Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part IV, in which the question is asked, “Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal?”

By Richard Barrett on March 1, 2013
  1. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part I, First Principles
  2. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated – Part II, Getting Started
  3. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part III, dealing with that strange subspecies called the “musician”
  4. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part IV, in which the question is asked, “Shouldn’t you be at rehearsal?”
  5. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part V, in which bricks and mortar concerns are considered
  6. Notes from the psalterion, updated and annotated — part VI, in which technical points are considered and a wrap-up is offered

Part one of this series outlined an argument as to why Orthodox liturgical singing needs to be treated as a privilege, a craft, and a discipline. I’ve spent some time on the craft end of the discussion; I’d like to now devote some bandwidth to how discipline ought to be understood in this context.

To recall what I said in the first installment about discipline:

To the extent 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. […] “Discipline” is a very Christian concept; obviously it’s derived from the same Latin word that gives us “disciple”, discere, which… 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… [However,] 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.

To put it another way, I’ve often heard it said that “This isn’t a concert, it’s a Divine Liturgy” and that’s why it’s okay that we don’t put a lot of work into making sure our choirs and cantors are actually capable musicians beyond encouraging them to show up and do what they’re already able to do on Sunday morning. While I’ve never heard anybody say this in quite so many words, the underlying attitude seems to me to be that it’s almost better for everybody concerned, really, choir and congregation, if the choir sounds at least a little bit out of their depth and unprepared. Then, everybody can be clear that it’s not a performance and the holiness of the liturgical experience isn’t marred by distasteful professionalism. To be fair, I’m sure there are people who will think I’m knocking down a strawman, but my experience is that “pious tone deafness” is very much what some people think is a virtue to be striven for, and I’m sorry, that’s absurd.

However, this needs to be understood in light of a simple fact: music is a learned ability, not an inherent gift that one either has or does not. It may be sometimes a nature thing rather than a nurture thing, but not in a binary, deterministic sense, and I say that as somebody who is not, nor have I ever been, a natural musician, but who has nonetheless been making music at (on the whole) progressively higher levels my whole life. Say it with me: music is a learned ability.

There are cultural factors that make music-making a scary thing for people in our age. Music isn’t something, for the most part, that we experience live and communally anymore; it’s something we experience in a highly processed and personalized fashion. To put it another way, the standard venues in which people normatively heard and made live music in previous generations — the church, the parlor, the concert hall, the theater, so on — don’t really do live music anymore, they do more or less processed music of some sort (amplified at minimum, probably autotuned, maybe prerecorded, etc.), and it’s seemingly more normative at “live” events for “participation” to happen in a kind of ironic sense — that is, shouting along so loudly you can’t hear the performer you ostensibly paid money to “hear”. Also, for the most part, the normal way most people hear music is in a very isolated and controlled environment — that is to say, a personalized playlist heard through earbuds blocking out the rest of the world in some context. All we ever hear is a very intentionally constructed final product that nobody can reproduce on their own; so what does it teach people? “Oh, I can’t sing.” No; our culture has just taught you that you’re not supposed to sing unless you can do so “perfectly”, whatever that means.

So, the good news there is that, if you don’t know how to sing, you can learn. The bad news is, want to learn? Well, you’re going to have to put some work into it. Still — you can put some work into it, and it will enrich, rather than take away from, the liturgical life of your parish if you do. Nobody has to “sound bad”; from wherever you are, you can get better — and if you want to sing in church, you should want to get better. It should be worth your time.

What does this mean with respect to the practical concerns of Orthodox liturgical music?

Principle #4: The amount of singing in our services, to say nothing of the number of “moving parts”, as it were, in any given service, means that rehearsal should be considered a non-negotiable point. If you wish to be among those singing in the choir, it is your responsibility to come to rehearsal. This is the “discipline” part of the equation.

  • Principle #4a: Along these lines, always be mindful of improvement; don’t be satisfied with maintenance. If we truly have God as the object of our worship, then there is no “good enough” as such.
  • Principle #4b: If you are fortunate enough to have a choir of people that can read music in multiple notation systems and four different languages more or less perfectly the first time, then you might be able to reconsider the need for rehearsal.

In other words, our services have a certain irreducible complexity that, by any reasonable standard, requires some amount of rehearsal, and given that God is the intended recipient of our worship, the time we need to put into it should be something that we can prioritize.

I should mention that learning notes is the least-interesting thing that should happen at rehearsal. There will be some learning of notes, yes, but hopefully that is but the first step in working on the music for any given service. Rehearsal is also the venue where you should be working on vocal technique, sight reading, ensemble building, and developing an ethos of making music as an Orthodox choir, rather than just singing notes that happen to be there with words that happen to be there. You do that by putting time into making sure everybody understands what the text means, learning to listen as an ensemble, making sure singers know where to breathe as an ensemble, and discovering how to blend as an ensemble in a way that unifies the strengths of everybody’s individual voices. You can and should be doing all of this in rehearsal, whether you’re singing Tchaikovsky or Koukouzelis. This is not advocating that we have “professional choirs”; this is advocating that we have choirs where we’re encouraged to be musicians in the service of Christ and His Church, and suggesting that we should never take that to mean that we don’t have to do our best, give sacrificially of our talents, or put in the work. Quite the contrary.

The thing is, these things only work if everybody is there and if all participants treat the time responsibly. Unfortunately, rehearsal, for reasons I don’t pretend to even begin to understand, appears to be a very divisive issue in Orthodox churches, as does showing up on time. Any other church choir context I have ever been in, it is understood that if you’re in the choir, committing to participate in rehearsals is part of the deal; in Orthodox contexts, I have seen the very notion reacted to with hostility, or at least bemusement, and I’ve seen choirs split in half over the issue. Nobody has ever actually been able to tell me why this is such a sticky wicket, but there we are.

To be fair, I know that the distribution of Orthodox parishes can be such that if you’re a half hour drive away, you’re one of the parishioners who lives “close by”, and I don’t have a quick and easy fix for that. What I would re-emphasize is that rehearsal, for better or for worse, is part of the discipline — part of the time you put in so that you can give the ministry of singing in church the best of what you have. For situations that are exceptional, they are what they are, but I would encourage trying to normalize such situations as expediently as possible. Is it work? Yes. But it is work that is very much worth doing. There is always a next level worth striving for, particularly, as I said, if the true object of our worship is God. Further up and further in.

Next time: Bricks and mortar considerations, and more.

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  1. Orthodox Collective on March 1, 2013 at 11:06 am

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