Singing to the Lord All My Life; Beginning with a Junior Choir
“Never forget our plain chant, for it is the jewel of our church! It is the pride of our liturgical services and we do not want to lose it because of lack of usage.” Bishop Nicholas of Blessed Memory spoke these words at his birthday celebration in 2011. Those words struck me, especially, on that day. It was as if they were a personal message for me. I attended the celebration only due to a snowstorm that canceled flights to Chicago for two days. At the time the plainchant of the diocese was still new and unfamiliar to me, as I grew up with the Byzantine Chant of the Greek and Antiochian Archdioceses. Yet, as the Bishop found so important to remind all present, the Carpatho-Russian church has a deeply rooted history in the music that is prostopinje and it is inextricably tied to the diocese’s tradition and worship.
After my marriage last May, I began attending St. Michael’s in Niles, Illinois regularly. In an effort to learn, participate and grow in the Carpatho-Russian diocese and to combine my love of church, teaching and music, I offered to Fr. Sam Sherry the idea of creating a Junior Choir at the church. There was some concern about whether or not there would be commitment due to the fact that most of the church’s families live a great distance away. To gauge interest, a sign-up sheet was posted on the board the day of the annual tailgate. To my surprise and excitement, the sign up list was full! I could not help but linger nearby as the children eagerly signed up, and even signed each other up to participate. I even recall the reaction of one of the mothers’ surprise when she saw her son signed up for the choir. Generating interest was no challenge as the children were visibly ecstatic about the opportunity to participate in the life of the church in a new way. As the choir has developed I have seen and learned just how important this opportunity has been for these children.
At our first rehearsal I asked the children to always remember that when we sing for the church, we are not performing, we are praying and giving glory to God. Our service to the church is just that; service. As I work with the choir I have two goals: to teach the children to sing as excellently as possible, and to teach the liturgy itself. Singing with excellence is important because we are glorifying God. Just as we adorn our church with fine icons, candle stands and vestments, our voices are also part of that glorification. We want to give the Lord our very best in all aspects. As their director, I also have an opportunity to share something about the faith with these children in the form of the Liturgical Structure. We should never pass the opportunity to explicitly or subtly teach the faith to our children, no matter what the task. These two goals, excellence and liturgical education, are the two feet of the choir. Together the children begin a journey in religious education and Christian formation.
Achieving the goal of singing well follows what one would expect of a choir: warm-ups, focus on proper breathing, projection, pronunciation and diction. With a young group, however, this sometimes requires a bit of creativity. While focusing on projection, the children have sung the beatitudes while marching around the church and have sung petitions back and forth with groups on balcony and in front of the tetrapod. In arrangements where the melody sustains the same note for a long time before dipping low (think Kontak, Tone 4) the kids have done squats on the low note to physically ingrain when the pitch changes. The squats create giggles initially, but it works! It also eases their nerves. We talk about pronouncing words with a British accent to avoid hard “R’s” and open the vowel sounds. After all, we do not want to sing like hillbillies or Chicago Bears fans. We envision ourselves as marionettes and pull the string on the top of our heads to align our spines. We throw our sound from our bellies, through our vocal chords up through our eyes and beam it behind the alter table. It almost sounds like a strange fantasy novel or Dr. Who episode. Since the children are just beginning to learn vocal techniques, the technique needs to be relatable and we need to have a little fun.
In addition to our group responsibilities, every Sunday the children have sung the Liturgy, one of the children has also been responsible for chanting the Epistle. Subdeacon Jonathan works with the child that week during rehearsal on pronunciation and the style of chant. The first to chant the Epistle was only eleven years old. He was eager and excited to chant the Epistle when I asked. I could have easily mistaken him for a high school student that day. Dressed in a suit for that service, he carried himself and chanted the Epistle as well as any adult. Most recently I asked his sister to chant the Epistle. She was initially rather nervous. She later reported that it was fun and that she would like to do it again sometime. She even encouraged one of the other girls to consider giving it a try. Getting up in front of a large group of people is a skill we all must learn as adults. The choir gives these children the opportunity to learn how to cope with those nerves at a young age in a very safe place.
