I want to say a few things that I think are basic truths about church music. However, be warned: as I recently heard someone say, “The truth is like poetry, and most people hate poetry.”
In any discussion of church music, liturgy has to be the starting point. This is what makes a church a church—this is the one thing the Church can do that nobody else can.
Liturgy doesn’t exist without singing. It is of course theoretically possible to have Orthodox services without singing, just as, I suppose, it’s theoretically possible to have pizza without cheese. It kind of works—I’ve tried it—but I doubt it’s something people will keep coming back for.
Singing is an incarnational act. It takes the word—something that is in essence, abstract, infeffable, unapproachable—and makes it flesh—something palpable, audible, approachable, concrete. There is literally no word in the Liturgy that cannot, and should not, be sung, either by a choir, a chanter, a priest, a deacon, or a reader.
Just as the incarnate Word of God is surpassingly beautiful—as the Psalmist says, “Thou art fairer than the children of men” (Ps. 44/45:2)—liturgical singing is, ideally, surpassingly beautiful. Though we may—and often do—fall short of this beauty, it is not optional; it is imperative. Maybe you already have great singing in your church? Wonderful! It could still be better, because the angels are what we compare ourselves to, not the choir at the church down the street. If we don’t strive for beautiful church singing, we make ourselves hypocrites. Even worse, we risk the condemnation mentioned by Jeremiah: “Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness” (Jer. 48:10).
If the singing in church is beautiful—and with it, the liturgical space and liturgical praxis as a whole—the church becomes not only an open door, but a veritable magnet for souls. Especially today, our world is increasingly starved for beauty. “High art” in many respects consciously abandoned the notions of beauty and truth more than a century ago, and popular art now increasingly thrives on the glorification of, at best, the most superficial kind of beauty, and at worst, outright ugliness. The Church today must shine even more brightly with beauty. Singing beautifully is one of the best and most compelling ways we can do this.
The big question then is: How to sing beautifully in church?
Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet here, but let me highlight four points that are think are fundamental requirements in the quest for beautiful church singing.
Singing is a highly evolved and complex cognitive skill. Recent studies of the brain have shown that singing is among the most sophisticated things our brains are capable of. A 2009 Oxford study showed that opera singers have significantly more activity in certain parts of their brains, most significantly the basal ganglia—responsible for voluntary motor control, procedural learning, habits, eye movements, and emotion—than people who haven’t been trained to sing.
Singing must be learned. While some people seem to learn more quickly than others, or have a greater natural capacity for it, no one is born being able to sing well.
Singing is a motor skill. How are motor skills acquired? Practice! Repetition! This means there are no short cuts to good singing. You can no better explain to someone how to sing well and get a result than you can explain to someone how to be a gymnast and expect them to compete in the Olympics. In order to sing well, you have to put in the hours, the days, the years, of work. This is to say nothing of learning specific repertoire or musical styles, or having the ability to read and understand a musical score. We’re just talking here about the basic ability to sing beautifully, accurately, intelligently, expressively.
Many of the basic musical skills, including the ability to match pitch, reproduce sounds and rhythms, and use the voice naturally and expressively, are acquired in early childhood along with language. More specialized skills, like vocal timbre, style, emotional subtlety, music reading, diction, ensemble technique, come later with training.
Orthodox liturgical singing, so far from representing merely basic singing ability, is actually a specialized branch of an already specialized set of skills.
A good Orthodox church singer—assuming he or she is someone who already posesses basic singing skills, as well as more refined abilities like music reading, ensemble technique, etc.—must also possess a knowledge of: the order of church services, a substantial body of church repertoire, the Eight Tones, and—this is not often discussed, but it’s critical—have the ability to absorb and instantly communicate large amounts of complicated text at sight, accurately, expressively, and prayerfully.
A church singer must also understand the ethos of Orthodox singing and the various stylistic points that make singing sound right for church in general, as well as right for his or her church in particular.
Keep in mind here that up to this point we’ve just been talking about singing. Choir directing involves a related, but quite distinct set of skills above and beyond those required of singers, including conducting technique, an understanding of vocal pedagogy, rehearsal technique, the ability to analyze a musical score on a variety of levels, and a host of quite specific leadership and administrative skills—not to mention a genuine understanding of Orthodox aesthetics and mindset, liturgical structure, performance practice, and the ability to direct all of this towards God in prayer.
