The Orthodox Educator interviewed Mr. David Drillock and Mrs. Helen Erickson, professors of liturgical music and choir directors at St. Vladimir's Seminary, to see how Church Music and, particularly, the Choir contribute educationally and spiritually to the upbuilding of the Church. The following text is an edited transcription of the interview.
Orthodox Educator: You are familiar with our " Educators in the Church " series. We are interested today in exploring how the choir functions as an Educator of the worshipping community.
David Drillock: Well, to begin with, we must take an historical look at the function of the singer in the Church, namely the psaltis, the reader of the psalms or the leader of the choir. In the early church, the psaltis was a member of the minor orders; there was even an " ordination " or blessing, setting him aside to perform his function. If we look at the troparia appointed to be sung at that service, all three verses refer to the function of the psaltis or choir director as that of an Educator or teacher. The first refers to St. John Chrysostom who taught not only through his words, which illuminated the whole universe, but also through his example of humility. The second, addressed to St. Basil, states that by hearing his teaching we learn divine doctrines; it also affirms that he has given a noble rule of life for men. And the third, addressed to St. Gregory, says that having searched for the things of the spirit, he (St. Gregory) has been bestowed with divine theology and the grace of proclamation. Each of these saints, of course, is known as a writer or contributor to the texts of the liturgies we celebrate in our church today. This is how the Church sees the function of the psaltis, not as a singer primarily, but as a teacher.
Helen Erickson: Another aspect which is relevant here-and it is clearly implied in these troparia-is the manner of life which the choir director or choir member should lead in order to be an example to others. Of the regulations that have come out of the councils of the Church, there are canons which state that singers are not to be disorderly or immoral in the conduct of their lives but have the responsibility to behave as proper Christians-to be an example.
Drillock: Yes, it's interesting that the canons of the earlier councils don't speak of the quality of voice of the choir director or cnanter, but, as Helen said, speak primarily of his moral character, his example in following the fasting rules of the Church, and the requirement that his family be members of the Church. Regulations for the chanters are in some ways very similar to those applied to the higher clergy. Therefore, if choir members today act as a collective body in fulfilling the function of the psalm-singers, then those same regulations or norms should apply to them.
Erickson: I think we can add to this a practical comment on the behavior of choir members during church services. If the choir is functioning as a leader of worship, then choir members who are not paying attention or are wandering around or chewing gum, etc. do not fulfill their role as Educator in the Church. They, in fact, are being detrimental for they are conveying a false teaching.
Educator: If we focus on the teaching responsibility of choir members in the Church, in what ways is this responsibility carried out, especially in the services?
Drillock: To fulfill his teaching function-which is his primary responsibility-the choir member must understand the nature of the different hymns of the Church and how they should be sung, for he is charged with the proper performance of the hymns in the services. This is his task, not the task of the priest or deacon. Education in the liturgy occurs primarily through hymnography. For example, in Vespers, the stikhera or hymns sung after Psalm 141-142 ( " Lord I call upon Thee " ) contain the teaching content of the service. And the hymns sung on Saturday evening at the end of these stikhera is even called the " dogmatikon " for it is a hymn revealing the dogmatic teaching of the Church on the Incarnation of Christ.
Educator: How then is this teaching inhibited or enhanced by the choir?
Erickson: Well, this involves both a technical as well as a spiritual dimension, including even the personal piety of the choir director or choir members. If the choir members see their roles as that of " performers, " and the service as a " concert " in which they have an opportunity to display their technical skills, then this can be a real source of conflict, especially when the choir director understands their function in the sense in which we have been speaking. Decisions taken on the choice of arrangements which either enhance the words being sung, or minimize them by the text, are very important. Both choir directors and singers are responsible in this regard. If their intent is to demonstrate their vocal abilities, then the teaching may be blurred by the compositional setting selected.
Drillock: For example, in the early authentic chant forms of the Church, in the setting of stikhera and troparia-the teaching hymns-you seldom find the repetition of words or phrases, as so often occurs in the more elaborate settings of the 18th and 19th centuries. In fact, in some of these compositions there is repetition even of syllables-for example, the Bortniansky setting of " Let God Arise. " This hymn is a teaching hymn on the meaning of Pascha, but such arrangements overshadow the text.
