Orthodox America

  The Foundation of Church Singing: School and Prayer

by Catherine Stade

I am the 28th graduate of the Summer School of Liturgical Music at Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, New York. For each of the past three summers I have spent a little more than two weeks at the monastery, studying our heritage of Russian Orthodox music and learning, little by little, how to direct a church choir. The intensive schedule of instruction during the courses has been invaluable in beginning to tap the fountain of Orthodox knowledge and tradition concerning our Divine services. I have learned many things from each of the excellent teachers at the summer school and give them all a heartfelt "Thank you" for their beautiful dedication to our Orthodox faith. Yet the overall experience of simply being at the monastery and interacting outside of class with teachers, students, and monastics has been the most valuable of all. I have been enriched not only academically through these courses, but also emotionally and spiritually. The whole experience has been a major step in my life-long dream of becoming a church choir director.

The first summer of my studies at Jordanville was probably the most difficult in terms of becoming used to the rigorous daily schedule. That year I came with the choir director from our parish in Missouri, Carol Surgant, and my good friend, Genevieve Holland, the choir director at St. Nicholas Church in Dallas, Texas. The next year Genevieve and I drove up together; this summer I came by myself. Being at the courses with good friends made everything so much easier, especially the first year when I was still shy and nervous about what to expect. The summer school is a unique and beautiful way to become acquainted with other Orthodox Christians from all over the United States, Canada, even Australia and, this year, Costa Rica.

Almost all of the students stay at the monastery guesthouse, except for the seminarians and a few who elect to stay with the nuns at the community of Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Each morning begins early with people lining up for the few shower rooms and collecting school belongings. Those who have strength go to  6 a.m. Liturgy at the monastery. It is a very short drive to the  monastery, and some prefer to walk. It is still early, the heat has not yet become aggressive, and wildflowers bloom in profusion against the backdrop of the monastery's golden domes shining in the sun. At the monastery's summer kitchen, students gather for breakfast prepared by Matushka Natasha Papkova and her helpers. We compare notes on the previous night's studying and share our hopes and worries for the coming day. Classes start promptly at 8 a.m., as first-year students soon learn when they come straggling in for Church Music History with Dr. Olga Dolskaya-Ackerly (who begins at 7:55 a.m.), struggling to balance a quick cup of coffee with their heavy book bags. Music History is one of the most intense classes of all. The lectures are packed with information that one would not learn in any university: of the history and development of Russian sacred music from the 14th century to modern times. The first lecture of my first year ended with Dr. Dolskaya playing a recording of "O Tebe Raduetsia" (In Thee rejoiceth) by Nikolai Danilin (1878-1945) as we left the classroom. I remember tears welling up in my eyes. For years, even as a child, I had been interested in church choir directing and had dreamed of becoming one. This seemed such a beautiful way for one who is musically inclined to give his talents to God and to serve our Church. And here finally was a school, held at the main monastery of our Church Abroad, where young people are encouraged to devote their energies to adorning the services of the Orthodox Church, are taught the majestic cycle of the Orthodox life, the typicon, the eight-tone cycle, and are given musical training and practical advice. In addition to all this, I felt a great sense of solidarity with all the other students and teachers, all of whom had gathered for the same reason. This was so comforting to me and to many of us who have spent years far away from the community of other parishes. Hearing that one piece of music as we left the classroom, surrounded by portraits of our church's hierarchs and holy icons, brought all of this home to me in a sudden strong feeling of gratitude to God and fierce determination to continue serving Him in this way, no matter what obstacles might arise.

Other classes are Musicianship, taught by Matushka Joanna Grigoriev; Music Theory, taught by Dr. Olga Dolskaya-Ackerly; and Church Slavonic, taught by Dr. Joseph McLellan. Musicianship and music theory are good introductory courses, but, as all the teachers point out, they cannot take the place of systematic study of these subjects in regular college or university classes. I, and many other students, have learned this from experience. It is much less stressful at the summer school if one has already taken some basic music courses elsewhere. Then the music classes become more enjoyable, interesting, and thought-provoking instead of despair-provoking. Slavonic is a class that drives many to tears at least once, especially those who have never studied Russian. Yet it is extremely fascinating and useful-also for Russian speakers who have gone to church all their life and have always had questions about the meaning of particular words and phrases. Most leave the courses feeling greatly enriched by a new understanding of the sacred texts.

