The State of Church Singing in America: An Interview with Choirmaster Benedict Sheehan

By Benedict Sheehan on September 28, 2015

Editor’s Note: This interview appeared originally on, with questions posed by Jesse Dominick.

Benedict Sheehan is a composer, conductor, arranger, writer about, and teacher of, music. He currently plies his trade at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Monastery, where, since 2010, he has taught Orthodox liturgical music and directed the choirs. Benedict is also a regular clinician in Orthodox choral singing around the United States. His musical education includes a Bachelor of Music in Composition at Westminster Choir College, private studies under Vladimir Morosan and Vladimir Gorbik, and a Master of Music in Conducting at Bard College Conservatory of Music. He also has a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Benedict is a regular contributor to several online publications, including Orthodox Arts Journal and the Orthodox Christian Network (OCN). Four of his liturgical pieces are currently in print with Musica Russica, and his first complete album as a composer, entitled “Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan,” will be released in November from St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press. Benedict and Maria, together with their six daughters, live in Pennsylvania.

Do we take our Church music for granted? What is the importance of musical training for choirs? What does music mean for our prayer life, and what can we do to raise the level of singing in our Orthodox Churches? Benedict sat down with our correspondent to speak about the state of Orthodox Church music in America.

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What would you say about the state of Orthodox Church music in America? How would you assess it?

—I would say that we’re at a low point in our history. There’s certainly a general decline in Orthodox churches in America overall. The numbers are shrinking. We hear all these stories about the declining parishes. We see declining parishes. We see growing parishes also, but generally what everybody seems to say is that the numbers are declining. It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that the overall level of musical quality is declining too. But, what I find to be a more telling fact is that we’ve been in a state of musical decline for long enough that now it’s the new norm, and so even parishes that are thriving and successful have musical standards that in any other context would be an embarrassment.

I can totally understand why a church that has twenty people at Liturgy on a Sunday in some corner of the Midwest or New England or somewhere that only has three people in the church that can sing at all would be having a hard time—but churches that are thriving communities with growing memberships aren’t doing well either. There are certainly examples of parishes that are doing fairly well, but if you compare their musical standards and quality to a Mainline Protestant church or an established Roman Catholic church (and that can be a sensitive issue because a lot of Catholics complain that they’ve had a serious musical decline as well—I think a book came out twenty or so years ago called Why Catholics Can’t Sing—so they’re having problems too) you’ll see that they’re generally held to a much lower standard. That to me is more disturbing, because what that tells me is not that we can’t do better but that we’re not interested in doing better and we’re not putting resources into doing better. And this is true across jurisdictional lines—it’s not unique to the OCA.

—So in your capacity as music director at the seminary how do you hope to address this? What is your plan?

—In my capacity as music teacher and choir director at the seminary I’ve begun to realize that I do have a certain amount of ability to change the attitude, or create better attitudes, because the priest of a parish, whether he realizes it or not, actually has a fair amount of influence over the musical standards that his parish will maintain, if he’s somebody who really values beautiful Church singing. What else is beautiful Church singing but doing the Liturgy beautifully? Seventy percent of the Liturgy is sung by the choir or chanter. If a priest wants it to be done well and requires, within the bounds of what he can do pastorally, that it be done well, it has a much better chance of being done well.

One strategy of mine is to really try to get seminarians to feel like Church music is important, that beautiful Church music is important, and that it’s their job to cultivate it. That’s one aspect. Certainly I have some role in trying to teach the seminarians how to sing themselves, but in my view that’s less important than getting them to feel like good singing is necessary for the Church. The abbot, Fr. Sergius, often likes to quote—an important prayer said before the ambo—that, “God will sanctify those who love the beauty of His house.” Love, as we know, is not just how you feel about a thing—it has to be acted on. Love is not a feeling but an action.

So how do we love the beauty of God’s house? We do it by beautifying God’s house. That could be done through architecture, which is also a major area of decline in American Orthodoxy; through iconography—maybe not as dramatically in decline, but we haven’t reached the point where we’re routinely producing great iconography; but also in a very practical, daily service way through beautiful singing. That’s how we beautify God’s house. This prayer is not only saying that it’s a good thing to do, but it’s saying, “sanctify those who do this.” It’s actually a path to sanctification.