Erickson: It is also important to consider, however, that we do live in the 20th century and we just can't return to the 12th century in an attempt to simply reproduce it. But what must be remembered is that initially the music and words were a unity. They were not treated as separate elements. For example, the practice in many parishes of reading the stikhera on " Lord I call " is simply foreign to the Orthodox tradition; likewise, if these same stikhera are presented in unrecognizable settings, this is also not in the tradition. A second point is that some people feel it is not necessary or not a priority for the services to be beautiful. But singers have a real responsibility to make the services beautiful. This goes back to our Judaic heritage-the services were intended to be beautiful. This is the responsibility of the choir, and if someone wants to sing in the church but is tone deaf or unable to sing properly, then that person has the responsibility to seek help and to learn the necessary technical skills to be able to add to that beauty and not detract from it.
Drillock: It is true that some people today consider this aspect of beauty something frivolous and even detrimental to prayer. However, even the Fathers of the Church did not agree with such an attitude. In our liturgical tradition, the whole development of the rite was an attempt to make the most perfect service to God. And certainly we believe that when we gather together as the worshipping community, as the Church, it is to make present the Kingdom of God. And in the presence of God we see that His Kingdom is all perfect. The description of the throne of God in the Bible is exactly that of angels continually singing His praises. One of the reasons why poetry-and music is poetry-is used is because it is the most ordered, the most perfect, the most beautiful expression of human speech.
Erickson: Poetry is also a more comprehensive form of presentation. I n other words, when you're dealing with obviously didactic material in a form that has aesthetic elements, you are dealing with the complete words. In poetry you have the fulness of words, a blend of reason and emotion, an expression of the wholeness of what man has to offer in both mind and spirit. The idea therefore that we should read the verses " so that everyone can understand " misses the point. The text here goes beyond mere understanding.
Educator: In other words, the symbolic form such as the word in poetry helps us to go beyond the words. The form itself-in poetryand musichas an element that takes us beyond mere explanation and helps us to recognize in them the presence and Word of God Himself which we may not fully comprehend. It leads us beyond the rational dimension into a mystical dimension.
Erickson: Yes, that's true. Another aspect of the musical form is that it always has been used to help people remember.
Drillock: As does poetry. When words are presented in a certain organized form with rhythm and tempo, it is easier to remember both the words and their content.
Erickson: Think of how many troparia you remember because you can sing them. The combination of poetry and music enables us both to remember as well as to sense a wider meaning of the words themselves, to sense even the presence of God whom we glorify through the words.
Educator. But don't we have to be careful also not to misunderstand what we mean by beauty? The priest or choir can also become so obsessed with beauty and splendor, etc. that it can go to the other extreme.
Drillock: Yes, that is why we need to clarify our definition of beauty. Beautycan't be based simply on subjective taste or a particular style, or be limited to a style from a particular historical period. Chant in the church-and I do not mean by chant solely a monophonic form of singing-is based on a liturgical tradition. In a liturgical community, different hymns have different functions and, consequently, different styles. Hymns sung during processions were always in a different style than the hymns used for teaching, such as the stikhera or troparia.
Erickson: The key here is the question of subjectivity. Artistic decisions that are made tend to be subjective; therefore it is important to know the tradition in order to have some criteria for those decisions.
Drillock: When we look at the early chant tradition in the Byzantine period before kalophonic music, and in the Russian period, especially the developed Znamenny chant in the 15th and 16th centuries, the chant is not constructed by a composer as an expression of his individual piety. It is really a compilation or reweaving of existing motifs to make the best musical line or the smoothest setting of a textual line. And that's why the liturgical chant-which Prof. Gardner calls the canonical chant of the Church-is the best suited for liturgical worship, because these chants have the most perfect combination of melody and text.
Erickson: It's an iconographic tradition, similar to the tradition of icons. The people involved in church music were very conscious of this. There is a divine prototype, as we see from the Trisagion ( " Holy God " ) and the sanctus ( " Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord of Sabbath " ) (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). In the Byzantine period, there was the story of a boy who, in the midst of a procession in the 6th century, was caught up into the heavens and heard the angels sing. When he returned, he recounted the manner in which the song was sung. I think that in the chant, the early writers of church music sought what they thought was closest to God in the tradition.
Educator: In what ways do choir members need to be educated for their function? How can the choir rehearsal be used more effectively to educate the choir in the meaning of the texts they sing?
