The Experience of a Young Choir Conductor

At every service, the smallest choir is augmented by the angelic choir. Saints and angels surround us, joining their voices to ours in a common goal - the worship of God. With these as companions and fellow laborers, how can we fail? All this is hard to remember, though, when week after week the choir seems to make no progress, when we have the same problems again and again.
Genevieve Holland | 22 September 2009

Source: Orthodox America





In 1994, my family moved from Missouri to Texas because the Bishop had asked my father to be ordained for the Dallas mission. Since no one else in our small parish was familiar with the tones and other music, I became the choir director. I was thirteen. For the first few months, a retired priest living in the area served Liturgy and sometimes Vespers. We always did reader’s Matins and not infrequently reader’s Vigil. After the priest left, there was a period of about four months before my father was ordained when we also did Typica.


When I became the choir director, I had never been taught the tones or the Typicon or how to direct a choir; I knew only what I had picked up from singing in the choir at our former church – which I had done since I was about eight. To make things more confusing, I had been accustomed to singing alto, but now I needed to sing soprano! Fortunately, I have a good musical ear and I learn quickly. Even so, there was a great deal of which I was, and still am, ignorant. For a couple of years I didn’t really direct; I led with my voice instead of with my hands. I also functioned as a sort of “head reader,” setting up the books and directing people what to do next. Until about a year and a half ago, we sang only in unison. The music we used came from our previous parish, St. John Chrysostom Orthodox Church in House Springs, Missouri.



At the beginning, my choir consisted of nearly ten people. This number fluctuated as some people joined and others left. Right now I have about seven people, when everyone is present (which is rarely). Sometimes my sister and I are the only singers at the end of Vigil.


In the past, during “Lord, I have cried” or similar parts, my father would come into the choir and we would sing antiphonally in two choirs, men and women. We tended to sound better this way; when everyone sang together our voices did not always blend very well. As the choir and I grew in experience and became accustomed to each other’s voices (and the choir shrank) we gradually stopped singing antiphonally.


I have had to deal with quite a lot of frustration and loneliness. There have been services when I felt so alone and helpless, ignorant and despondent that I had trouble not dissolving into tears on the cliros. But there have also been times when I was filled with such exultant joy and love at the beauty of Orthodox worship that I nearly wept.


At times I feared that my choir resented being under the authority of a teenager, that they thought I was presumptuous and arrogant. At times I myself was rather resentful. How am I, a young girl, supposed to direct a choir? People two and three times my age, who have studied music and conducting, have trouble dealing with choirs, and here they expect me to lead a choir?


I have been very depressed sometimes at the seeming indifference of some of my choir. I think that often singers do not realize how much their attitude affects the director. When people do not make an effort to attend choir practice, when time and again they show up half way through the service and are not even apologetic, it is very demoralizing.


I have felt, and still not rarely feel, very isolated. I think that this isolation, this loneliness, is one of our church choir directors’ main dilemmas. Spread out all over the country as we are, it is hard to remain cheerful and encouraged. At times it seems that I am working all alone, that there is no one else with the same problems and concerns and dreams. This is where music conferences, etc. are invaluable. After attending one and meeting others in my situation, I am invigorated, filled with new ideas to use with the choir. We aren’t alone; there are many others making the same mistakes and feeling the same frustrations, and we can learn from each other and gain encouragement. I think it is important for us to feel this companionship, to feel our participation in a vast tradition of church singing that reaches back through centuries and includes multitudes of saints. At every service, the smallest choir is augmented by the angelic choir. Saints and angels surround us, joining their voices to ours in a common goal – the worship of God. With these as companions and fellow laborers, how can we fail? All this is hard to remember, though, when week after week the choir seems to make no progress, when we have the same problems again and again.


Following are excerpts from some letters I have written in the past year to one of my teachers at the Jordanville summer school, about some of my frustrations.


“I think I need to change the way I think about my choir. I think I expect too much from them. I want perfection, and since they aren’t perfect I’m disappointed. It’s not their fault; many have even less musical training than I, and I have so little. It’s so hard though, when I can hear the music in my head in glorious four part harmony and my choir stumbles through singing two parts. Every week I go through the same cycle. Towards the end of the week I get excited making plans about what I’ll do during choir practice – what I’ll tell them, how I’ll explain things, what songs we’ll practice, how much we might improve. Then in the practice, practically nothing gets done; what I’ve planned doesn’t work out and I can’t think how to communicate to the choir how I want things done. Then I’m upset and discouraged and depressed until I start making plans again. I think I need to lower my expectations and be satisfied with small improvements. We are improving, just not as fast as I’d like. It’s so hard to be patient and to remember that somehow, everything will eventually work out. And if it doesn’t, then it’s not God’s will. I have to keep reminding myself of that. Anyway, I am more critical of my choir than I need to be. When I have taped us, we sound much better than I thought we did at the time. It is my pride and perfectionism that get in the way.