If you look in history in the lives of the saints and even in the lives of contemporary elders, you’ll see that many of the great saints were great cultivators of art in the Church. There is the example of St. Dimitry of Rostov, who was a hagiographer but also, as many people may not know, a very talented composer. In fact he’s the composer of what is considered the first Russian opera. He wrote a six-hour-long staged opera with instruments on the lives of the saints of the Rostov area. He worked tirelessly to improve the level of singing in his diocese. There is also St. Paisy Velichkovsky, who not only reinstituted cenobitic monastic life and the practice of hesychia, but also worked to raise the level of Church singing.

A modern example would be Fr. Ephraim of Vatopaidi monastery on Mt. Athos, and his own spiritual father Elder Joseph of Vatopaidi. When they came to Vatopaidi to revitalize the monastery, one of the first things they did was to establish a program for training the monks to sing; over time they’ve built it into one of the best if not the best choirs on Mt. Athos, and it’s become an example for the whole world of the authentic practice of Byzantine chant. They’ve revived medieval practices, they have composers of new chants, they train the monks of other monasteries to sing—they now have an established singing school at the monastery. So lest somebody have the idea that artistic life is a pursuit outside of spiritual life, we should look at these examples, which prove exactly the contrary—that part of pursuing sanctity in the Church is beautifying the Church, and singing is a major part of that.

—What is the connection beyond just a desire for aesthetic beauty and thinking “Oh, that song sounded nice?” Just what is sanctifying about beauty and good Church singing?

—That’s an interesting question. I can’t speak from personal experience in this regard. But think about the fact that liturgics (and I don’t just mean the Divine Liturgy, but all the services of the Church) are our primary point of contact with God on this earth, and the Eucharist is that par excellence. So the way we do and approach liturgics says a lot about how we think about God, and how we feel about God, and how we act towards God. If you’re trying to cultivate a relationship with someone, you will do everything in relation to them thoughtfully, with care, and as well as you can. A young man who’s trying to get a young woman to fall in love with him is not going to be careless. He’s going to think about how he dresses, about how he looks, about what he says and how he says it, how might it be taken. He will give her gifts, and he’ll do everything he can to show her that he cares about her. So God forbid that he be rude. God forbid that he would make a date with her and then forget to go, or be an hour late. It would show the young woman that this young man didn’t really care that much. Of course he might make a mistake and then ask her forgiveness, and thereby grow in the relationship with her (we don’t want to push this metaphor too far).

But the way we approach the liturgy is in some way analogous to this—it’s an indicator of how much we value the relationship that the liturgy affords us. If we treat it carelessly, if instead of offering our first fruits we offer what’s left over, or it becomes an afterthought, then how much does it seem that we really care about that relationship? Music is a major part of this because music is one of the things that we have to do every time we go to church. It’s not like iconography in the sense that you can get a great iconographer to decorate your whole church—of course there will always be a place to put a new icon and it can be an offering of a devout heart to God to sponsor a new icon or the decoration of a church—but for all practical purposes things like iconography and architecture are things that you pay for and obtain, and once you have them you can rely on them and you don’t have to do them over again. But music is something we have to do every time we go to church. It’s a new thing every time.

Often a choir does the same thing over and over again. They may have a repertoire, but it’s not infinite, so there will always be a sense of routine in a church choir. It is an offering that we have to make every time that we go. So, I contend that the way we approach singing in the Church is even more of an indicator of our practical, day-in, day-out care for our communal relationship with God than any other art in the Church. If we don’t do it carefully, if it’s not our first fruits, if it’s something we do badly and know we do badly yet don’t do anything to change it, how much do we really care? We can say, “Well, we don’t really care about music but we care about God.” I see that as “Well, I don’t really care about politeness but I really care about my wife.” Ok, but how do you show that you care? It has to be active. It can’t just be theoretical. Love without action, or as St. James says, faith without works, is dead.

So, if a church congregation says that that it cares about the liturgy and yet doesn’t care enough to sing well, how alive is their faith? That may sound like a harsh thing to say. We can say, “We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got.” Perhaps that is true. But more often than not I’ve found that when parishioners say, “We’re doing the best we can,” it is usually not a statement they’ve really evaluated for themselves. They haven’t asked themselves, “Are we doing the best that we can?” So if that is your excuse, I say, “Well, why don’t you find out?” See if you are. This brings up a whole new level of concern. Maybe I’ve gone a little too far afield from what you originally asked. But I think if you really care then you’ll do something, you’ll do better, you’ll do really well if you really care. Christ said Where your treasure is there your heart is. If the liturgy in your church is sung poorly, or half-heartedly, or in a slovenly or disorderly manner, then your heart’s not there. It can’t be.

—So your new book of music is coming out. How does this fit into what you’ve been talking about? What is the goal with this new book?

—Well this new book entitled A Common Book of Church Hymns (a translation of the Russian title), which we recently published, is music for the Liturgy. We have attempted to create a book that will be more or less analogous to the extant Slavonic Church books of the Obikhod chants. It’s a book of common chants that are well-established in the mainstream Russian tradition of the past three or four hundred years, with a few addenda, and all the music in this book is written on one staff with melody and a functional bass part, except for the Znamenny selections which are just one line. The goal of this project is to compile more or less everything that a parish would be need to celebrate the Liturgy on a daily basis—not only on Sundays—into one volume.

The core of the chant tradition, which is the core of the musical tradition in the Orthodox Church, is the melodies of these traditional chants. First and foremost this Liturgy book is a compilation of melodies. We’ve added a bass part, because it has become common practice (or maybe it was done so from the very beginning) to sing many of these melodies with harmony, and thus we’ve provided this bass part to make it easier to harmonize these chants. In the typical Russian practice you sing in four-part harmony. I’ve designed the book so that you could very easily sing four-part harmony from these two lines, which we do routinely now at the monastery—you just have to learn how to do it, which isn’t too hard if you know more or less how to sing. But this means that the other two parts would have to be improvised; however, they must be improvised not on the fly but according to predictable formulas.

That might sound intimidating to some people, but I maintain that it’s going to be easier for many people than they think, because in fact many singers in average parish choirs don’t really read music. They can follow the notes and see when they go up or down or stay the same. They know that a note with an open head you have to hold a little a longer, they understand the time signature; they understand very rudimentary things about music but they’re not really reading music the way a musician reads it, the way that any literate person would sit down and read a page of text. A musician reads music like that so they know exactly what it means and exactly how it’s supposed to sound, and they can do it accurately though they may seeing it for the first time. That’s what I call reading music. It doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes—anybody reading aloud makes mistakes—but they know more or less how to read. So I maintain that many people in parish choirs don’t actually read music, but they know and sing their part by ear. What they’re seeing on the page is only a vague guide, and often it just makes them feel more secure. But they don’t actually know what it means.

Of course, some people do. I don’t mean to downplay the overall level of ability, but it’s also a fact that most people outside the Orthodox Church in America now don’t really read music. It’s not being taught in schools the way it was in our parents’ or grandparents’ generations. The idea that musical ability and literacy is just a normal part of being educated has gone out of style in America, so the fact is that many people don’t read music. Therefore, it will be easier than people imagine at first glance to improvise a harmony part from just two lines of music, once they know the basics of how to do it. But for choirs that routinely sing in four parts and have four parts regularly, we will also make four-part mixed choir music available for everything in this volume. That will come later.

“The choir’s repertoire is like a wardrobe.”

I strongly believe that a choir’s repertoire is analogous to somebody’s wardrobe. It has to fit. If someone wears clothes that are too big or too small, that person will look ridiculous. The same goes for a choir. If their repertoire is too big—like a choir of six people with only three reliable parts singing the Paschal irmosi by Artemii Vedel—it doesn’t fit. The repertoire has to fit and be the right style for the group.

One has to be able to discern the style of his community. That includes what people want and expect to hear in church, what preconceptions they may have about what Church music is supposed to sound like; but it might also just be what kind of people they are, or what kind of choir they’ve got—how good the singers are. The point is that singers need to have repertoire that fits them, that they can master and sing competently and make it sound like an authentic, artistic, musical, spiritual expression of those people. It shouldn’t sound fraudulent. It shouldn’t sound like it just doesn’t fit.

