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 Servants of Beauty: The Precious and Sacred Role of Church Musicians

By Matushka Deborah Johnson
(From Orthodox America)

The following is abridged from an introductory talk delivered at the 1998 Russian Orthodox Musicians' Conference, Washington DC.



In the wondrous blending of sounds it is Thy call we hear; in the harmony of many voices, in the sublime beauty of music, in the glory of the works of great composers: Thou leadest us to the threshold of paradise to come, and to the choirs of angels. All true beauty has the power to draw the soul towards Thee, and to make it sing in ecstasy: Alleluia! - Kontakion 7, Thanksgiving Akathist



How many of us converts, in attending our first Orthodox service, were overwhelmed by its sheer beauty. The warmth of the flickering candles, the radiance of the icons, the fragrance of the incense, and, yes, the sublime beauty of the music all combined to enkindle our spirits and our hearts, so that, like the emissaries of Saint Vladimir, we didn't know whether we were in Heaven or on earth. This is the precious legacy which has come to us - whether through the Russian, Greek or other Orthodox tradition. But however uplifting and spiritually inspiring, beauty alone is insufficient as a means of conveying and nourishing faith. The intellect must also be engaged, i.e., we must understand what it is we are praying.

In recognition of this imperative, many Orthodox parishes have begun to incorporate English in their services, and, of course, there are a growing number of missions where English is used exclusively. For many of us it means that we can now pray, as the apostle enjoins, with understanding. And we rejoice in this. Unfortunately, however, this transition to English has not always carried with it the soul-stirring beauty of the Russian (or Greek) chant tradition. This is understandable inasmuch as this is a difficult transition and a transition that is still in its infancy. It is this deficiency that we hope to begin seriously to address in this conference.

All of us here come from different situations - English missions and parishes where only one language is used in worship, parishes where Church Slavonic is the only language used, and parishes where both languages are used. Some of you come from outside the Russian tradition altogether. The pastor of each parish has to work out how to best deal with the language of worship in his parish. It is not the purpose of this conference to recommend any one solution. The purpose of this conference is to help those who are using English, however much or little, to do it as prayerfully and as beautifully as possible. We hope that the principles put forth here will be absorbed and used, regardless of language.

One particular point we are hoping will come out of this conference is a renewed zeal for rehearsals. Fr. George has a favorite quote from the preface to one of his hymnals: "If the people be desirous of joining in the musical part of the Service, it is only right that they should be given the opportunity of attending rehearsals, and only due to Almighty God that they should sacrifice some little time in preparing for His worship, and not be content to give Him that which has cost them no trouble." (from Songs of Syon.) It is a great privilege to be a choir director or a church singer: but also an awesome responsibility. Here at St. John's, rehearsals were always encouraged, but when I took over as director of the English choir from Fr. George after he was ordained, we decided that they should be a requirement. We now rehearse every Thursday evening from 7:00 to 9:00. It is a commitment: some of our choir members drive as much as fifty miles to the church. But the fruit of such effort is rewarding.

As a new choir director, my experience of directing the Divine Liturgy and the All-Night-Vigil, was that while the Vigil was more difficult intellectually, with all the different parts coming from different sources, the Liturgy was more difficult spiritually. I think it has to do with the unique place of the Divine Liturgy in the worship life of the Church. All of the other services of the Church are somehow related to Time, that is, they take place in a cycle of time, be it daily, weekly, fixed according to a calendar date, or variable according to the occurrence of Pascha. But the Divine Liturgy is different. It takes place outside of time. It can be celebrated in the morning or the evening. While I was preparing for my first Liturgy, Fr. Leonid pointed out to me that one of the litanies in the Liturgy begins, "Let us complete our prayer unto the Lord," not "Let us complete our morning prayer," which we hear during Matins, or "Let us complete our evening prayer," which we hear during Vespers. I had this sense of the timelessness of the Liturgy, combined with a feeling of embarking on a journey from which it is impossible to turn back.

Beginning with the Cherubic Hymn, we are literally reaching for Heaven. We are trying to do something which is impossible, and yet, we are doing it. A small group of sinful human beings says: "Let us, who mystically represent the Cherubim and chant the thrice holy hymn unto the life creating Trinity, now lay aside all earthly care." In what is a great mystery that we cannot hope to understand, we swim out into an ocean of prayer, into a timeless realm, a place where the angels are chanting: the cherubim with many eyes, and the six-winged seraphim who are veiling their faces, because, as it says in the priest's service book, "to serve Thee is a great and fearful thing even unto the heavenly hosts themselves." We leave behind all that is familiar to us of our normal earthly concerns, including even the very nature of time itself. We are going on a journey, outside of time, to that Upper Room, where the Lord Himself gives us His Body and Blood in the great Mystery of Holy Communion.

It is an awesome responsibility to be part of this mystery. Because this is such a fearful thing, we must prepare for it. If we are going to receive Holy Communion, we prepare for it with Confession, fasting and a prayer rule. Likewise, the choir must prepare, through rehearsing. Rehearsing is the key to the ongoing spiritual and musical growth of a choir.