Drillock: Obviously a choir member needs to have a certain amount of musical proficiency. Erickson: I think if you are serious about singing in the Church, you take it as your responsibility to improve the technical abilities you do have, e.g. sight-reading, pronunciation, singing, etc.
Drillock: Perhaps the most overlooked area in the technical training of our choirs is diction, vocal pronunciation. Even though a hymn is being sung in English, one may not often recognize the words, not because of the type of music being used but because of poor pronunciation or diction. The second area that is overlooked is that of the choir's function. Most choir members do not understand that their primary function in worship is that of teaching. The members of the ladies auxiliary know very well what their function is in the church; the parish council members are well aware of their function; but the choir's function-teaching and leading others in glorification of God-is generally misunderstood. Generally, choir members judge their singing in church by how well it was performed or how well they " liked " the composition. It's even natural that they should think this way, but that's not the point. To see their role as one of teaching is one of our most important tasks today.
Educator: Going back to your earlier point on the technical aspects, in what other ways can words be obscured besides by poor pronunciation?
Erickson: The other ways depend even more on the choir director. The director needs to know how to divide phrases of verses so that they make sense. He needs to know which consonants tend to disappear, such as I's, m's, n's, to know the voiced and unvoiced consonants, and to work on these things in rehearsal. Forexample, how many times do the words " life-giver " come out sounding " lie-giver " when the choir sings them? There is also the area of interpretation of the music by the choir director-the choice of tempo, or the use of extreme pianissimos followed by extreme fortissimos-which often results in overdramatization. For example, even some of the music on our Divine Liturgy record, though it is fine for a recording, would be unsuitable if sung inexactly the same way in church.
Educator: Even choir members, though, have a responsibility, especially where the choir director may be inexperienced or have little training, to recognize when they are singing too loudly, too fast, or if their section is out of balance with the rest of the choir r. It is not just the job of the choir director to be aware of these things.
Educator: Who then is involved as the teacher of the choir? To what degree is the priest responsible for the training of the choir?
Drillock: Certainly the choir director is responsible in that he should be qualified to raise the technical level of the choir. And, if we looktothe canons of the Church and apply them to our situation today, it is clear that the director has a liturgical function as teacher-and one cannot teach what one does not know. Consequently, the choir director himself has to be prepared toteach others. But even more important is the divorce today between the choir director and/orchoirand the priest. I can't imagine a choir rehearsal taking place without the presence and participation of the priest for at least part of the rehearsal.
Erickson: Part of the problem is that often the priest and choir director think in terms of a division of labor between themselves-the priest is in the altar and takes care of that area, and the choir director is in the choir loft and takes care of his area, neither one " gets in the way " of the other.
Drillock: It wouldn't be so critical if the choir director were trained in theology and liturgical music in a Seminary. But the fact today is that most of our choir directors do not have such training. Therefore the presence of the priest is very important for the proper teaching to take place.
Erickson: If the priest and choir director work together, they can establish a group of people in the parish who have a greater liturgical and theological knowledge of what's happening in the church. They can educate in almost an indirect way because the content is all there in the texts of the services. It doesn't mean that the priest has to come into the choir rehearsal to give a 15-20 minute sermon. If the priest is present during the rehearsal or if the choir director has the theological knowledge, they can make one small comment about a piece and what place it has in the service. Over 20 years with several small comments made during each rehearsal, you end up with a group of people who really have some knowledge of the Church and of their function in liturgical worship. They are then able to share this knowledge with others in their families, with children, etc.
Educator: Can you elaborate on how the choir members can be helped to understand more fully the texta they sing?
Drillock: I think it is important that, before any hymn is practiced, the choir director say something about when the hymn is sung, what is the form of the hymn (troparion, kontakion, psalm, etc.), and point out the key words in the text that contain the essential meaning of it. One of the disadvantages of books such as those we've published, where everything is in order and you only have to turn the page, is that people can go for years without knowing the difference between a psalm or a troparion, a hymn or a canticle from the scriptures, unless the choir director does this kind of teaching.
Erickson: The related point here is that most people who have been singing in church for years have little idea of what comes next unless they are given the order with some explanation of it and the connection between parts of the service.