I believe that a lot of choirs in America need a repertoire that is simpler, but I don’t mean plain—not all music that’s satisfying and relatively easy to sing is musically simple. In fact, over-simplified music can be hard to sing. They need music that’s better suited to their abilities and to the size and kind of ensembles that are becoming common. Even if you have fifteen singers on a Sunday, in the standards of choral music that’s still a small choir. Fifteen good singers can manage a lot, but a choir with fifteen singers where only three or four of them are really musically skilled needs to have smaller repertoire. Thus, the aim of this book is to fit those choirs that need a flexible repertoire, so that they don’t have to sing in four or three parts if they don’t have them. You can, but you don’t need to, because the melody and fundamental bass part will always be there. You have what you need to sing the bare bones of it and sing in a way that’s satisfying and musically reasonable. It often happens that when a choir has to reduce four-part music on the fly, it doesn’t know which part is the melody, and so they sing three parts while nobody’s singing the melody at all. So it sounds odd and it’s musically nonsensical because there’s no core. So, we’re also trying to show people what the melodic core of this music is.

The Patriarch Tikhon Russian American Music Institute


Also in an effort to raise awareness of how Orthodox Church music can sound and to raise the level you’ve helped to establish the Patriarch Tikhon Russian American Music Institute (PaTRAM). Could you say a bit about the history and work of the institute?

—In short, the original idea for the PaTRAM Institute came from Alex and Katya Lukianov—to create an organization that would help to raise the overall level of music-making in Orthodox churches in America, specifically focusing on parishes of Russian background—ROCOR, OCA, Moscow Patriarchate. This is their personal background and that’s what they know, but they also felt they didn’t want to get too big and try to solve everything, to maintain as much focus as they could. Working across three jurisdictions is hard enough. So, they had the original idea, and I wasn’t connected with them at the outset.

One of the stages in the planning process was to ask Vladimir Gorbik of the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra Podvorye in Moscow to be the artistic director of this institute. He’s a major Church musician in Moscow and has been for fifteen years or more. He’s a teacher at the Moscow Conservatory, has made a dozen or more very fine recordings with his male choir, and has done a lot in the Podvorye to develop the talent of people from all musical, or no musical backgrounds. My connection with them came through Vladimir Gorbik, whom I first met in 2012 when he came to do a Master Class at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, which I attended as a conducting student. After that I became a private conducting student of Maestro Gorbik. The Lukianovs were reaching out to him to talk about PaTRAM at that time, and Maestro Gorbik wanted to include me in the discussions as well. In our original discussions we created the Institute, made a plan, and established it as a legal non-profit, of which I became the Assistant Director, working under Maestro Gorbik.

Before PaTRAM was formerly founded, Maestro Gorbik and I had come up with the idea of creating a professional-level choir in America under his direction, which we did in 2013. This was the Patriarch Tikhon Choir, which brought together singers from all over the United States and Canada as well as a group of eight or ten singers from Russia, and we gave three concerts in New York, Pittsburgh, and Washington, D.C. We got a favorable review in the New York Times and there was some interest from a production studio after the concerts, but what’s interesting is that Maestro Gorbik and I had come up with this idea and the name of the Patriarch Tikhon Choir independently of the Lukianovs’ idea for the Patriarch Tikhon Russian American Music Institute. So, while we were planning the 2013 concerts we came into contact with the Lukianovs, and only at that point did we realize that we’d come up with the same name for two parts of an institution that were really made to go together. We saw this as a sign from God that it was a good work, and the Lukianovs became instrumental in sponsoring the 2013 tour and then bringing it to the next step, which took place last December when the group made a recording with their sponsorship that should be released sometime this fall.

Now the PaTRAM Institute has done a number of things, including several Master Classes in the U.S. with Vladimir Gorbik, and we just did our first Master Class in Moscow in early September. This class had about forty participants from America. One very important thing we’ve begun is a series of online music-training classes, some of which are aimed at absolute beginners. We’ve had two semesters of classes now with twenty-or-so students who do a series of live classes over the internet with top-level music teachers. There are introductory classes in musicianship, music theory, music reading, vocal technique, as well as online conducting classes with Maestro Gorbik for both beginners and well-established professional conductors who want to refine their technique with somebody as skilled and experienced as him. So those are some areas where I think PaTRAM has begun to make an impact.

“There is a connection between how your conduct church singing and how you pray.”

As someone coming from a millennium-old tradition of Church music, what would you say that Maestro Gorbik has to offer to Church music in America? What have you learned from him?