The children are never criticized the day they sing. I had a college director who only encouraged us on performance day and it was a notable quality of this director for me. Every opportunity the children have to sing, Fr. Sam commends the choir and the individual who chanted the epistle. He does this in his parish announcements and to the children individually as his blesses them after service. This recognition of the children encourages them to continue and recognizes that the work they are doing is important. When the children feel that their work is important, they begin to take ownership for what they have learned. This ownership will last them a lifetime. Already I have noticed the children are making efforts to sing during services when they are in the pews! They are paying attention and they know what to expect next. We address areas for growth at the following rehearsal and continue our journey together.
The second goal of the choir is to teach the liturgy. This goal is subtle, and never really formalized, but it is there. Part of singing any piece well, whether it is just one song, or an entire musical is to understand the meaning and context behind the words. A musician visualizes why they are expressing the message of their piece and conveys that message through the dynamics of their voice. In the Liturgy we sing as the faithful and as the angels. We sing words asking for mercy, describing the Lord’s Power and enter into dialogue with the priest and the Lord. The entire text of our service is taken from both the Old and New Testament. The more these children understand the context of the words they are singing, the more they understand the depth of the service they attend every week. The more they understand, the more they remember and hopefully value the service.
Just a few weeks ago we stopped briefly to examine the hymn “Holy Holy Holy, Lord of Sabaoth” What exactly are we singing at that moment in time? I ask the children to look at the priest’s prayer immediately before that hymn. It reads, “We thank You… even though there stand before You thousands of archangels, tens of thousands of angels, Cherubim and Seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring aloft on their wings, who sing, cry out and proclaim the triumphant hymn, saying!” Ah! That’s what it is! We are representing the angels! Unintentionally, I had just covered the angels in Sunday School that day where we had read Isaiah 6:2-3 where those words and the hymn originate. One of my students made the connection and said, “That’s what we read today! That’s so cool!”
Other days the “lessons” are as simple as asking the children to look at the words. “We who mystically represent the cherubim…let us lay aside all earthly cares” Again, we as the faithful are representing the angels, honoring and praising the Lord. At the same time we have a reminder that our focus in the Liturgy should be on the Liturgy itself, and nothing else.
With every rehearsal the children are also learning the structure of the liturgy itself. After the second time we sang liturgy, the children began to ask me what tone we would be singing the following month! Would there be any special hymns like last time when we sang for the Leave-Taking of the Entrance of the Virgin Mary? As we work through the sections of the Liturgy the children are not instructed to “turn to page…” but that “turn to the the Anaphora.” When they ask, “what’s that?” there is one more opportunity to teach the children.
By participating in the junior choir, the children are excited just because they get to sing and lead the congregation. They get to be responsible for a part of life in the church. We were blessed in that the first time the children sang, it just so happened to be the day of the DDD dinner. Father Steven Lopassky was in town. Many of the children got excited that the first time they got to sing, their beloved camp priest would be there to hear it. Many of these children learn how to sing at camp, and now in the choir they get to apply it at home.
Music, in particular, is a powerful vehicle for education. It interacts with the brain on a holistic level; engaging the entire brain, rather than just one side. It evokes emotions, and almost hard-wires our memory. Just recently researchers discovered that our brains actually release varied amounts of dopamine based on how the music we hear. Dopamine is responsible for giving us feelings of pleasure. (The same thing occurs when you eat your favorite comfort food.) How special would it be if the sights, sounds and smells of the church evoked the same strength of memories that certain smells of a grandmother’s kitchen?
Without knowing it, by participating in the choir, the children are engraining lessons they will carry with them for life. I remember my mother chanting the Doxology every morning with us as children. Eventually we were the ones chanting it. I learned much later that just through our routine my mother had taught me the first tone. In the case of these children, they are learning the preserved tradition of the Carpatho-Russian plainchant that Metropolitan Nicholas called “the jewel of the church.” By learning it now, they will not forget it. Perhaps they will form the adult choir of St. Michael’s in 15 years. As Bishop Gregory has pointed out over and over again, our children are not the future of our church, they are the present of our church. We are blessed in the years we have with them where they find something like singing in the choir exciting. We should foster this so they continue to have this passion in their adult lives. The Lord said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt 19:14). We cannot truly know what our children will get excited about and commit to within the church unless we give them the opportunity to make the choice themselves. The junior choir at St. Michael’s has given the children a choice to glorify God through music and many have embraced the opportunity.
This article was published in the Pascha Edition of The Church Messenger, the official paper of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese