Address at the 12th Annual Sacred Music Institute
Antiochian Village, PA
Good Evening! I hope that you are enjoying this 12th Annual Sacred Music Institute. It is a great pleasure for me to be here not only as a speaker but also in my capacity as Overseer Hierarch for the Department of Sacred Music. And it is a pleasure to be here with all of you, who contribute so much to the beauty and dignity of the services conducted in our churches. I welcome you this evening not only as spiritual sons and daughters but also as beloved co-workers in the service of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
I was asked to speak this evening on the topic of “The Need For Good Choirs and Good Music.” I hope and pray that I will deal with it properly, as this is a most important topic not only for us gathered at this seminar but in the ongoing spiritual life of this God-protected Archdiocese.
David the Psalmist tells us to “Make a joyful shout to the Lord, all you lands! Serve the Lord with gladness; Come before His presence with singing … Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise.” (Psalm 100:1)
If we had to write a mission statement for choirs and chanters, and indeed the entire people of God gathered in prayer, it seems to me that this section from Psalm 100 fits the bill. It speaks in terms of invitation, of participation, of rejoicing and praising, and doing so with the right attitude. These are some of the things I want to focus on this evening.
St. Theophan the Recluse, the great 19th century Russian monastic and bishop said of Church music: “The purpose of Church songs is precisely to make the spark of grace that is hidden with us burn brighter and with greater warmth. This spark is given by the sacraments. Psalms, hymns, and spiritual odes are introduced to fan the spark and transform it into flame…”
St. Theophan makes it quite clear that church music is meant to increase the grace of God in each one of us. That grace has been put there through the sacraments and it is through music that the “spark of grace” is made to burn more brightly. This grace is not meant to be static, hidden away and unused, nor is it meant to be left unexperienced. It is through church music that it becomes more active and burns with “greater warmth”, not secular music, which by its very definition and its themes, seeks to stir up worldly feelings and emotions rather than the spark of grace! Some worldly music is appropriate for us and some isn’t, just as some “church” music is appropriate for us as Orthodox Christians and some is not.
St. Theophan goes on to say that “It is necessary not only to understand the song, but to be in symphony with it, to accept the contents of the song in heart and to sing it as if it came from our own heart… In the time of the Apostles only those who were in such a state used to sing; others entered into a similar mood and all the congregation sang and glorified God from the heart only. No wonder if, in consequence of this, the whole congregation was filled with the Spirit! What treasure is hidden in Church songs if they are performed properly!”
This teaching of St. Theophan’s in the 19th century is an echo of the teaching of the Church Fathers. St. Athanasios for, example, said, “Those who sing properly psalmodize not only with their tongue, but also with their mind, and benefit greatly not only themselves but also those who desire to listen to them…” And St. John Chrysostom tells us that “Those who psalmodize are filled with the Holy Spirit, just as those who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit…”
If we in our churches are to produce genuinely spiritual music, what is necessary are choirs and chanters who are qualified on a technical basis and on a spiritual basis. Others, much more qualified than I have dealt and will deal with the technical aspects throughout this conference. My task is to focus on the spiritual bases.
Choir members and chanters must have true devotion to their work and they must always exhibit true humility. And they must always sing with what the Holy Fathers called “inner attention.” What this means is that not only do we have to know and understand the music theory and technique, the melody and dynamics, but we also need to know and understand the words and the meaning behind the words. And just as we strive to express a hymn as best as possible on a musical level, so we must strive to also express its meaning. And we must do so without showing off, with none of the “worldly” characteristics of secular music. This was made clear in the 75th Canon of the Council of Trullo which states, “We decree that those whose office is to psalmodize in the Churches do not use disorderly and loud vocalizations, nor force nature to shouting, nor adopt any of those modes which are inappropriate or unsuitable for the Church; but that they offer to God, Who is the observer of secrets, with great attention and compunction.”
Thus it behooves us to pay strict attention to every aspect of our music ministry in the Church. This ministry demands of us absolute and total commitment. If we are to sing then we must practice. If we are to practice, then we must do so regularly and on time. If we are to minister well, we must be attentive first, to the inner demands and requirements of the piece we are singing, and then, secondarily, to the content of the music. In other words for those whose ministry is church music, the first requirement is a commitment to the Orthodox Faith, to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the church, each hymn, verse, phrase and word of the divine services must be executed as it should be, clearly, in the right tempo, with natural accents proper to the language of the hymn. And outside the church each choir member or chanter must live a life that is consistent with what is sung in the church, a life that is exemplary, full of faith in God and love for Him as shown by love for one another. Remember that in baptism we put on Christ, for life! One who puts on the faith only during the services cannot be considered a true Christian.
What elements go into making a good choir?
(Fr. David Barr spoke on this topic in his presentation, “The Essence of Liturgical Singing”, this morning). We need a proper understanding of all the elements which constitute Orthodox Liturgical Music.