The other three academic classes are Choral Methods, taught by Nicholas Alexeevich Myshkin, Liturgical Performance Practice, taught by Fr. André Papkov (who is also the Director of the School), and Liturgics, taught by Dr. Joseph McLellan. Choral Methods is based on the textbook for choral conducting by Pavel  Chesnokov (1877-1944), The Choir and How To Direct It, and is a wonderful introduction to a great Russian master's view of conducting in the Orthodox church. Fr. Andre's class is very helpful to those who have questions concerning the technical side of how services should be done, and how they are actually done at various centers of our church. This course covers reading in church, common abbreviations allowed in parish practice, standard choral repertoire in the Church Abroad, and communication between clergy and choir directors. Next year there will begin a new curriculum which will also include systematic learning of all the tones: troparion, stichirion, irmosi, and special melodies. When I was attending the school, learning the tones was more of an individual effort and often students could be found in various corners practicing or testing each other. I had many good conversations which began in this way! Liturgics or Typicon class is a favorite with many students and is essential in learning the basic order of services, from a normal Vespers on Saturday evening to weekday services in Great Lent. I saw for the first time how majestic and heavenly is our Orthodox cycle of church services and that there is great art and beauty in the way that the cycles overlap and intertwine with each other.

The remaining classes in the school day are choir practice and voice class. Anatoly Ivanovich Panchoshny is the voice teacher, a professional singer and voice pedagogue. Every day the whole school has a general voice class all together; students are also encouraged to take short private lessons daily. Voice lessons have been of tremendous help in my own singing, and especially in subsequent work with the choir back at home. Learning how to breathe correctly is the foundation of Anatoly Ivanovich's method, included with the correct posture for singing, the internal mechanism of vocal cords and diaphragm, and exactly how to place one's voice. All of these things have helped to improve the sound of the choir at our church in House Springs, Missouri, for none of us are professional singers. This class encouraged me, a person who has an average, not outstanding voice, to hope that my voice could improve, and that I could teach our choir members how to have more sustaining power in their voices and not tire easily. Nikolai Alexeevich Myshkin teaches choral conducting and leads the daily choir rehearsals. There is time each day for four students and Nikolai Alexeevich to work with the choir. It is a very constructive but also nerve-racking experience to try to conduct a rehearsal under the watchful and critical eye of an experienced conductor, and this class can be very intimidating, especially for new conductors who have never stood in front of a 35-voice choir before. When, during my second year, I conducted for the first time, I was extremely nervous, and spent much time the following year preparing to do it again. This summer, as part of the graduating class, I had to conduct almost every day in preparation for the conducting exam. I chose a piece of Aleksandr Kastal'sky (1856-1926), his "O Joyous Light" No. 1 in Slavonic. I had never conducted such a difficult piece and was uncertain as to whether the choir could learn it and be able to perform it in only two weeks under my inexperienced direction. But thanks to the tremendous help of Nikolai Alexeevich and Anatoly Ivanovich, this was accomplished. It was a wonderful experience for me, both humbling and inspiring. It was the first time I had ever felt such rapport with a choir, all of whom were supportive and helpful and worked hard to achieve a beautiful sound. The graduation exam performance was one of the most memorable moments of my whole experience at the Jordanville music school. In reviewing the course material and seeing the extremely intense schedule of classes, more than eight hours a day, one soon realizes that there is much more to learn than one can absorb in three summers. At some point everyone feels overwhelmed by the incredible amount of information to be learned. The school is designed to give a good introduction to the most crucial subjects of Orthodox choir conducting and then it is up to the individual to continue his education on his own.

Going to the beautiful monastery services, confessing, and partaking of the Holy Mysteries is a great relief and comfort for all the students, as well as a help to one's spiritual life. In addition to this, many students go daily to the small shrine of St. Seraphim of Sarov to ask for his prayers and help. I would like to give my heartfelt gratitude to Holy Trinity Monastery for its support for the school. It must be hard on the monks for so many lay people to be at the monastery for two whole weeks, studying and singing late at night. Yet the atmosphere of the monastery is crucial for church singers to understand that prayer is the foundation of church music and of the Orthodox services, not beauty of sound, knowledge, or musical training. It is vitally important for budding choir directors to see a life of prayer being carried out before their very eyes during their church education. Also, I would again like to thank Fr. André Papkov for his tireless labor in founding the school, organizing it, and doing the countless administrative tasks involved.

The Summer School of Liturgical Music can be difficult and intense. Yet it is so rewarding in such a host of ways that I am sorry to have finished. I have made several very dear friends through going to this school and have been able to spend a little more then six weeks at Holy Trinity Monastery, something which would not otherwise have been possible for someone who lives over 1,000 miles away. Most importantly, I feel infinitely more equipped to stand up in front of a church choir and know what to do. It will be a lifelong process of learning to become a good director, but this school of Orthodox church music will have been the biggest step along the way.

Glory to God for all things!

Catherine Stade is assistant choir director at St. John Chrysostom Russian Orthodox Church, House Springs, Missouri, where she also helps her father at Chrysostom Press.