Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Chant thoughts

As I mentioned before, the next post was going to be related to chant and some connection of it to theology. In the end, it may sound trivial, but when feelings are getting hurt because one does not have a chance to chant or when people avoid going to chapel on certain days in order to avoid hearing a chanter, it is not as trivial as it seems. I think this is quite a good example of the little things that serve as stumbling blocks on the way to Christ - things that we, as servants of the Church, need to be mindful of. It would be easy to say that each one should search within his heart and focus on the prayer of the Church and her life as the Body of Christ when we gather together in prayer. But, in reality, it is not that easy. We all have failures, we may not be able to see our shortcomings, we may need help in overcoming them. And, if we stop and reflect on the meaning of being a Christian, being there to help in overcoming shortcomings is a defining part of our lives. How?

In the Orthodox Church, there is a lot of singing. Except for some prayers/psalms, just about everything is intoned or sung. At Holy Cross, there is a fair amount of time dedicated to the teaching of chant - six semesters of Byzantine Music are required of every seminarian. As is to be expected, some have an easier time of it than others. The question then is: how do you handle a vast array of abilities, knowledge, and sensibilities in a manner that is consistent with our identity as an Orthodox school?

One suggestion has been that, just as God welcomes everyone, we should also welcome everyone to chant the services. It would be easy to say that not everyone may be called to be a chanter. It may even be true (1 Cor. 12:29 may be somewhat relevant to this situation in regard to the different roles that we play in the community.). The problem with that is that it is often the case that priests have to do a fair amount of chanting once they are in a parish. So simply saying that one is not a good chanter and therefore should not chant is not really a viable solution - not when the priest's chanting is the object of the parishioners' scrutiny.

The simple answer then is: help them. Offer voice lessons, have ear training sessions, do whatever is needed to make sure the students can sing. To a certain extent, the school tries to do that, as well. However, in a 121.5 credit hour master's, it is almost impossible to devote any significant amount of time to that, when trying to make sure at the same time that the graduates of the school know their theology and how to apply it to everyday life. On top of that, voice and ear training can be some of the most frustrating and time-consuming activities. When I first started taking voice lessons, my teacher spent the first year (and part of the second) getting rid of my bad habits. And that was with a half-hour individual lesson each week. The ear can be even harder: unless you are gifted with a very sensitive ear, it is easy to lose concentration and to sing flat. All in all, to do it well, it takes more time and resources than this school has in the current set-up.

So is there a solution? I believe there is, but it is one that would require a community effort (I guess I could say the bearing of one another's burdens) as well as personal responsibility. I think the way to ensure that seminarians who graduate are able to chant/sing at a decent level is for those of us who are good at it to provide opportunities for those who want to become better. And just having one or two people do it will probably not be enough: the coursework is too time consuming for one or two people to be able to put in the required time. At the same time, the people who need help should want to do something about it (I've seen some impressive improvements from a couple of people in my year here, so it is possible to do something about it, even without much outside help). Otherwise, all the help in the world won't do any good. I think this would be a better example of theology in practice (as it involves both love and personal responsibility) than simply providing everyone with an opportunity regardless of the person's ability level at the time.

Will it happen? We live in an imperfect world, so I have my doubts. I will, however, try to get something started. So, if you're interested, tomorrow and Thursday after Vespers, we are practising for Sunday's Liturgy in the Holy Cross chapel.


Blogger olympiada said...

You know this is a good post, because you helped me realize I have been gifted with a sensitive ear. I learned how to read music at age 7. I am very sensitive to going flat. Now that I am in the premier choir in the Bay Area, I am the novice and I notice when I am flat. The women I sing with are amazing, all professionals. So I always check my self before I wreck my self.

11:52 PM  
Anonymous Jim N. said...


May I ask for an opinion? Our lead chanter is wonderful. Wonderful! She's done a phenominal job with those who are chanting. Since my wife started chanting, I've helped her here and there with phrasing, or breathing, or pronunciation, etc. Now, the lead chanter is under the impression that I'm a singer and has asked me to come to a chant practice and offer 'pointers'.

Heres the problem: Yes it's true I took over a year of voice lessons from an understudy at the Met in NY. However it's also true that I'm hardly a 'singer' and frankly I'd be offended if I was part of a group and someone just walked in and started telling me how to sing differently.

What should I do?

12:46 PM  
Blogger Virgil Petrisor said...


I am not an expert in human interactions. However, I wonder if your statement that you'd be offended if someone just walked in and started teling you how to sing differently is generally true, or you had an image of what that person might be like when you made it. The reason I am asking is that I can see how walking in, not listening, and then giving advice can be offensive. However, if someone sits and listens for a while and then says: "I noticed that there were a couple of times when you were short of breath. I've had some experience with singing and I was wondering if I might suggest an exercise that would help," I think that would be reasonable.

I don't know the people who are chanting at your church, so I can't speak for them. Personally, I prefer keeping my ears open and listening to advice. If it's good, I'll take it, if not, I'll ignore it (assuming, of course, I can distinguish one from the other :).

For me, humility is the key: I wouldn't try to tell people what to do differently, I would merely suggest something and leave it up to them. I think most people take suggestions fairly well - if not, you can always pray for them :).

I don't know if this quite brings across what I'm trying to say... Drop me an e-mail if it doesn't (I'm sure I left it in some comments on your blog :).

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Jim N. said...

Hey Virgil,

Thanks. You were clear! I guess I could go round the bend with this, but what would be the point (actually, I like belaboring things, I'm just too spent at the moment ;-D ). Bottom line is, I don't sing. Purposefully. I do it as quietly as possible and have politely said 'no' several times to being asked to chant. So for a non-singer to start making suggestions just seems weird. I'd have to prove myself first, no? And I'm just not going to do that at the moment.

Anyhoo, I do appreciate your kindness in replying!

11:32 PM  
Anonymous christian said...

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1:47 PM  

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