Drillock: The evolution of church architecture and the place where the choir is physically standing today is another related problem. With the choir in the balcony, perhaps 10-15 feet above and behind the congregation, the choir members can observe little or none of the liturgical action that is taking place, especially when the priest or bishop is underneath them during a Litya or a Marriage service or a Pontifical Liturgy. They may never know that a bishop has entered the church unless the choir director instructs them to sing an " Eis Polla. " In such a position, the choir and the director do not really serve as the leader of the congregation, for they can't seethe congregation and the congregation can't see them. It may not be possible to solve this problem in every situation today, but it should at least be considered when new churches are being designed and built.
Educator: This leads us naturally to the role of the congregation. It seems that the choir has the advantage in learning from the texts of the hymnography, for they not only hear the words, but can read and sing them. How can the congregation be helped to a greater understanding of the musical texts?
Drillock: This is a good question, and I think the Department of Religious Education has practically solved this problem with the liturgical booklets they have published. It is now possible for each member of the congregation to have the complete text of the service, not only for the Divine Liturgy, but also forthe lenten services and many of the feasts. For those who wish to follow the service and sing the texts with the choir, they can now do so. There has also been an effort between the DRE and the Seminary to coordinate efforts so that the texts of the hymns in the music books are the same as those published by the DRE. This is a practice that needs to be continued and encouraged among all who write music for the church.
Educator: To what extent then should the congregation participate in singing the services of the church?
Drillock: If we look at the musical manuscripts from any century, it is clear that the congregation never had that function, nor was it thought that in order to participate in the services one had to sing from the first, " Amen " to the last " Amen. " In the structure of our services there are different types of prayers and hymns: litanies, psalms, hymns, scripture readings, etc., each of which has its own place in the liturgical rite. No one would presume to say that when the priest is saying the prayer or when the deacon is chanting the petitions the congregation is not participating. The prayers and petitions are the prayers of the whole church, even though everyone is not saying them together. It is the same with singing. However, there are times in the service when the congregation should be encouraged to sing: the responses to the litanies, the Creed, the Anaphora, the Lord's Prayer, the hymn after Communion. For example, in old manuscripts we find almost no settings of individual compositions for the Creed. At the same time, the " propers " or changing hymns of Church-the stikhera, troparia, etc.-have remained primarily the function of the choir. This does not mean that the congregation could not sing, but it does mean that the music or words should not be reduced to the level which would enable them to be sung by everyone present, just as the words of prayers or the theology of the Church is not reduced because someone doesn't understand it. Consequently, as we said before, it is also then not proper to simply read the text of the Creed or to read the stikhera to enable everyone to " participate. " Participation can take place in many ways and this means that silence or not speaking or not singing does not necessarily imply non-participation. What is important if we wish to encourage congregational participation in singing is that leadership be provided by the priest, by the choir director, and by the members of the choir. Part of what makes our services beautiful is that they are seen as a complete unit. Just as poetry is not only words but rhythm, liturgy also involves a certain rhythm-the prayers and hymns must relate to one another in a rhythmic harmony. The whole liturgy is seen as one continuous prayer of the Church in which priest, deacon, choir and congregation offer together " on behalf of all and for all. " Participation of the congregation or any one member must be seen in that light.
Educator: Our final question concerns the role of children in singing. To what extent should they be encouraged to sing the hymns in the services?
Erickson: Well, I don't think we have time to discuss this fully, and especially since David and I don't fully agree on this question. It might be a question for a more complete article. My feeling is that from the time children can behave reasonably in worship (not be a distraction, can pay attention, can stand in one place and can take responsibility and attend rehearsals) they should be integrated into the adult choir-probably around the age of nine or ten. My concern about children's choirs is that they are exclusionary; they are asked to participate for a particular service or part of a service but then are excluded from the rest of it.
Drillock: My concern is based upon our original vision of the choir as having an ordained function in the liturgy. The responsibility of the choir has to be taken seriously. Therefore, the place of children must be seen in this light. My view is that children should be participating as members of the congregation and encouraged to sing along with the choir. Although there are always exceptions, my experience is that children are not able, in the light of what we said at the beginning, to assume the teaching and leadership function that is the responsibility of the liturgical singer.
Educator: Well, we understand that this last point raises more questions than answers in the time we have, so we hope you will provide us with a longer discussion at some othertime. On behalf of our readers, we thank you for your time and willingness to speak about these issues.