Promoting Harmony in the Choir

Peacemaking in the Parish

by James Chater

On the first Sunday of Lent, the Sunday of Orthodoxy, we hear in the Gospel reading how Jesus recruited his disciples. Addressing Himself to Nathaniel, Jesus says: “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you!” Jesus’ foreknowledge of Nathaniel’s approach moves the latter to his joyful affirmation of Jesus as the Son of God. Jesus replies: “You will see greater things than these… hereafter you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (John 1:50-51).

The Sunday of Orthodoxy also commemorates the triumph over iconoclasm and the restoration of the veneration of icons. Icons, like the ladder to which Jesus compares Himself in his exchange with Nathaniel, provide a bridge linking heaven and earth. The liturgical texts and their musical clothing also constitute a ladder, a bridge between heaven and earth, along which an exchange is carried out between God and his creatures. Our services re-enact and relive God’s Word and his loving actions towards us, and our prayers and celebration reflect these back in repentance and thanksgiving. God descends to us, so that we can ascend to Him.

But each ladder has a dark side. As the icons of St. John Climacus remind us, wherever there is a ladder, there is the danger of being dragged from it by demons. And the ladder that music provides can be especially slippery. It is a well-known fact that music is often a bone of contention in parishes. There is the saying: “The devil makes his entry into the church through the choir.”

In many parishes, musical issues can be a source of heated argument because of passionately held opposing views and tastes, and sensitive, easily bruised egos. Music is capable of projecting great spiritual power, and in the New Testament we often read how the presence of great spiritual power attracts evil. One only has to think of Jesus’ encounters with those possessed by demons, or the slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination who harassed St. Paul (Acts 16:16-18). Problems with music within a parish are often related to wider problems, so let us now stand back and try to understand how these problems can affect music.

Each parish has its growing pains. Parishes start out small: typically the founding members consist of the priest and his family plus several other families. In such a situation, the priest not only directs things himself but also often carries out several of the tasks himself. Delegation is not a complicated issue, as there are few people to delegate to, and the number of possible human interactions is limited. The picture changes when the parish attracts new members – converts from the host country and immigrants choir from abroad. Ideally the new members integrate, find their place in the church and participate in all the tasks that have to be carried out. This requires more delegation and more communication, as the number of possible human interactions increases. I know one former “family” parish that is now flourishing as a large parish because of the high degree of lay participation that was initiated when the clergy realized that they could not and should not do everything themselves. However, it can happen that the leaders of the church do not adapt fast enough to the new situation. The leaders and the small group of old-timers remain closely bound to each other and the more recent arrivals form another group. Loyalties and allegiances develop independently of the priest and the old-timers. The danger arises of opposing factions forming, one supporting the parish leadership and the other opposing it, or at least feeling alienated from it.

An attendant danger is that newcomers will feel that their talents are under-used. They may feel, rightly or wrongly, that they are as well qualified to read the Epistle, for example, as the person who has been doing it for the last ten years. The gift of discerning other people’s gifts is as rare as it is crucial for a well-functioning parish. However, this does not always happen: one of the greatest forms of waste in our parishes (and indeed in our society) is the failure to assign tasks to the people best fitted to perform them.

This is an issue which needs to be addressed, especially by the clergy. There is a clear pastoral necessity not only for discerning, encouraging and developing the gifts of newcomers but in explaining to the old-timers how their role should be changing as the parish grows.

In practical terms, this may mean getting that person who has been reading the Epistle for the last ten years to select and train two or three other people for this task. Conversely, it is also the responsibility of newcomers to offer their gifts in the service of the Church.

In my experience (restricted to parishes in England, France and the Netherlands), I note we often do a poor job in attracting and developing musical talent in our churches. This is due to a number of factors, including issues of church governance, lack of training, discouragement and a culture of excessive conservatism. Let me give some examples. A new person wants to join the choir, but no one is available, capable or willing to train that person; after floundering about with neumes and wrestling with the eight tones for a few weeks, that person drifts away. Or an aspiring newcomer to the choir is simply terrified by the director, a formidable person who speaks fluent Russian, sings in perfect Slavonic and is severely critical of anyone who doesn’t come up to his/her level. That person leaves the choir and perhaps even the parish. Or a musically trained person wishes to contribute more to the music, but is considered “too intelligent.”

It can happen that a good musician is rebuffed because he or she is seen as a threat to those in charge, and so the very people needed to raise standards are put off and may be driven to find musical fulfilment outside the church. You then have a vicious circle of deteriorating standards, limited repertoire, tolerance of poor singing driving good musicians away, thereby intensifying the problem still more. How do you turn that round into a virtuous circle? How as a choir director do you send out a message that you are serious about a varied repertoire, high standards and a high level of alertness and commitment on the part of the singers, thereby attracting better singers, raising standards further, and attracting even better singers?

