How to Get Competent Musical Leaders (Benedict Sheehan)

Addressing the Crisis:  Part II of the Musical Culture in Crisis series.
Benedict Sheehan, The Music Stand (Ancient Faith Blogs)
06 January 2016

Orthodox church music in America is collapsing. What can we do? The first step is simply to recognize that a collapse is taking place. However, before I propose any concrete solutions, let me enumerate some of the more obvious remedies that I think do not work.

1. We can’t continue to lower our musical standards

Humans have a remarkable capacity to inure themselves to almost anything. When faced with bad church singing, and being uncertain of what to do to address it, it’s only natural for us to accept reality and lower our expectations. This process has been going on for a long time in many, many churches. However, confronted as we are now with declining church membership across jurisdictions, and a very real need to either grow or perish, we then have to face the almost impossible challenge of attracting outsiders to a liturgical experience that no reasonable person of good taste would take seriously. This problem does not only affect “old guard” parishes, but it touches missions and missionary dioceses as well, who either receive their standards of musical culture from the old guard, or, what is much more difficult, must attempt to establish a musical practice of their own from scratch without clear models or leadership. The basic problem is that bad singing is a sign of an unhealthy parish, and it will necessarily stunt its growth. If our strategy for coping with mediocre church music is just to accept it as normal, we will almost certainly lose in the end.

2. “Simpler” music doesn’t solve anything

Often I hear people say, “We just need simpler music! Enough with the fancy stuff, let’s get back to basics!” While it is always prudent to tailor your repertoire to match your ensemble’s capabilities—in fact, I strongly advocate it—it’s wrong to assume that doing so will solve fundamental musical problems. A choir that sings out of tune in 8-part music will continue to sing out of tune in unison. In fact, unison singing often makes defects in tuning more noticeable (a fact which may account for why some people think they don’t like unison chant). Orthodox choirs, at least within the historically Slavic churches, are required to sing a cappella, which is a significantly more difficult task than singing with instrumental accompaniment. This means that there is a fairly high level of musicianship demanded of singers in order to sing even the most basic repertoire beautifully and accurately, and, more important (and elusive), in a way that inspires someone to pray.

3. “Congregational singing” won’t solve anything either

There is probably no single theme I hear more often repeated in response to my concerns about church music than, “if we just went to congregational singing, everything would be fine,” or something along those lines. Without wading too deeply into what is a complex —and sometimes heated—topic, let me point out two basic difficulties in this line of thinking.

First, there is the fact that “congregational singing” is an inherently ambiguous term. What does the congregation sing? If the answer is “everything,” then how do we manage services like Vespers or Matins that are primarily made up of changeable hymnography? Perhaps the answer is to supply everyone with service books or packets that include everything needed for a given day. Well and good, but be prepared for the host of practical challenges that necessarily accompany an effort of that kind, and in particular the need for someone competent to take the lead in assembling singable music in a usable form. If the answer is “some things,” then how to establish order? And in that case, you still need a choir or a chanter that knows what they’re doing.

Next, there is the problem of the congregation learning hymnography in the first place, and, though it may seem quite mundane, the practical problem of starting the singing in the services. Both of these things require capable leadership: one to know the hymns and have the ability to teach others to sing them (assuming they come to rehearsals); the other, the vocal strength and musical skill to start each hymn on the right pitch, in the right mode, and to carry dozens of other singers along with you who will inevitably be dragging half a beat behind. While this is not an impossible scenario, it hardly seems like a simple one, or one with a high chance of rendering satisfactory results. And it requires capable leadership, the lack of which is the whole point of this article. Of course, it may be that a congregation already knows a large body of liturgical repertoire and has been singing it for generations, in which case both aspects of the problem are somewhat mitigated. However, it is precisely these kinds of vibrant traditions that are suffering today from the demographic declines in many churches, as well as from the overall loss of musical culture I mentioned in my previous post. Cultures like this have to be energetically maintained, and that has not been happening in most places for more than a generation.

So let’s ask the question again, what can we do? How can we start producing leaders who will help rebuild an Orthodox musical culture in America? It takes years of training, often including college and even graduate school, to become a truly competent church choir director or head chanter, and in many ways the technical challenges set by even the most basic Orthodox repertoire and liturgical structure are more intense than those encountered by the average music director at a Protestant or Catholic church. We also demand a LOT more hours out of our musicians. One simple answer for what to do, then, is create jobs. If there are real jobs out there for church musicians, then young people will train and study to prepare for them. Here are three concrete ideas for how we might create jobs for church musicians:

1. Have churches work together

No professional in America today—and trained musicians are professionals—would reasonably be expected to offer his or her services for less than $40-50K per year. (Many Protestant and Catholic churches in fact pay significantly more than this.) Now obviously, this is a significant investment for a church, especially one that’s struggling to pay even its priest a living wage. A possible solution, then, is to have a group of, say, four parishes band together and share the investment in a full-time music director. Perhaps one of the parishes—the best established of the four—could invest a little more, and act as home-base for the director, who would then over the course of each month travel around and work in each of the other three churches. As a full-time professional, his or her job description would include teaching musicians in each church, and helping them organize their music programs, so that the standard of singing in all four would gradually rise over time.

2. Establish full-time positions at the diocesan level

Throughout the Orthodox world, the bishop’s cathedral has historically served to set a liturgical standard for the rest of the diocese. Major cathedrals tended to staff their choirs with excellent singers (the Agia Sophia in Justinian’s time had 25 full-time singers on their payroll), and to employ directors who acted as musical leaders for the diocese as a whole. Such does not appear to be the norm in America today. Many of our cathedrals now have little more in terms of musical resources—and sometimes significantly less—than an average parish. One way to remedy this would be for dioceses to rally their resources and hire full-time diocesan music directors. These directors would be tasked with assembling a sufficient core of singers to maintain a high musical standard in all services at the cathedral. They could even, if necessary, travel with the bishop on his visits to other parishes, thus helping to ensure an appropriate level of liturgical beauty and solemnity wherever the bishop was present. In addition to leading music in services, the diocesan music director could also help provide liturgical and educational resources for the other churches in the diocese.

3. Take music education for children seriously

Music education in American public schools is weakening today, no question. However, we in the Orthodox Church should see this as an opportunity rather than a handicap. There are still lots of parents out there who want their kids to learn music—every Orthodox parent should want this—and we can help supply this market. Many private after-school music programs, both choral and instrumental, are flourishing right now because schools have dropped the ball. Orthodox churches, either individually or as a group, could undertake to create music programs for children that, in addition to offering employment for perhaps as many as several full-time employees, would have the added benefit of providing badly-needed musical education to our own children.

All of these are only ideas, and maybe none of them will work in some situations. However, it is absolutely crucial that we as Orthodox Christians in America start coming up with creative and practical solutions to our current musical problems. We have to do something. Given the trajectory of liturgical music in America over the last twenty-five years, I fear that, without a serious collective effort to reverse the trend, another twenty-five will take us to a point of no return. However, we can take a little a comfort in this: if musical standards are languishing at your church, you’re not alone.


Part One of this article is here.


  1. Pany Anastasiou says:

    Interesting. I think there is definitely a balance between making church music more accessible and pursuing a higher musical standard. When I first started as chanter in my church 10 years ago there was a group of elderly ladies who expected to continue chanting. Unfortunately they were simply left behind by the higher musical standard (for example singing from byzantine music books). After 10 years however, we now have a second chanter, a trainee chanter and an isokratis who comes from time to time. I have two young boys who are also learning slowly. This approach will probably bear fruit within 20 years if we’re not worshipping underground by that time.

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