—Aside from the fundamental technical musical things that I’ve learned from him as a conductor, one of the things that really impressed me is his combination of technical excellence and spiritual depth and seriousness. This is something that you cannot easily find in an American conservatory, and I would hazard to say that you probably can’t easily find it in a Russian conservatory either. The great heyday of the Moscow Conservatory was arguably in Soviet times, when Church music was not discussed or practiced at all. So it’s probably not common to connect technical excellence with spiritual depth, and with Orthodox spirituality in particular, even there. This is something that I think Maestro Gorbik has brought to everything he’s done here in the U.S. There is a clear understanding that there’s a connection between how you approach singing and conducting in church and what you believe, how you pray; that there are ways to sing, act, and interpret music that are in continuity and harmony with the Orthodox Tradition and spiritual life, and ways that aren’t. I had never met anyone before who spoke with that level of clarity and confidence about these things, and I don’t know of anybody else who does it in the way that he does it.

He is a very high-level professional in the music world, gaining respect at the Moscow Conservatory, which is a major accomplishment in itself. That someone who is primarily a Church conductor is being placed in a position of influence in the Conservatory says something about how the Conservatory might be changing… It’s not to say that the way he approaches Church music is the only Orthodox way to approach singing—it certainly isn’t—but what he really demonstrates is that making high demands on yourself and a choir technically goes hand-in-hand with such spiritual realities as obedience, asceticism, humility, love for God, and love for others. To give an example, one very important thing that he said a number of times is that one of the hallmarks of Church singing and what distinguishes it from any other kind is this phenomenon of loving obedience. Any good musician is obedient to his craft and dedicates himself to it, but what’s so important in Church singing is that you do this in a deeply spiritual way, with a kind of an absolute obedience, an obedience that is intended to restrain the ego. This is something very important for Church choirs and conductors to understand.

He also likes to say that the fathers teach that obedience is above prayer in the spiritual life. Prayer without obedience isn’t prayer at all. We often have this idea, which Gorbik explains, that you come to church to pray. Well, of course that’s true, but we often have a wrong idea of what prayer is. Prayer is not something that we manufacture, that we do—prayer is a gift that we receive from God. All we can do is to prepare ourselves—it may or not be given. But the necessary precondition for receiving prayer is obedience—through humbling ourselves before everyone, especially those who are given authority over us. A simple example would be a singer being obedient to the choir director, and the choir director to the priest, the priest to the bishop and to the order of services, the bishop to his brother bishops and the canons and Tradition of the Church—everybody in the Church ought to be in obedience to somebody. So this relationship of obedience is necessary for us to receive prayer.

To carry on with the same simple example, a singer who is not obedient to the choir director, who’s not trying to do a good job, who’s not watching or following, not doing what he’s told, not taking care to fix mistakes, is not in that necessary condition to receive prayer. At any given time we may or may not be able to pray, but we are always able to be obedient and to humble ourselves, to dedicate ourselves entirely to the work at hand, out of love for God, out of love for the liturgy, out of love for the choir director. You may not like him or her, but you do it out of love, because we have to love each other. That’s just one example of the way in which Maestro Gorbik presents technical refinement as being connected to spiritual refinement and spiritual life in general. It’s very important. In his way of thinking, prayer and professionalism meet at the top. They’re not two distinct things.

You’ve also started the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery. What can you tell us about this new venture?

—This past year, working together with the abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, Fr. Sergius, we decided that now was a good time to do another recording, and we both hoped to do one that would break new ground for what an established Orthodox institution in America had been able to produce up to this point. Certainly several established institutions have produced good recordings in many respects, but our goal was to reach a new level if we could. So Fr. Sergius had this idea that we make a recording of my compositions and arrangements in order to showcase the monastery choir director and resident composer, if you will. It quickly became evident that some of the technical demands of much of the music we wanted to include on the recording were beyond what one could normally find at the normal, well-qualified amateur-singer level that is immediately available in the U.S. and Canada. That’s not to say that there are no great Church singers out there, but having worked on finding them over the past three or four years I think I know many of them, and there aren’t many of them. There is certainly a number, but not many.