“I have begun to realize that singing with the proper emotion is more important than getting all the notes right. Nearly any choir can, with enough practice, eventually learn to sing properly and to get all the notes and dynamics in our hymns correct. But no matter how perfect the singing, if the services are sung without emotion, without prayer, they will leave the people unmoved. Correct singing can be taught; prayerful singing is harder to learn. Of course, usually the more beautifully a choir sings, the more prayerful the services are, but not always. A good choir should incorporate all of this into their singing. I would rather have my choir sing the melody with prayer and feeling than stumble trying to sing harmony and have it sound harsh and sterile. I do not know how to transmit all my ideas successfully to my choir, though. Beforehand, I think out everything I will say, but when it comes time to talk to them, my mind goes blank . “One of my singers has decided to stop singing. I don’t know why. I thought this person enjoyed singing in the choir and learning the music. I have trouble understanding why people seem so careless about some things. For me, the Church and singing the services are the most important aspects of my life. They are my life, and it hurts when people reject them. “Since I’ve come back from Jordanville, my choir has halved. First one person moved, then another decided to serve instead, and now a third person is quitting. To me, singing the services is a great privilege. It’s a wonderful gift to be able to serve God in such a way. The choir serves the services just as much as a deacon or priest, only in a different capacity. They’re just as important; they have just as much responsibility to come to church and pray.


“Sometimes it appears as if people think they can sing only when they feel like it. What if, some Sunday morning, I decided I didn’t want to sing, or even to come to church? Rather often now I sing the services, especially Vigil, alone. I get so discouraged. Is there something I’m doing or not doing that makes people not want to sing? I don’t know how to change things. “


Currently my choir consists of four girls and two women, all of whom would prefer to sing alto, and two men who just joined and right now are learning the melody. We usually sing in two parts. I would like to begin to sing in three parts, but I don’t think it’s time yet. The choir is always very enthusiastic about learning new melodies and improving our singing, but so often practices are shortened or even canceled because the singers can’t come. It’s hard to improve under these conditions.


For the past two summers I have gone to the Jordanville summer music school. I think that, more than any other experience, it has deepened my desire to work with Orthodox music. There, I am surrounded by people who love Orthodox music and Orthodoxy in the same way that I do. I am able to sing in a big choir, to practice my conducting on a choir with four parts, to learn from people who have dedicated their lives to Orthodox music and Orthodoxy. Those two weeks are very intense, exhausting and exhilarating. They are in many ways the high point of my year.


In spite of all the headaches and heartaches involved with being a choir director, there is nothing I’d rather do. I love every aspect of our services – the hymnography; the melodies, which are so eloquent and compunctionate even without the text; the Typicon, filled with such lovely and profound detail; the sheer beauty of our worship. I love being able to serve the Church in this manner, making the services prayerful and beautiful. As singers, we have a responsibility to create an atmosphere in the church that fosters prayer and respect and love for the services. My dream is to be a choir director, to translate and arrange and publish Orthodox music, and to help struggling directors and their choirs. I want to teach our less experienced directors about our music, about how to conduct and how to sing properly, to help them learn how to teach their own choirs, to show them our great musical tradition. This is the kind of help I have needed desperately. I want to dedicate my life to Orthodox music and to helping choirs and, thereby, our church. With God’s help, I will be continuing my study in music and Russian and Orthodoxy, and will continue learning from other more experienced choir directors, so that one day I may be able to help others who are just starting out.


If you want to help in church music, start out by singing in the choir and studying music. Go to all the conferences you can, and if possible go to the Jordanville music school. Above all, go to all the services and pray, and go to the choir practices faithfully. This will not only help you immensely, but also give your struggling choir director a real boost! The young people are our church’s future, and we are vitally important. There is such a lack of experienced, knowledgeable people who love the Church and have dedicated their lives to it, whether in music or iconography or teaching or as clergy, in every aspect of church life. Please, get involved in the Church!


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