In part one of this series, I outlined the argument that Orthodox liturgical singing, given that it is above all else an offering to God, is a privilege, a craft, and a discipline. In part two, I tried to suggest, at least in broad strokes, ways to approach building a practice of excellence within the Orthodox musical tradition.
Here in part three, I want to talk about musicians specifically. It very much seems to me that the role of a musician qua musician is poorly understood in our parishes; we sort of understand the need for composers (who are worth their own post), and we kind of understand that there should probably be somebody ostensibly singing the things that are supposed to be sung on a given day so that we know what’s going on, but the idea that at least some of the people singing should have some idea of what they’re doing is, in my experience, reflexively met with confusion at best and hostility at worst. I had a conversation with somebody once where they told me, “Well, I think the ideal should be the monks on Mt. Athos. They do what they do better than anybody else, but they just do it instinctively and naturally because it’s what they do, rather than with any kind of self-conscious attempt to do it well. As soon as it becomes a self-conscious act of skill, it becomes performance rather than worship.” I acknowledge that there’s something attractive about the romantic idea of unaffected, unpracticed, effortless authenticity, but it’s no more true on Mt. Athos than it is on the stage of Carnegie Hall, as Tore Tvarnø Lind’s fascinating book explores (you can read my review in Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies, Vol. 53 Nos. 1-2, and some additional thoughts here).
There have been those who have told me with all sincerity that they ultimately don’t think a musician has much place in an Orthodox parish. A musician is something too professionalized, too self-conscious, too calculated, and too exclusive to work in what parishes in America are trying to achieve. I suggest this is roughly equivalent to saying an architect shouldn’t design Orthodox churches.
Somewhat parenthetically — I recently encountered a choral website recently that listed the following as “keys to success” for those who sing in church choirs:
V. Hard work, hard work, hard work…
I look at this list and I think to myself, how is this any different from the characteristics of what we seek to achieve in our setting? Perhaps there are those who might object to the first item, but it seems to me that the liturgical arts presuppose some level of talent. I have no talent for painting or drawing, therefore I don’t attempt iconography or architecture, for example. II, III, and IV strike me as being fundamental components of Orthodox Christianity’s self-image. Item V… well, I’ve heard the objection that somebody isn’t a musician, therefore any kind of practice or working at it won’t do them any good or they just don’t need to, but from my own experience, I would say that the less of item I you have, the more, not less, you need item V. (But having gobs of talent doesn’t rob you of the need to work at it either — in fact, then it’s really your responsibility to put in the effort.)
All of that said —
Principle #3: Musicians are your friends. They are the ones trained to think about how musical matters need to be addressed, much as how an iconographer is the one trained to know how something is supposed to work with an icon or an architect is the one trained to know how to design a building. If they hear something you can’t, that’s a good thing; that means that they’re doing their job.
I have been privy to a lot of arguments related to these kinds of matters over the years. There was one over the point of needing to turn the page when one got to the end of it. “Well, you’re a musician, you think that way,” was the counter-argument. “You can’t expect everybody to know that.” I’m familiar with a case where the choir director was talking in rehearsal about such things as the need to stand so that one could see the director and the music, and somebody walked out, saying that they couldn’t handle the “obsessing over meaningless details.” Basically, there seems to be a presumption, at least in some circles, that if you’re a musician, your judgment needs to be actively discounted, to say nothing, probably, of being altogether ignored, when it comes to musical matters in the Church.
This is, frankly, nonsense. Music is a Tradition of Orthodox Christianity. While one may argue that national musical repertoires constitute ethnic custom rather than “Big-T Tradition” (a categorization I don’t like, for many reasons), singing is not. Our services are appointed to be mostly sung, and while talent may certainly be a factor, singing is nonetheless a learned ability, and regardless of the repertoire, there are ways of doing it that are better than others. You have a priest who has a certain training in spiritual and sacramental matters; you have church musicians who are trained in musical and liturgical matters. This is a good thing. You want musicians to be in the position of making music in the Church. These are the people who will be at every service, who will take the time to prepare what is to be sung, and who will give attention to seeing that it is as beautifully done as possible. These are the people who will teach your children to sing. These are the people who teach you to sing if you’ll let them. If you’re stuck on wanting it to be “worship and not performance”, I will tell you that that’s a false dichotomy. Incense, for example, has a liturgical function and it smells good. It is supposed to do both; it is supposed to smell good because it has a liturgical function, and it has a liturgical function by virtue of it smelling good. If it smells bad, it is not suitable for liturgical use. It is the same with music. If we were to make the arguments about incense some make about music, we might say that it would actually be more prayerful for incense to smell like cow dung from time to time. Hopefully it’s clear that such an idea is ridiculous on its face; so, why does it seem like there is so much handwringing about this when it comes to music?
