Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A reflection on the music survey

There are a few responses at the moment - 30-ish, so I'm going to make a couple remarks, but a fuller summary can be made later (feel free to take the survey if you have not already or to add commentary about another parish you are familiar with if you know the practices of multiple parishes - leave the opinion part blank for any additional response). The short of it is that it seems that even in modestly-sized parishes (less than 60 attendees), they are used to having a fair bit of variation in the settings used at liturgy, though it is certainly the case that there are a few places that, in the name of "congregational singing", take a steamroller and flatten it down to one setting for everything all the time (except when changes are mandated by law). However, this variation is well in accord with my experience of even small choirs, since the typical person is able to remember melodic pieces fairly well.

Anyway, I think a survey like this is valuable not just because it gives some insight into what others are doing, even when they have limited resources, but because I think it is important to form our opinions of what is possible and desirable in our parishes not merely based on our personal experience and prejudices, but also based on broader knowledge of what is possible and what is "traditional". There is a wide choral culture in our society and also a wide choral culture within Orthodoxy, and those outside the specifically choral tradition in either sense may not have an adequate basis for decision-making about what to do with a choir (a classic example of this is the flat and dull vs melodic choice - the melodic choice will often be the easier to sing and remember, but the flat one "looks" easier).

The OCA parish I was last at currently has a very talented choir director who has created a very talented choir (who typically only rehearse, when they do rehearse, for about half an hour before liturgy), so they are not representative of everybody else, though I would note that, except for their most ambitious settings, there is quite a lot of congregational participation. The antiphons, of course, are done in only a couple different arrangements and have been done since time immemorial ("Greek" and Krasnotovsky [sp?]). Almost everything has multiple options, but all but the most ambitious get a fair amount of congregational participation (Arkhangelsky Anaphora #4). I think the only thing without multiple settings, that I recall, is the Creed, though the Our Father has only perhaps two settings and they are both simple. "Only-begotten" has two settings in the binder, but I only recall ever using one. This level of variation is perhaps too ambitious for most parishes, and those that desire maximal congregational participation would not include the most demanding settings, but the congregation was definitely able to know a couple settings for most pieces and were not thrown off by this. I cannot speak to what things have been like there for the last two years, but that's where things left off at that point.

Prior to the current director's arrival, this is what the practice was at the parish (throughout the rapid turnover of choir directors (or, rather, people who direct the choir) and choir): the litanies all had only one setting (the litanies were not all identical, of course), the antiphons had two settings ("Greek chant" for all three, Krasnotovsky for the first two, "Sarov Chant" for the Beatitudes - perhaps there was something else in the binder, but they were not used), there were a few trisagions (but I don't recall switching very often - mostly only one was used, the priest hated one of the others in the binder), one entrance hymn that got used, a couple alleluias (one of which we always blew), a few Cherubic Hymns (I think we used three: "Greek", Kastorsky, Bortniansky #5 - the latter two are excised from the current binders, I think), we only used the plain anaphora from the Soroka book, there were a couple settings of the Our Father, there was only one setting of the Creed, there were a couple "It is truly meet", and the ending of the liturgy was mostly fixed. However minimal the choir was or shoddy its direction, they managed to survive, at least, doing two different settings of the antiphons, a few of the "It is truly meet", and a few Cherubicons with good congregational participation in the former (apparently nobody sings along with the Cherubic Hymn). Total attendance through this long period generally ranged from 45-75 (I kept the count) and I was generally well-placed to judge whether the sound was coming from the entire room or just the side with the choir. At times, the choir was somewhat minimal and the sound had to be carried by the congregation - even in those cases, the answer was not to hunker down and reduce to one setting.

The first choir director, actually, at that parish that I knew, I don't remember anything at all about what the choir was like, except that he was very competent, though his music was idiosyncratic. I cannot recall what his selections were like (some people thought they were dreadful, but looking at his website, they can't have been that bad, just not "typical OCA" - if you can't tell from the above, almost everything that came immediately after is straight from the Soroka book or the SVS liturgy book), but the one thing I do remember is his insistence on several things about church singing (the importance of melodic settings, the importance of singing all the time and not compromising on that). If you're really interested, he has notes from choir rehearsals on his website, but that's besides the point. At that point, things were very barebones.