What if you are a small mission and you don't have a choir yet, or you are planning to do only congregational singing? Have rehearsals anyway. Someone has to be in charge of the service - of passing the music out, of leading the singers, be they a designated choir or the whole congregation. Even in congregational singing, someone is leading. If you don't plan for it, then the singing will by default be led by the loudest voice, which may produce an ugly and unprayerful result. Encourage members of the congregation to come to the rehearsals. You can teach them the tones, you can mark the sticheri ahead of time, so that you all are singing together. You can practice the composed music. You can learn the order of the services. People can be taught the principles of choir singing even if there is no official choir.

Some people say: "I can't pray while I'm singing in the choir," or, "It's too hard for me to pray while thinking about the notes, the shuffling of the music distracts me," etc., etc.

If someone truly cannot pray while singing, then he shouldn't sing in the choir. But please consider this. Church singing is many things: it is a talent, a gift of the Holy Spirit, and it is also a cross. While you sing you are serving the Church, you are carrying your cross. When you carry your cross joyfully, obediently, God will help you and console you. There are moments, when suddenly one is flooded with the pure, radiant joy of the feast or the saint which is being commemorated. At times I have felt so uplifted that it was all I could do to stay inside my shoes.

Another comment frequently heard is: "I already know the music and the tones. I don't need to come to rehearsals. It's boring for me."

Prayerful, beautiful church singing consists of more than just getting the notes right. Perhaps you already know the notes. But a robot can sing the right notes. There are a lot of other things which are worked on in rehearsals besides the notes. For example:

Your brothers and sisters in the choir may not know all the notes. Most choirs have a fair amount of turnover. This means there are always people who are just learning the tones and the music. These new people need help in order to learn. One of the most valuable things a choir director can have, in trying to teach the music to new people, is the presence of at least one knowledgeable person in each of the four parts. How can a choir director accomplish this if the most knowledgeable people, those who "already know the music," stay home?

No one's voice should be heard over the others'; the choir is one body, and we need practice in becoming one. This can only happen through rehearsal. There is a large body of music repertoire available, which many choir directors would like to introduce but cannot because of a lack of attendance at rehearsals. If you deprive the choir of your presence, you may also deprive the choir of an opportunity to do some of the most beautiful and edifying music. Many times, the presence of just one more person can make all the difference in the world.

A variation on "I already know the music," is: "Give me a copy of the music, and I'll practice it at home." Yes, one can take music home and learn the notes; that is good. But, as we have said, learning the notes is only the first step. Many people consider chamber music to be the highest form of instrumental music; the beauty of chamber music lies in the blending of the instrumental voices into one voice. The same is true of choir singing.

Church singing requires sacrificial devotion, just as does any work which is done for the Church. We do it out of a sense of love for God, and for our brothers and sisters - both those who are already Orthodox and those not yet so. I often tell my choir: sing as if someone who is listening is visiting our church for the first time - it is their very first time in an Orthodox church. Or, perhaps more sobering, sing as if it is their last time in church. Sing with missionary zeal! Regardless of the language of worship, pronounce the words clearly, so that the listener will understand them; as it says in the psalms, "Sing ye praises with understanding." You don't know who is listening; perhaps there is someone in the congregation who has lost his faith and given in to despair. Perhaps the prayerful singing of tonight's Vigil will help that person to turn around and set his foot back on the path to salvation. You don't know.

I would like to end by reading to you some thoughts on Orthodox music, which were written by a 16 year-old member of our choir. If anyone still has doubts about what the benefits of singing in a choir can be, I hope that hearing this will help.

When my mother first brought me to the Russian Orthodox Church, the simplicity and absolute beauty of the music attracted me right off. The first services that I ever attended were the Slavonic ones, and I didn't understand a word that was being said. But after a few times to the church, I found myself humming along with the Lord's Prayer and the Beatitudes. Because I didn't understand Russian, the services were always a bore to me ... except for the music.

I soon learned about the English congregation of my church, and joined in with the choir to have something to do during the long Orthodox services. I couldn't stand still for two hours in a row without doing anything, so the singing provided a nice outlet for my energies during the services. I thought that since I seemed to have a slight talent for music and I had always loved singing, I might as well turn Church into something fun instead of it just being somewhere that I went on Sundays. I enjoyed singing in the services, and loved how we sounded - even on our bad days. I had never attended a choir rehearsal during the year or so of my singing, and when rehearsals became a requirement for singing in the choir, I stopped singing for a while.

One day I was standing in church, just listening to the English choir sing, when I was suddenly in tears. Like it or not, I was no longer bored in church; the music had changed from something fun to something very spiritual and moving. And I liked it very much. I realized that the music had first attracted me, then entertained me, then captured my heart. Church was no longer a place to get up early on Sunday mornings and go to ... it was now The Church and my home.

The music of the Church has done no one little thing to me, it has changed me forever and captured and bound me to the Church for the rest of my life. I was not born Orthodox, I joined the Church in third grade, but I know every time I step inside St. John's that I have found my home at last. - Larissa Sauter



You can hear the fervor and devotion that were excited in Larissa through church music. I'm hoping that we here today can approach our work as church musicians with the same fervor. May God help us to inspire each other and encourage each other, as one candle is lit by another.

The Lord tells the Apostles: Go, and teach all nations... I pray that all of us attending this conference can work together to bring the beautiful Russian Church music and, through it, the Faith of the Apostles, to the English-speaking world. May God help us in this work.

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