The Need for Competent Musical Leaders (Benedict Sheehan)

A Musical Culture in Crisis

Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan (STS)

The longer I spend working in church music—conducting, singing, rehearsing, teaching, composing, arranging, copying, stapling, along with the myriad other things I do as a full-time church musician to try and improve the musical state of affairs around me—the more fundamentally pessimistic I become about the general state of Orthodox church music in America outside my own immediate sphere of activity. Granted, I’m a native New Englander, so a certain degree of pessimism goes with the territory (what do you expect from a place where more than half the year Nature is trying to kill you?), but my trepidation about church music goes beyond the normal everyday sort. I’ve been telling people for years that Orthodox music in America is in decline, a fact that I think should be obvious to anyone but the most recent newcomer to Orthodoxy. However, I now think the actual state of things is quite a lot worse than that. I believe now that, with few exceptions, liturgical music in American parishes is currently collapsing, and further, that if we fail to take measures to address the collapse, both locally and collectively, we will shortly face the very real prospect of a majority of parishes in which it is simply not feasible to maintain even a mediocre standard of singing.

I realize this may sound alarmist to some people—it even sounds alarmist to me as I write it—but I don’t think I’m wrong, at least as far as I can tell. An important aspect of my job is traveling around and visiting different Orthodox parishes, and either singing for them with my colleagues and students, or talking to them about music, or getting them to sing, or some combination thereof. This, together with the countless other informal encounters I’ve had with the musical life of Orthodoxy in various parts of the country (as well as abroad) over the past twenty-some years, has given me what I think is at least a passably accurate picture of what church singing is like in America today (though admittedly an anecdotal one). Bright spots, while they do exist, are much more rare than they should be. And while there are certainly churches out there with talented directors and singers who work to maintain high musical standards, I wonder how many of them have meaningful strategies in place to ensure the sustainability of those standards in the event of one or two key figures leaving the parish. I suspect it’s very few.

The most significant crisis we’re facing right now in church music is a rapidly deepening lack of competent musical leaders. There simply does not appear to be a new generation of Orthodox church musicians waiting in the wings.

When I first started being involved in church music more than two decades ago, I did so in a parish where many of the young people were doing the same. I also attended an Orthodox summer camp where singing in services, and in particular, singing well, was a fairly big part of daily life. As a result, I knew literally dozens of Orthodox young people who were actively involved in music. Of these, a surprising number—at least fifteen that I can think of off the top of my head—went on to study music in college in some capacity. When I myself went to conservatory I met several practicing Orthodox Christians among my fellow music students, along with three or four others who would later convert.

So, here’s the problem: out of the some two dozen young Orthodox musicians that I knew growing up—all of them trained to work in music at a professional level—I am the only one I know of who is currently working full-time as an Orthodox musician. Some of them, of course, are church choir directors, or active members of their parish choir, and at least two have at one point or another worked full-time in Orthodox music as seminary professors, but now do so no longer. None, however, appear to be practicing Orthodox music as an actual full-time profession today. A disheartening number either work full-time in music outside the Church—some in non-Orthodox churches—or have left the Church altogether, but continue to pursue a musical career. And some no longer practice music at all. The reasons behind people’s life decisions are often complicated, and maybe some of my friends and acquaintances would have left the Church regardless of what it had to offer them, materially speaking. One simple fact, however, is abundantly clear: there are not really any jobs, so none of them could reasonably have pursued a career in Orthodox music even if they’d wanted to. The Church effectively said to them, “if you’re musically talented, you’ll have to look elsewhere if you want a job.”

I’ve already written an article on the subject of why Orthodox church musicians in America are so often unpaid, or paid very little, so I won’t belabor the point here. However, I want to address the basic question, why are there no jobs? In talking to older members of the Church over the years, and hearing their stories about what things were like when they were young, I find that it was not that uncommon for Orthodox churches in the first half of the 20th century to have full-time choir directors. Many of these choir directors were highly trained, often overseas, and, while choirs were frequently gifted with dozens of capable and dedicated singers (thanks to the flourishing ethnic parishes of yesteryear), it was expected that a director would bring a special level of vision and expertise to the table beyond that of a merely competent singer. Or, to put it another way, it seems that the Orthodox of past generations maintained a serious musical culture. So what went wrong?

Before I answer that, a brief aside: there undoubtedly are deep socio-economic currents at work here, and the overall demographic decline of Orthodox parishes is undeniable. However, those currents have affected all mainline Christian denominations, not just Orthodoxy. They don’t account for why Orthodox musical culture is so particularly prostrate today.

So here’s what I think happened, in a nutshell. The first generation of Orthodox in America, the same generation that built so many of our churches, built a musical culture as well, or at least the foundations of one. They frequently had full-time choir directors, they taught their children to sing, they formed musical associations, and they established a generally high level of musical life. But the next generation, either because no one told them what they had to do, or simply because they felt they didn’t need to do anything, largely failed to maintain that culture, and instead lived on its accumulated capital. Volunteerism, eventually raised to an almost sacrosanct level among American Orthodox people during the second half of the 20th century, became the norm. The phenomenon of the professional Orthodox church musician gradually disappeared. Facilitated by a robust standard of music education in American public schools—a standard all but entirely gutted in many places today—amateur musicianship spread and ultimately prevailed. Over the last generation this amateur culture worked fairly well, but sometime in the past twenty years or so it stopped working, and I fear it’s about to get a lot worse.

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