Several months ago on my own personal blog, I posted a brief piece titled “Notes from the psalterion”. It was a brief set of general, “best practice” kind of principles regarding Orthodox liturgical music, sparked by an earlier, similar piece I had written titled “Notes from the building committee” (which itself was very much influenced, or at least affirmed, by fellow OAJ-er Andrew Gould), and it also broadly summed up some things I discussed in a couple of invited talks I had given earlier in the year.
The piece sparked a good deal of discussion, and for a number of reasons it seems worthwhile to revisit them here. Between Benedict Sheehan’s excellent discussion of the spiritual underpinnings of Orthodox music (Part 1 here and Part 2 here) and the recent interview with Vladimir Gorbik regarding his well-received master class at St. Vladimir’s, there is perhaps sufficient groundwork for a preliminary treatment of some of the practical matters surrounding the liturgical craft of singing in Orthodox worship. So, here are those principles once again, with expanded comments and consideration of what precisely I mean. Length is going to require this to be done in installments, so I will begin with a discussion of the first couple of points.
- Principle #0: The act that you are performing as a singer in church is the sung worship of God according to the practice and tradition of Orthodox Christianity. One may fairly insist that this is something different than a concert; one may also fairly insist that this is also something different than a campfire singalong, an exercise in nostalgia, the affirmation of somebody’s childhood, or the salving of one’s insecurities. At any rate, understood this way, singing in church is at once a privilege, a craft, and a discipline.
There is, of course, a mammoth problem underlying this point: what, precisely, IS the music of Orthodox Christianity? What makes “Orthodox music” Orthodox? Why are, say, Byzantine chant and Kastalsky and Desby “Orthodox music”? Why are Evangelical praise songs not “Orthodox music”? To maybe get even more subtle, why isn’t Gregorian chant “Orthodox music”?
This is a much bigger issue than can be tackled in one essay, of course. At a 2010 conference at Indiana University, a panel consisting of John Michael Boyer, Alexander Khalil, Vicki Pappas, Kurt Sander, and Richard Toensing was asked by an audience member, “Can you tell me what makes Orthodox music Orthodox?” and the panel unanimously replied, “No.” Vladimir Morosan gave a presentation titled “What Makes Orthodox Music Orthodox?” at the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village in July of 2011 that provided some useful ideas to consider, but suffice it to say that the question is still only beginning to be answered. Vladimir Gorbik perhaps starts to get to the heart of the matter when he quotes his composition teacher, Roman Ledeniov: “Good new music always resembles something from the past, while bad music tends to be unlike anything that came before.”
Setting that aside for the time being, however, there is the matter that while one’s childhood and insecurities are ideally not the governing factors that determine how we approach our Church’s music, the reality remains that our parishes and choirs are filled with people who expect to be treated as such. With music especially, it becomes a tricky balancing act; our worship, and therefore our music, is popular in a technical sense, but it is not populist; music is experienced on an intensely personal level and yet must be impersonal and corporate in the context of Orthodox liturgy. Maintaining and improving a musical tradition while having to be aware that hurt feelings can start wars and split churches can be a pastoral minefield. Besides that, culturally, it seems to me that to assert authority is to acknowledge you don’t have it in the first place — so what do you do? There is the platitude that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care,” but how best to understand that? Should it be taken as understanding that, in a leadership role, you have to do some strategic people-pleasing in order to get what you want? I would say no — frankly, such an approach is to turn the job of a church singer into a political role, and that is a non-solution. The answer, I argue, is education — the church singer must be prepared to educate in love, both from the psalterion in the singing of the Church’s hymnody and among the rest of the parish “at large”, as it were. The church singer must be prepared to answer the question, “Why do you sing what you sing the way you sing it?” and even if the answer is not understood, the love for the person asking the question must be apparent. That is the better way to convey “how much you care”.
Finally on this point, in terms of singing in church being a “privilege, a craft, and a discipline” — there’s an awful lot that can be said there, but for now I point you to Vladimir Gorbik, who speaks of the need for at “at least one qualified, trained musician; otherwise, it’s next to impossible to create well-appointed church singing”; there is also Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who said in a homily a few years ago that singers in church “are not singers but members of the clergy, serving the Gospel together with the higher clergy, complementing the work of the holy preacher and the spiritual [father].” As well, no less a saint than St. John Maximovitch, according to a Greek-language biography titled The Man of God St. John Maximovitch, says that “the attitude of cantors should be reverent, and should correspond to their high calling, just as they join their voices with those of the angels. It is the daily responsibility of the choir director to attend to this…”
- Principle #1: As the object of this sung worship is God, it is to be performed as prayerfully, skillfully, and within the parameters of the traditions governing the chosen style of music as the singer is capable of doing.
- Principle #1a: This assumes that “performance” and “worship”, properly understood, do not constitute a dichotomy but parts of the same whole.
Here’s what this doesn’t mean: “If you can’t do it perfectly from the get-go, don’t bother trying.” What it does mean, rather, is that we as singers in church start with the best we can do, and from there, we must always seek to be learning to improve how we do what we do. If the ultimate object of what we’re doing is God, then there is no “good enough” as such. That doesn’t mean we all have to function or succeed at a professional level, but that distinction might tend to be deceptive. To the extent that +Bartholomew is right that we’re clergy rather than singers, we need to function at a higher than professional level. We need to take it more seriously than that. Overall, we must have at the forefront of our minds and souls that there’s always a next level worth striving for, and that goes for all of us.
This idea of always seeking to learn to serve better relates to the “discipline” component of the previous point. “Discipline” is a very Christian concept; obviously it’s derived from the same Latin word that gives us “disciple”, discere, which — just as in Greek, μαθητής — literally means “learner”. Orthodox Christianity is governed first and foremost by Tradition — literally, the giving over, the “handing down” of what has come before, the reception of what has been transmitted. This kind of learning implies that there is a teacher able to teach the learner who wants to learn, however, and practical and cultural concerns can make this difficult. Teachers can be very hard to come by depending on geographic or economic concerns, we have a tremendous do-it-yourself impulse in this country to begin with that leads many to believe teaching oneself is inherently better than learning from a teacher, and most have us horribly busy lives that can make even committing to a weekly rehearsal a daunting notion, let alone committing to the learning of a musical art.
Besides that, it seems to me that there is the cultural conviction in some circles that “expertise” is something that maybe plumbers can afford to have, but it’s probably not worth it for anything that “regular people” might do. If you’ve clearly taken the time to learn to do something well, that just demonstrates that you’ve got too much time on your hands and you haven’t spent that time doing anything useful. Again, the counter to this is that if the object of the craft is God, and we as singers are joined with the angelic ministry of the altar, then “good enough” doesn’t really have a meaning, particularly when human nature tends to take “good enough” and turn it into “as good as it will ever get”.