I do not claim to have the answer to all these questions, but a crucial part of the answer lies with the choir director, at least in the Russian tradition, with which I am most familiar. This extremely demanding role requires a variety of gifts. The most important is that he or she should have a good relationship with the priest. (Perhaps for this reason, this role is often filled by the wife of the priest.) A good priest will not attempt to micro-manage the singing, and will leave the director to run the choir as he or she thinks fit, restricting himself to broad guidelines. No one should be expected to assume the role of choir director unless they have a free hand in the choice of repertoire and of singers and the detailed direction of the choir. The golden rule here is: never accept responsibility without authority.

In addition, there are at least four gifts a choir director should possess. First, this person should have a strong faith and be an integral member of the parish. Secondly, he or she should know the services. Third, musical literacy is required, including at least good sight-singing and score-reading. Fourth, such a person must be able to get on with people, combining tact with firm leadership.

Strong faith, knowledge of the services, musical literacy and interpersonal skills – how many of us, I wonder, know any choir directors who possess all these qualities? Personally, I know very few. For this reason I think choirs should, where possible, be directed by some form of joint leadership which would combine the abilities of several musicians, making available a number of complementary skills. To paraphrase St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (12:44ff):

There are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. … for to one is given the ability to memorize the order of service, to another the gift of a beautiful voice, to another the gift of composing and arranging, to another the gift of rehearsing and correcting intonation problems…

In regions where there is a shortage of musical talent, we should not always expect a choir director to possess all these gifts. A discerning choir director will recognize his or her limitations and delegate.

Delegation implies sharing, and the concept of shared leadership is well established in the choir of one parish I know, with some success. In this parish a group of about two or three people take it in turns to direct the choir during services, under the overall supervision of one choir director. This has at least three advantages: it encourages greater participation, it maximizes the use of available talent, and it means that potential future choir directors are being trained continuously.

One common source of tension in choirs and parishes is persistent bad singing on the part of one singer. The difficulty here is that it may concern someone with whom most people in the parish are on very familiar terms. Usually the problem is poor intonation, but it can sometimes be a bad habit such as a glissando between every note.

Often the director lacks the willingness or the ability to help the singer overcome bad habits, which is then talked about behind the singer’s back. Thus a lie is introduced into the parish music, one that grows larger over time. Some may say: our prayers are addressed to God, so if it sounds disagreeable to the human ear, it doesn’t matter. I think this view is profoundly mistaken, and in support of this I would invoke the two-way ladder image with which I began. It is not only that we are addressing God, but also that God is speaking to us.

Singing standards do matter; however, this is an obvious case where both firmness and tact are required from the choir leader. Only after persistent efforts to solve the problem have failed, and only after an attempt has been made to make the singer realize and correct the problems he or she is causing, should that person be asked to leave the choir.

In my paraphrase of St. Paul I mentioned one gift that is rarely talked about in the countries where I have served as a church musician: composing. In recent years the services have become available in English, French, Dutch and other West European languages. However, new music based on native-language translations of liturgical texts is hardly ever to be heard in the parishes of western Europe.

When the issue is raised it is sometimes pointed out that there is as yet no universally recognized translation which could serve as the text for these new settings. However, I do not think this is as great an obstacle as some people think. There are pastoral factors to be considered when introducing new or unfamiliar music. The purpose of music is to help the faithful to pray; indeed, church is prayer. But the choir will not be able to support the prayer, or pray themselves, if they are confused or stressed. Any changes in repertoire should therefore be introduced gradually.

Congregational singing is one point to consider. Most congregations have members, particularly older members, who know the services almost by heart, and who are likely to be disturbed if a melody they do not know is introduced. Part of the problem here is that in our services there is no hard and fast distinction between parts of the service reserved for the choir and moments where the congregation is expected to sing.

Nevertheless, in places like the Trisagion or the Our Father, where the congregation often sings, it seems a good idea to consult the congregation when introducing new settings. This can be done by announcing proposed changes and arranging meetings where the congregation (led by the choir) can be introduced to the new music. (Let me note that a varied repertoire is contrary to some church music traditions, which have prescribed melodies for almost every circumstance. In practice, however, small parishes use only a minuscule portion of the available music, so the repertoire could be expanded a great deal by introducing a greater proportion of the traditional music.)

To sum up: discernment of gifts, sharing, delegation and consultation emerge as some of the factors that play a role in dispelling tension both in the parish and on the kliros. Indeed, being called to serve as a musician in the church means, ipso facto, being called to collaborate, to share.

James Chater studied music at the University of Oxford, where he obtained his BA (1973) and D.Phil. (1980). He has sung in the choirs of Orthodox churches in Amsterdam and Deventer (the Netherlands) and London. He has written several articles about the history of music, and has composed and arranged music for liturgical use in the Orthodox Church. Some of his work has been performed in Finland and Russia.

In Communion number 44 / Winter 2007