- Principle #3a: The best musicians will also be able to teach the non-musician how to do it properly. Let them.
- Principle #3b: In the same way that you would expect to pay an iconographer or an architect, expect to pay your cantor/choir director. The worker is worthy of his wages. If this is simply not an option, then there needs to be some way that the value of the cantor’s job is expressed.
This was something that rubbed some people the wrong way, to be sure. Well, if it’s a musician’s service to God, why in the world would we pay them, and why would they accept money for it in the first place?
Okay, fine. If that logic holds, why would we ever pay priests? Why would we ever pay iconographers? Why would we ever pay anybody? Why don’t we expect to get candles and vestments for free? Why don’t we expect to not have to pay our archdiocese for liturgical books? (It perhaps should be noted that under Justinian, Hagia Sophia had a paid staff of over 500, including 25 singers and 100 readers.) Now, I’ve actually heard an Orthodox architect — nobody associated with Orthodox Arts Journal — tell me that it is simply the economic reality that many Orthodox parishes are in fact accustomed to getting most of everything they need for a substantial discount or for nothing, and that even architects routinely wind up donating their services, either intentionally or unintentionally, simply by the nature of how some parishes operate. If you’re the parish, this person tells me, you can’t really afford to approach such deals assuming you will pay market price, and if you’re the architect, at least it’s a tax write-off when it happens. Be that as it may — is that really the model that we should be holding up for how one values the liturgical arts of the Church?
My firstborn son was baptized recently. A good friend of mine provided a particular service for the baptism, and in fact went to a lot of trouble and expense to be there so so that they could contribute this service. I made sure I included a check in this person’s thank-you card for what I understand to have been the going rate for such things; as I told this person, when they protested that they weren’t charging me anything, “You didn’t charge me. It’s simply the right thing to do.” It’s the same thing for our musicians. We should want to make sure that it’s understood that there is a value associated with the service provided. Somebody who has taken the trouble to learn a craft in the service of the Church, and who is actively putting it to use in a leadership role, should not be taken advantage of; they should know that their contribution, sacrifice, time, and skill is valued. If that makes it too much like a “job” for the comfort of some of us, well, so what? Is the priest’s service to a parish somehow devalued because he’s paid a salary?
What I’m not saying in all of this is, “Everybody needs to have a Masters in Voice Performance from the Eastman School of Music to sing in the choir, and everybody who sings needs to be getting a full time salary.” That’s not at all what I’m saying; I’m an Indiana grad anyway; I’d never endorse Eastman.
(Although, I do think at some point it would be useful for more established parishes to ponder the notion of “endowments”. Still, that will have to wait for a different discussion.)
What I am saying, rather, is this: musicians put in a lot of time and effort and expense to learn how to do what they do. That they have done this should not automatically mean that their judgment in musical and liturgical matters ought to be marginalized on account being “a musician” (with the implied consequence often seeming to be, “…and therefore not one of us normal people”). Most of them are seeking to make practical and faithful liturgical and musical choices as best as they can on musical and liturgical grounds. Most of them do a job for less than minimum wage that the equivalent person at, say, an Anglican parish would be getting at least a half-time salary for, if not better. What I’m saying, really, is simply that if the Church’s music is truly valued as a liturgical craft, without which our services would be something quite different, then we should make it a goal to treat it that way, and to treat the people who serve in such ministry as though they are in fact providing a valued service to the Church.
And, yes, I’m a church musician writing all of this. One could argue that it is all very self-serving for a musician to say such things. What I have found, however, is that if nobody ever talks about these issues, many will otherwise have no idea.
Coming up in the next installment: what was that point about “hard work, hard work, hard work” again…?