The idea that church musicians need to be trained is neither a new idea—there have existed schools and teachers of Orthodox church music for many centuries, across the Orthodox world—nor an idea foreign to our own time and place. In Russia, many conservatories now offer degree programs in liturgical music that are on par with any of the other performance programs. In Greece, chanters are often expected to get a four-year degree in Byzantine Music before they can hope to have a decent church job. We need to be working towards this kind of thing here in America as well.
How often in the services does the Deacon or Priest say “Let us attend”? Attention is so central to prayer, whether individual or corporate, that the Fathers have a special word for it: The nous. It is the “seeing eye of the soul,” and, in a sense, the quintessence of the Divine Image in us. The goal of Orthodox ascetic practice is that more and more of our attention—our nous—be fixed on God, and less and less on passing or harmful things.
That’s easier said than done, of course. Our problem is that our attention is constantly wavering, flitting from one thing to another, and usually gravitating towards those things that are either most immediately pleasurable to us or most immediately pressing.
What’s more, as we enter today’s brave new world of digital existence, our attention is becoming more fragmented than perhaps it has done for any generation in the history of the world. This is an empirical fact, as far as I understand, that’s now beginning to be extensively noted and studied by psychologists, neurologists, sociologists, and a myriad of other experts.
For church singers—or any kind of singer, really—lack of attention presents a basic problem. As we discussed earlier, singing is a high-level cognitive skill, and Orthodox church singing a specialized form of it. Doing it well requires a lot of attention. Or said another way, doing it with only shallow or partial attention will necessarily mean we do it poorly.
So how do we cultivate better attentiveness? One strategy is to remove obvious distractions from the choir area—excessive movement, people coming and going, child-related activities, unnecessary talking, etc. This is all definitely good to do. However, it isn’t always feasible, and it only goes so far. If we are allowing ourselves to be habitually distracted in our daily lives, we will never run out of things to distract us when we’re trying to sing in church. The best strategy is just to start pushing ourselves to stay focused, to again and again drag our attention back to the work at hand. Very few people can stay constantly focused without wavering a little, but anyone can, as it were, “pulse” their attention.
St. Paul says, “let everything be done decently and in order.” In church, singing is an integral part of that decency and order. Order within the choir generates better singing, which in its turn translates to order within the service as a whole.
What is order in the choir? Well, first, it’s a basic musical phenomenon: it’s singing in tune and accurately; it’s matching your voice well with those around you; it’s knowing the music well and singing it intelligibly and clearly; it’s starting and stopping together, and at the right time; it’s staying connected with the flow of the service, and not stumbling or faltering. All this is order in a practical sense.
However, order is also a human phenomenon. It means coming on time to sing, and staying until the service is over. It means, as we discussed before, being constantly attentive, or at least continually “pulsing” your attention. It means coming to rehearsals. (It means having rehearsals!) It means knowing your own—as well as others’—strengths and weaknesses and acting in accordance with them.
Order also means—and this is a big one—cultivating an attitude of obedience. A choir is a microcosm of the parish as a whole, a little community, a little church. As such, it is a hierarchical community, whether we like it or not. As the priest presides in the liturgy, so the director or head chanter presides in the choir. As the priest is obedient to his bishop, so is the choir director or head chanter obedient to his or her parish priest. And as the parish as a whole is obedient to the priest whom the bishop has appointed to preside there, so are the members of the choir obedient to the director whom the priest has appointed to preside there. This is all just basic order in the Church. Without it, though, chaos will gradually consume the choir, just as a culture of disobedience within a parish will gradually destroy that parish.
As the old saying goes, “the Devil enters the church through the choir.” If there are many temptations in normal parish life, there are even more in a church choir, given people’s proximity to one another, the demands placed on them, and the very real and immediately apparent consequences when they fail to pull together as a group. The solution? Actively work at being orderly in your efforts as singers, in all the ways mentioned above.