Anyway, some things about the survey. I was somewhat surprised, given the above reflection, about some aspects of the survey. People indicated that the most commonly duplicated parts of the liturgy are the following (in descending order)(this agrees with what "should" have multiple and what they "want" to have multiple, by the way):
  • Cherubic hymn
  • Trisagion
  • Anaphora
  • It is truly meet...
  • and then a bunch of things all clustered together
The anaphora surprises me, since it is long, a dialogue, and it had been "fixed" for a long time at one of my parishes. Most of the people are OCA, too, so they're not using the anaphora to cover much and don't need a longer cover during St Basil's liturgy, which would be one reason for altering it. As for liking/having/wanting only one setting, it seems the only truly popular selections are the Creed and the Our Father, which I think is sensible for most places. I certainly don't want a second setting of the Creed. There are some substantial blocks of other opinions. The least popular options for having only one setting, in order of least popular to most popular are:
  • Trisagion
  • Cherubic hymn
  • Anaphora
  • It is truly meet...
  • and then it continues on from there
There is certainly a substantial block that likes having the entire beginning fixed and a smaller, but not negligible, contingent of people who like having absolutely everything fixed in the name of "congregational singing". However, in my experience, all this does is make things boring unless there is truly no musical talent and this is a last resort. This is never the case when I am singing, though, by definition. Here are a couple quotes from the survey and conversations about the survey (emphasis added):
In my experience, having only one setting which is sung every week does very little to encourage congregational participation (if that is the goal). In fact, most people are capable of remembering several simple settings of well-known texts such as the Creed and the Our Father, even if they are not musically trained, and thus can still join in. With regards to the parts of the service I identified as having multiple settings, I think this is especially important for the Liturgy because it is one way of marking feasts and fasts, and also of keeping the attention of the congregation and the choir (which can often drift if they hear/sing the same piece every week). The multiple settings need not be difficult - even a little variety is better than none.
This is completely in accord with my experience and the little knowledge I have about music. Another comment:
People who don't sing in the choir don't understand the monotony of having to sing the same exact thing week after week, year after year- it becomes rote after awhile, which isn't fair to [the choir], and frankly it isn't really fair to the congregation either if the choir is just going through the motions. ... [E]ven having 2 or 3 different versions adds enough variety that you don't fall asleep while you're singing, and within, you know 4-6 months they'll all be just as familiar to the congregation anyway.
Some other comments have valuable suggestions about how to do this even in a limited settings:
I'd distinguish between: 1) Keep the same (Creed, Lord's Prayer (with the exception noted below)). 2) Vary regularly, with several choices (Cherubic hymn, Anaphora, It is Truly Meet) 3) Have a core set of "go to" settings, that you can vary by choir composition or to feel more or less joyful/somber (Great Litany, Trisagion, other litanies, We have seen...)
Another remark: We used to vary [the Cherubic Hymn] by time of year. Another had the same idea, remarking, Georgian for Paschal & Nativity seasons.... There are, of course, pitfalls to avoid:
By using multiple melodies on common things like the Great litany and the Our Father, the choir has taught our people to shut up and listen. Since the choir began introducing rotating melodies about ten years ago, we've gone from mostly-congregational singing to much-reduced congregational singing and a lot of passively listening to the choir pray their prayers instead.
Another danger of excessive variation: If you miss a week, it is like a different choir. Too much changing. And one practical suggestion for introducing new music which may alleviate some of the problems:
When a new setting is done, use it for a while - don't switch week to week between different settings.
Personally, I have found that, when some place has used one setting for something since time immemorial, the introduction of a second setting will annoy people at first, then they learn it, then they're accustomed to it, then it is normal and switching is no big deal. Only at the first point does it do anything to congregational singing unless it is a truly difficult piece. I have not, even in a "solo-ist oriented" Byzantine setting, found what others might call indulgent settings to distract from prayer or focus on the singer, but I don't think the modest variation in settings described here will be in any danger of falling under that accusation. But the longer "only one setting" is used, the more entrenched the idea is, whether or not it is reasonable given the general tradition of Orthodox music. Even parishes with modest resources are able to cope with this level of variation. However, if you don't start doing it, it will never get done. This will not be good for the choir and it will not, in the end, be good for the congregation.

So what is the way forward? Perhaps warn the congregation that music may change, then start with some variants to learn them, not too much at once. Once those are learned, learn some other variants of things, and then consider how they should be varied: perhaps some settings will go with fasting periods (at least, Nativity Fast and Lent), some will go with festal periods, some will vary regularly (I'm thinking Cherubic Hymn here, since apparently nobody but the choir sings along to this). I don't think there is much need for extra communication, planning, or preparation surrounding this besides rehearsing the choir. If people are extremely attached to the music (if they are, they should join the choir, everybody is welcome), then more may be necessary, but I am not very fond of people who aren't "doing the singing" telling the people who are "doing the singing" what they should be singing - at least, not too much. There's some push and pull there, but I think it is hard for a modest choir to err on the wrong side if they only bring out pieces after they have been rehearsed well and only add pieces occasionally. With the possible exception of a Greek parish, I simply have never been in a parish where modest variation of a wide number of pieces was not the norm, and I've sojourned in many places (though I've certainly only really been a member of 4 parishes, 2 OCA, one GOA, and one Antiochian). And, in the non-Greek places I'm referring to, there was quite a lot of congregational participation.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Another survey: using multiple musical settings for liturgy

Specifically in the Russian tradition, but any input is welcome. Our small mission is deciding how to insert some variation into the musical settings of the liturgy, and apparently I'm used to a lot more variation and in different places than some other people. Well, my last parish in the Russian tradition had a very well-appointed choir with an ambitious choir director by the time I left, so pretty much everything was up for grabs, but even before then, there was apparently diversity in some places where, at other parishes, there may not have been.

Anyway, so I wrote a survey asking about a couple ways of varying musical settings for the fixed portions of the "usual" Sunday liturgy at your parish. If you have multiple parishes where you are familiar with the musical practices, feel free to respond to the survey multiple times (don't answer the "opinion" parts multiple times). The options are not exhaustive, but some would be too tricky to survey over and expect good answers (ie, all the various litanies).

For the opinion questions, which you can answer even if you have no idea what your parish does, think in terms of your preferences tempered by the realities of actual parish life in a "typical" parish. Define that however you like. Also, if you're at a parish I've been a member of, I know the practices already, but feel free to inject your opinion.

Note: I am not, of course, going to use this information "against" the people who disagree with me in my parish! We are a small mission, so the choices we have made are almost more than enough already, so we're not going to vary more for quite a while.

Take the survey here.

Anyway, my personal thoughts are that I think having a couple settings of the antiphons, a few settings of the trisagion, and several settings of the cherubic hymn is feasible for most parishes. Even at the depths of choral despair, I think we managed that at my previous parish. More is definitely possible in some places, but that's a healthy start, and one definitely should be wary of losing the crowd by changing everything every week.

If you simply want to browse what others have replied, a summary of the results can be viewed here.