indulge into the same worldly leanings as those who corrupted the Church in the 17th century did is the only way of finally founding a perennial Orthodox presence in our countries.
    Going back to monody seems to be the only way; using Greek melodies like the ones currently used in Greece is an option, but it also has a risk of being foreign, and artificial. Znamenny chant is the good example : monodic paradigm, but adaptation of it to more local and natural forms as to its content (Valaam monastery’s chief cantor explains this perfectly in an interview). The one other thing that should be kept in mind concerning monodic chant is that mixed singing makes it a lot worse, and is not traditional (for that very reason, among others). In order to still benefit from the musical talent of both women and men in the Church, parishes could ideally revert to the ancient use of having two choirs alternating in singing during the services (we’re talking about monodic chant here, not like having two competent SATB choirs in each church, which would be a lot to ask).
    And, if one is to use polyphony, for instance in more formal occasions, or rather for the more iconic parts of the services (say the polyeleos, the cherubic hymn, Gladsome Light and so on…), such music should be elaborated carefully on the basis of the principles laid out by Georgian musicology in the constitution of the liturgical repertoire dating back to the 9th century. That is, no emotion, strict conservation of already existing motifs (from Greek music of the time) and a construction where the three voices are part of the melody rather than two ancillary ones ornamenting the main one, because, the 3 voices are an image of the Trinity where all 3 Persons are of equal dignity and coeternality. Without this canonical approach (and indeed Georgian chant is called “canonical chant” by the Church there) it is just too easy to slip into an approach where composers do things they like, and then it’s subjective and emotional, and it’s not good for Church.
    All the things you’ve mentioned here are true and important (I was delighted to learn that Agia Sophia paid chanters), I just think this is the other part that we cannot forget, because it will make people want to join and to learn so much more easliy.
    May God bless the Church, and especially our churches in the West.

  6. I agree with Eloi that znamenny chant is a better option for western Orthodox than Greek Byzantine chant. To sing Byzantine chant properly I believe a singer needs to be able to adorn the melody with ornamentations according to the tradition and also to sing the melody using quarter tones. I think that for a western person to achieve that level is almost impossile. I have heard quite a few examples of Byzantine chanting in different languages than Greek but none convinced me, I found it sounded very artificial, a word also used by Eloi. I am a professionally trained musician and before converting to Orthodoxy I was a conductor of a Gregorian choir in the RC Curch. In my experience monody is a great challenge, It is very fragile and much more difficult than 4 part singing. I attend the RO parish in Amsterdam, sing in the choir and regularly also conduct. As I do not speak Russian there is an extra challenge for me as we alternate between Slavonic and Dutch. Four years ago I attended an Orthodox Music Festival in St. Petersburg with our Matushka and choirleader who studied there at the academy. We learned a lot about znamenny and early Russian three part polyphony. One year later we sang a Liturgy with znamenny and early Russian polyphony which was recieved very well by the parish, in spite of the striking dissonants in the polyphony.
    Thank you Benedict Sheehan for your posts, and to all who have responded and enriched my view on this fascinating matter.

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