First we must be well acquainted with the Orthodox Faith. By this I do not mean to imply that you should rush out and get a degree in Orthodox Theology. But you should be living a good Orthodox Christian life, one with a level of asceticism proper to your station as lay persons. Asceticism comes from the Greek ahs-kee-tees-mos, meaning “a whole system of personal discipline for the purpose of combating vice and developing personal virtues.” In the Orthodox Tradition, such a system includes a personal private prayer life, daily spiritual reading – including the scriptures, frequent confession with a spiritual father of your choice, frequent communion, fasting, alms giving, and as much as possible, regular participation in the liturgical life of your parish. When we immerse ourselves in the life of the Church in all its aspects, then and only then do we begin to understand what the Church is teaching us through its prayers and hymns. Without first understanding what the Church is teaching us, we cannot teach others.
Having looked to the state of our spiritual health we can then effectively and appropriately address the technical aspects of the church music we are dealing with.
There is no act, no work, no service in the Church that does not require preparation. Every time a priest celebrates the Divine Liturgy he begins by entering the church and saying the Kairon or Preparation Prayers. After these he vests saying the Vesting Prayers. Following this he washes his hands saying verses from Psalm 26. He prepares the bread and wine in a special service called the Proskomide or Preparation of the Bread and Wine. And then he begins to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.
Singing in church is no exception. It requires a great deal of preparation. In fact one may say that to be most effective all those involved in music ministry must be constantly working to maintain that ministry. In other words your ministry and the preparation for and maintenance of that ministry never stop. Otherwise your ministry is fruitless and unworthy. No one should hide behind the argument that “I have been singing in the choir for decades — I don’t need to prepare! I know it all already!” Every act of ministry in the Church, if it is to be effective and fulfill God’s plan, needs preparation. Specifically this preparation includes:
A good spiritual life as outlined above.
The technical aspects. You must train your voice under a qualified director and then keep your voice in good form. This can be done at home or at work by singing the music you have learned at rehearsals. Doing this not only keeps your voice in good form but it also gives praise to God continually and helps you to maintain your spiritual health.
Necessity of preparation (Fr. Elias Meena touched on this, in part, in his presentation “Finding Liturgical Texts” last evening): You must have regular, weekly rehearsals. If your parish choir is not doing so, you must begin to do this immediately upon returning to your home parish. Every single choir member should be in attendance. In some parishes if a choir member misses a rehearsal, they are not allowed to sing the following Sunday. But this rule is good only if it is consistently enforced. Choir directors should not be discouraged by lack of attendance. Even if only two or three people show up on a given day, the director should rehearse those two or three. Any choir member who cannot or will not accept these requirements should step down and put aside this ministry. We cannot forget that it is indeed a ministry. It is not a hobby or a pastime. We are ministering to the Body of Christ and to do so effectively requires work and constant practice.
Chanters need to prepare services in advance. Check with your priest to determine if any other services will be done in the next few weeks. Verify the time, the feast day if there is one, the texts needed and where they can be found. Read over the texts several times well in advance of the actual service. They will become familiar to you and there will less chance of stumbling over a phrase or mispronouncing a word.
There is also the important consideration of the role that chanters play in their ministry — of teaching by their chanting. They must not fall into the bad habit of singing the texts for themselves only, as if their function were a personal privilege or a private act. The texts of the Church’s services are amazingly rich in their theological, spiritual, and didactic or teaching content. Approaching their task with proper preparation beforehand, the chanters become teaching assistants of the Church and the clergy. They must keep in mind that they are not reading or chanting only for themselves but also for the parishioners as well. Keeping in mind that they are “teaching” the parishioners, they will comprehend the need to be adequately familiar not only with the wording of the texts but also with the proper execution, stressing some words and phrases more than others. As the faithful hear the words, there will be an immediate understanding. This proper understanding will then lead to the words and what they teach, being absorbed into the hearts and minds of the parishioners, where they will do the most good.
Being on time is as essential as being at rehearsals. To breeze into the church five minutes before a service begins, shows a total disregard and lack of respect for the service and for others. This must not be tolerated at all. Remember what Canon 75 of the Council of Trullo said about singing with “attention and compunction.” We cannot arrive at the church and immediately begin to sing.
We need to adjust from being in the world, to being in “the Kingdom”. We need time to decompress from the rush-rush attitude of this world to the timelessness of the world to come. Those who arrive late are usually always late. This tendency needs to be charitably pointed out to them with the request that they repent of this sin and begin to arrive early. Just as the deacons, the priests and yes, the bishops, have to slowly withdraw from the cares and concerns of this world to serve the liturgy, so do you who sing have to slowly withdraw from the same world. You need a time of quiet preparation just as the clergy do, for the God who is praised and served from the Altar is the same God who is praised and served from the choir loft or the chanters stand or the pew.