Having mentioned order and obedience, we now come to the final, and perhaps most important, requirement for church singers. Lest you think I’m saying that “all you need is love” in some kind of sentimental or emotional way, let me explain. We all know that love is something active, something deliberate, right? It’s not just a feeling. (“More than a feeling”? Sorry, I couldn’t resist.) In a way, obedience is the visible manifestation of love—a desire to please and do good to the other in even the smallest things. However, love must likewise be the foundation of obedience, or else obedience will devolve into tyrrany and victimization.
In a church choir love is manifested in a number of specific ways, with some important consequences.
First, a choir must have love for one another. This means that each person must always be considering every other person, being aware of their presence. Practically this means listening to the other singers, and trying to blend your voice with theirs. It means constantly adjusting to the people around you—pitch, volume, tempo, expression, whatever—and working to neither stand out nor fade away to the point of becoming effectively uninvolved. Simply put, when you love someone you don’t want to step on their toes or get in their way, but you also want to pull your own weight, and maybe even a little of theirs, if they need it. The immediate consequence of all this—and it’s amazing how quickly this can happen sometimes—will be a choir that truly sings as an ensemble.
Second, a choir must have love for their director. As I said before, obedience is the visible manifestation of love. Therefore, obedience to the director is the clearest evidence of love within a choir. And I don’t just mean a grudging, stony-faced, superficial adherence to the “letter of the law,” as it were, but a genuine eagerness to please, a desire to anticipate what’s required of you, a striving to perform your task well without even having to be asked. Does the director struggle? Is he lacking in certain areas? Is she a challenging personality? It doesn’t matter. Your love is your offering, and yours alone—and no one ever said that love was easy.
But this goes both ways. The director has to love his choir. When a choir struggles or falls short—and every choir does—it’s extremely easy for a director to start developing resentment towards individual people in the choir, or towards everyone collectively. This is something that every choir director needs to actively fight against. So how does a director show love for her choir? By actively thinking of and praying for each member individually. By remembering that each member is a person, and not just a sound. By genuinely praising them when they do well. By never giving up on them when they do badly, which often means correcting them for the millionth time for the same mistake. (And you absolutely must correct people in your charge that you genuinely care about—not to do so is a failure of love, a pretense of kindness that often hides an underlying laziness or despair.) And finally, a choir director shows love by never carrying the struggles of the choir into life outside the choir. What happens in the choir stays in the choir!
Last of all, both director and choir must have love for the work. Singing in a church choir is hard, especially when you’re striving to do it well. If everyone involved doesn’t love it, then it can become mere drudgery, and it’s very unlikely that the singing will ever really improve. No one in the parish benefits from this kind of choir. For choir directors who have had the work thrust upon them because there was no one else who could do it, this can be extremely difficult, and there will be a strong urge in those directors to keep the demands of the work to an absolute minimum. Likewise, singers who stand in the choir either out of habit or because they feel they would be bored in church without something tangible to do, will feel very reluctant to put any additional effort into making their singing more beautiful.
So, for church singing to be beautiful, everyone has to love it. But remember, love is active and deliberate, so it’s always possible to grow to love the work even if you don’t feel it all, or even most, of the time. How do you grow to love it? Start trying to get better at it. Study, learn, practice, push yourself—pretend you love it! Also, listen to beautiful church music. There are lots of good recordings out there, of every style and period. There are also lots of places where the singing is beautiful. Go visit them. Musical pilgrimages should absolutely be a thing. Sometimes people don’t love the work because they’ve never tried to imagine how it could be better than what they themselves do in church on Sunday.
The aim of all this—Training, Attention, Order, Love—is corporate prayer. The Liturgy tells us that prayer to God is done with one mouth and one heart. The one mouth part of this is a practical reality, and it’s achieved by means of much of what we’ve discussed. The goal of any choir is to make music with one mouth, and countless choirs across the country work at this every day. It’s what makes a choir a choir and not just a group of people singing at the same time. The one heart part of this grows out of the one mouth, but it is also a deeper spiritual phenomenon. One heart comes about through a shared love for one another and God, expressed through obedience and attentiveness. As Christians charged with the mission to “make disciples of all nations,” it is our sacred duty to strive at making this kind of prayer a reality every time we come together in worship.
—This article was originally given as a lecture at St. Philip’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Souderton, Pa. on March 9, 2018.