So, we decided to work towards creating a choir that of experienced singers who regularly perform at the professional level. Some of these singers are people with whom I have been connected over the years, who have taken part in the Patriarch Tikhon Choir. Some of them I’ve known for some time—from my undergraduate conservatory days—but a good part of the choir is people who I’ve come to know more recently through graduate work at the Bard Conservatory of Music, including professional singers in the New York area. So we created a choir of sixteen professional singers, most of whom actively earn a living in music right now.

As far as I know, the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery is the first all-professional choir that is under the auspices of an established Orthodox institution in America. We made a recording in May called Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan. The line “Till morn eternal breaks” is a quote from the last line of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the text of that poem is the text for one of the non-liturgical pieces that we included on the CD.

“There’s a lot of Orthodox choral music that is being sung by non-Orthodox choirs.”

Considering what you’ve said about the connection between musical excellence and spirituality, are all the singers in the choir Orthodox?

—That’s an interesting question. The simple answer is “no.” Only about half of the singers in the choir are practicing Orthodox Christians. Now, for some people that may be a problem—“Why would you want people who aren’t believers singing Orthodox Church music?” Before I address that question directly let me first say that in the world of choir music in America, and globally right now, Orthodox repertoire has been enjoying a substantial degree of popularity. College choirs, community choirs, professional choirs across the U.S. and Canada, across Europe are routinely singing the great works of Russian choral music. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were several dozen performances every year of the Rachmaninoff Vigil and Liturgy, and the Tchaikovsky Liturgy, for example. I think that to date, there are twenty-seven extant recordings of the Rachmaninoff Vigil, most of them performed by non-Russian choirs, the majority recorded after 1990. And there are recordings of Gretchaninov. Not only are these works being performed, but they’re being performed to great acclaim. The 2014 choral album of the year was a recording of all Slavonic choral music done by Conspirare. The Kansas City Chorale with Charles Bruffy has won two Grammies for Russian choral music, and just this year they made a new, phenomenal recording of the Rachmaninoff Vigil that will almost certainly gain a good deal of well-deserved notoriety.

So, this music is being sung. Cappella Romana has made a name for itself singing medieval Byzantine chant, but also singing large choral works of the Russian tradition, harmonized music of the Greek tradition, as well as European sacred music. They are an all-professional Orthodox group, but not all of their members are necessarily Orthodox believers. So the point is that there is a lot of Orthodox choral music being sung by choirs that have only some or even no direct connection to the Orthodox Church.

Then, on the other side of it you have a composer like Arvo Pärt, who is the most performed living composer in the world right now—somebody who makes no secret of his deep commitment to the Orthodox faith, no secret of the fact that the great majority of his music arises out of his Orthodox faith. He’s even gone so far as to say that to understand his music you should read the works of the Orthodox fathers. His popularity is immense—far beyond the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. So, to come back to the issue—“Why would you want a choir of non-believers to sing Orthodox music?” Well, the point is—they already are! And they’re obviously getting something out of it, and it’s popular. Not only are the non-Orthodox are singing it, but they’re consuming it—they’re buying recordings, and they’re enjoying performances. This repertoire is universally appealing to people for some reason.

On the other side of it we have Church choirs who by definition are probably believers singing sacred music in church who are most likely not capable of singing the Rachmaninoff Vigil—maybe at all—or at least at the level that university choirs, professional choirs are singing it. So we’ve come to a point now where the repertoire, these great works that organically belong to the spiritual Tradition of the Orthodox Church, are no longer accessible to Orthodox choirs. To put it bluntly, we’re simply not capable of it. So in putting together our choir, both Fr. Sergius and I very consciously decided we will not try to make a choir that is all practicing Orthodox Christians. One reason is that the number of practicing Orthodox Christians who can sing at that level and who I know and have access to is simply too small. There aren’t enough of us. I don’t even count myself among the group of singers that I think can sing at what I think would genuinely be a professional standard when compared to professional choirs in America.

Also, I think that it’s important that this kind of music, which absolutely grows out of the Orthodox spiritual Tradition, be allowed to touch people and not be buried in the ground. We have to be not just willing but eager for other people to come to know this, and I think that creating a choir like the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, which is partly practicing Orthodox and partly not, will provide an opportunity for a really valuable cross-fertilization.

One of the greatest enemies of very good Orthodox Church musicians is the “big fish in a small pond” mentality. Routinely, someone who is capable of making music at a professional level, who’s been to conservatory, who could work in the musical world, if they work only in the Church probably will never or only very rarely come into contact with musicians who are as good as or better than them. Speaking as a professional musician, I know the phenomenon is fatal to the cultivation of my own abilities. It’s very easy to sit back on what you’re already able to do and never get any better because you’re never challenged, never exposed to anybody working at a higher level than you. So what can come out of that? Pride—absolutely; also an atrophy of your own abilities, and a compromising of your standards. Bit-by-bit they’re going to drop—I see this in myself all the time. Since I do work in the professional world I come into contact with people who are much better than me in every respect, and I thank God for those opportunities, because I learn from them and I’m humbled by them. I realize that what I’m able to do is not that remarkable.

One aspect of this cross-fertilization that I think can occur is that the Orthodox in the group will be exposed to the level of music-making that these top-level professionals do routinely, and the standards they routinely hold themselves to, and they’ll find two things: 1. They have a lot to learn, and, 2. They’re able to do what they do, and they’ll build confidence as a result of that. On the other side of it, in exposing professional singers to the spiritual depth of Orthodox music (and I believe there’s a unique depth in the repertoire that grows out of this ancient Tradition of the practice of prayer and the divine revelation, the vision of the saints of the kingdom of Heaven, of the angelic liturgy) as it is believed and sung by Orthodox who don’t approach this just as repertoire, but as prayer as a fruit of revelation, they can be profoundly influenced.

In our recording in May I saw a number of examples where these phenomenal professional singers who probably never encountered Orthodox liturgy and singing Orthodox music as prayer before were very moved by that encounter, and sometimes moved to tears. In fact, a couple of them were interested in seeing more, and one of the singers went to Liturgy at the monastery several times during the week of the recording, while a couple of them stayed after the recording was finished and went to church just to see what it was all about. So I think there’s a lot of potential for giving people something that they haven’t seen before and maybe something that their soul has a place to receive—a hunger. And why would we not want to offer that to somebody? Why would we say “No, to sing in our choir you have to be Orthodox?” In my view you’d be shooting yourself in the foot.

That being said, it makes sense that group who sings Church services routinely would consist entirely of practicing Orthodox Christians, and this is something Fr. Sergius has said—you don’t want to create a scenario where people are singing something in Church that they don’t really believe. Although, that being said, it may be that a lot of times people who are Orthodox don’t really believe what they’re singing—that’s harder to evaluate, but at least you can say as a general principle people singing in Church should also be believers. That makes sense. But for concerts and recordings I don’t see that we need to draw a sharp line of distinction. I think the benefits that can come from cross-fertilization are worth cultivating. So, in a sense that is why we did it the way we did it, and we will continue to do it that way. Our hope is that this recording will be the first of many things that this group will do. Many of the major monasteries in Russia have professional choirs that are part of the outreach of the institution, and that’s exactly what St. Tikhon’s Chamber Choir is meant to be.

Hope for the future

Despite the assessment of Church music we started with it sounds like you’re pretty hopeful.

I would say that I see some signs of hope, not only in the things that I’m doing, but in the fact that as I come more and more into contact with other musicians in the Church, I find that many of us are thinking along the same lines, and there’s a real receptivity to things that we’re trying to do. I’ve had the experience a number of times of meeting somebody for the first time and realizing they’ve been doing and seeing the same things and coming up with many of the same solutions, so that to me seems like the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church—that we are of one mind without ever having met. That’s a very hopeful sign to me—that despite my own personal flaws and shortcomings, God seems to want this work to continue.

Other signs of hope are that more people are beginning to recognize that we’ve come to a crisis point, where there simply aren’t competent Church musicians available. For a long time I think Orthodox churches have been able to squeak by on the luck of the draw, as it were, partly because music was being taught in public schools and so they didn’t have to train their own Church musicians. Now the young people in America are staggeringly musically-illiterate as a group, and churches are suffering from this lack of musical literacy. The hopeful sign in that is that the Orthodox are beginning to realize that they need to do something, or we’ll have no one at all who can sing in church. It’s had to get pretty bad to get to this point, but I think more and more people are beginning to wake up to this.

Fortunately, more training programs are beginning, but we need more. These programs need to be instituted at the parish level. Parishes need to bring in experts to train them. We, as a Church, need to start producing training materials to educate people musically on the basics. There aren’t a lot of Church-centered training programs—PaTRAM is trying to institute this kind of thing but obviously PaTRAM can’t do everything. We need to start sending choir directors to a local music program at a college, for example. There are certainly unique aspects to Orthodox choir music and the skills required to be an Orthodox choir director or head chanter, but on the basic level, at least as far as the Russian tradition is concerned, music is music, and you can learn a lot just by taking introductory music classes at your local college. We need to be sending people to these classes.

Of course, this brings up a fundamental issue, which is that real training cost money and takes time. If a choir director has no hope of finding a job in the Orthodox Church after his training, there will not be much incentive for him to get this training. And even if you have someone who really wants to do it regardless of the low pay, they need to have the time to do it; and if they can’t expect to be paid there’s no way that they’re going to find the time. Paying somebody to do a job is not paying for their good will, it’s paying for their time, and being a good Church musician requires a lot of time to be trained, to maintain your abilities, and to do your job well.

So, one of the basic things we have to begin to think about it is paying choir directors a full-time salary. Of course, first we need to pay our priests a full-time salary. If you can’t pay a priest it probably won’t help much to pay a choir director. But, generally, people recognize now that we need professional clergy—that we need priests who have finished seminary, received professional pastoral training to do their job, and the fact that a parish can’t pay a priest is generally understood as a problem to be solved. Most people agree that we have to pay the priest.

But the problem is that we don’t have the same attitude regarding choir directors. It’s not generally agreed that they should be professional and it’s not generally agreed that they should be paid as for their main job. So that’s something for which I strongly advocate change—we need to change our thinking. And I would even go so far as to say we need to change our thinking about what constitutes a solvent Orthodox parish in America. If a parish can’t afford to pay a priest, to build a building, and, I also argue, to pay a choir director, should they be allowed to establish themselves for a long period of time? Obviously there has to be an interim period when you’re building up a community, but if twenty years down the road they’re still just keeping the lights on, and maybe they pay their priest but they can’t afford to pay a choir director… Right now we all think that’s all right, but I would say, we need to change our thinking. It’s not normal. For any Protestant church such thinking would be absurd—that an established parish community would expect to have their music for little or no money.

Where your treasure is there your heart is. If we’re not putting our treasure into the liturgy, do we really care?

Jesse Dominick spoke with Benedict Sheehan

27 / 09 / 2015

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  1. Peter on September 30, 2015 at 12:37 am

    This is an excellent interview with a good dose of chastening as well as motivation to improve as a parish singer, as a choir, and as the Church in this our land; may the King of the angels sustain us and guide our voices.

  2. Baker Galloway on October 3, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Thank you for your challenging words, and for pointing out that most of us who sing the services don’t really know how to read music, we’re just using the notation to aid our singing by ear. You’re spot-on there. And investing our treasure in the Liturgy in order for our hearts to be there, again you’re spot on. I have two follow-up comments:

    1. I don’t think “paying choir directors a full-time salary” is going to happen anytime soon for 90% of parishes in North America. A stipend is totally reasonable, though – to treat the work as a part-time job. After all, there are other roles besides the priest’s that one could argue are competitively important for room in the parish’s operating budget: ministry done by deacons, youth leaders, parish secretary, and others. And it could be problematic to have a full-time salaried choir director who needs to justify his/her salary by over-working a group of volunteer singers throughout the week – sounds to me like a recipe for bitterness.

    2. Do you have as an objective for parish choirs/chanters that they restrain the majority of their repertoire to music that the assembled lay congregation can sing along with? This is the case at my parish for the most part. The opportunity for everybody to sing seems to be a priority. Thank God we are blessed with a handful of professional-level musicians IMO who can take the lead and the rest of us stumble along adding our ‘mites.’ But I guess my question is when you push a parish choir to challenge themselves musically, to step up to a higher level, is there any consideration in the pieces you select, of whether the congregation will get lost in the process? I don’t think anything in your Common Book linked above will fall into that danger necessarily, but several times when I have visited cathedrals or parishes that have a very high level of musical excellence, it has seemed to take on the character of a performance rather than an offering that arises organically from the community. Is this important to you?

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