In the vast majority of our parishes few of the faithful, including choir members and chanters are in church other than on Sunday morning. While there may be unavoidable reasons for this, we must do everything in our power to remedy the situation. None of us can be “Sunday Christians.” As much as possible every member of the choir and every chanter should be present for services held during the week, especially the Evening Divine Liturgies, which were authorized by the Archdiocese specifically to make it easier for the faithful to be present at the Feast Day celebrations. Our sense of values must be such that church attendance is the first and highest priority. Anyone who says that this is not realistic given today’s society and values needs to hear that yes it is realistic because other people are doing it. Those who say it is to difficult because there is not enough time should have pointed out to them the fact that others manage to find the time and the means. For all our talk on the need to focus on family values our problem these days is not one of time, but one of values. We talk about values but do nothing about them. We have to translate our talk into action We speak of having values but often times do not indeed have them or if we have them do not place a proper emphasis on those values.
Church Music vs. Secular Music
There is a disturbing increase not only in the desire for but also the performance of music in our churches which is wholly inappropriate. Our clergy must insist that only music approved by the Archdiocese be allowed during the celebration of any sacraments, especially weddings. The Archdiocese has made a considerable concession in allowing secular music to be played before and after weddings, but not during weddings. This must be adhered to by everyone, the clergy, the choir, directors, the chanters, and the faithful. Your ministry is one which requires not only the cooperation of the clergy but also cooperation with the clergy. When your priest explains that a piece of music is inappropriate, you need to be understanding and agree with him both privately and publicly. As others see you and your priest in agreement and cooperating with each other, they also will begin to do the same. In this way a climate of harmonious understanding and cooperation spreads throughout the entire parish.
Equally important is the need to be aware of and to follow the Archdiocesan Guidelines regarding approved music and approved liturgical practices. I will deal with these a bit later.
It is very disturbing for me and for many of the clergy to hear the constant demand for “shorter” services. I ask you just how much do you think we can shorten the services before they no longer resemble the original? Just as disturbing is the need that some, both clergy and laity, have for lengthening the services unnecessarily. We must accept once and for all that the monastic vocation is unique and different from that of the average lay person. While totally appropriate for monastics to spend as many as 7-8 hours a day in church, aside from an hour or two of private personal prayer in their cells, it is totally inappropriate to expect lay persons to do the same thing in a parochial setting. The Archdiocese has published clear directions on how each service, Vespers, Orthros, the Divine Liturgy, the Evening Divine Liturgy, during Lent and during Holy Week, etc., is to be conducted. As good Orthodox Christians it is our responsibility to follow these guidelines. Christ directed severe criticism to the scribes and Pharisees when he condemned them saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widow’s houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation.” (Matthew 23:14) We cannot lay upon the shoulders of the faithful any more than they are able to carry. And the faithful must not be faint of heart when it comes to doing what is justifiably asked of them.
Thus, it is very important for a good choir to follow the priest’s instructions regarding the order of the service, the texts to be used, who will do the various parts of service, the tempo and rhythm of the service. Neither the priest, deacon, the chantors or the choirs should drag out any part of any service. None of us, neither clergy or laity are “performing” — we are praying and leading others in prayer!
All should be in agreement with the published guidelines of the Archdiocese. Uniformity and consistency are not dirty words! We should not be afraid of uniformity and we should not find consistency distasteful. If anything they make music better and the choirs that sing that music better. The end result is better liturgical services, and better worship. The final result is that our praising God becomes better as well.
Review of Archdiocesan Guidelines
From The Priest’s Guide, Second Edition, 1994.
I’m sure that all of you know by now that we must have choirs and chanters in each parish, paid if necessary and that the priest is responsible to oversee their work. I don’t think any more needs to be said on this subject. Just as clear is that we are to celebrate Feast Days when they occur except on Sundays or Mondays when they should be celebrated on Sunday. The particular feasts to be observed have also been clearly listed, as have the rubrics and the order of the services to be used. Again we are all familiar with the services which should be celebrated during Great Lent as well as the proper rubrics and music to be used. The Word magazine publishes annually a well-written article dealing with these services, so I need not bore you by repeating this information.
In November 1994, a directive from His Eminence addressed to Choir Directors and Choir Members in the Antiochian Archdiocese appeared in The Word. Listed in this article were some of the sources approved for use in our Archdiocese, namely; The Volumes of the Byzantine Project: Saturday Vespers, Sunday Matins, Holy Week, The Pentecostarion, The Triodion and The Menaion. Together they number well over 2900 pages of music.
I must point out at this time that the Archdiocese has recently published the long-awaited Congregational Liturgy Music book entitled “The Divine Liturgy for Clergy and Laity — Text and Music for Congregational Participation” I quote from the Letter of Authorization from His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP:
The practice of congregational participation is of the essence of the Orthodox Church and should be used wherever possible. We do not intend hereby to replace our church choirs