Some Thoughts About Musical Professionalism

Some Thoughts About Musical Professionalism

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This past Spring, I had the privilege of recording a CD of my own compositions for St. Tikhon’s Monastery, where I live and work. The CD will be called “Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan.” It was a clearing of the backlog for me, a sort of cathartic sweep of the attic. It will include choral compositions in various styles, from simple chant arrangements for liturgical use to a somewhat larger scale non-liturgical piece for chorus and soloists called “Triduum Paschalae,” based on medieval English poetry and poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It should be available from St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press later this year.

As I looked through my library of scores, the question naturally arose, who should sing this music? A fair portion of the pieces I wanted to do were composed for use by small church choirs and therefore didn’t present immense musical challenges. However, there were a few more developed pieces that I very much wanted to hear sung well, and which required a different level of singer than is typically available to Orthodox church choir directors in America today. Having had a number of opportunities to work with professional-level singers over the past few years—something I hadn’t really had the chance to do since my undergraduate years—I proposed to Fr. Sergius, abbot of St. Tikhon’s Monastery and patron of the recording project, that we assemble a group of professionals under the auspices of the monastery to sing the program. After putting a budget together, and making a few calls, the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery came into existence.

As far as I know, the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery is the first ensemble of its kind. There are other professional or professional-level choirs in America who mostly sing Orthodox music— notably, Cappella Romana, as well as the St. Romanos Cappella from Chicago or the recently founded Patriarch Tikhon Choir, for example—but the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery is the first all-professional vocal ensemble to be formed under the auspices of a venerable and well-established American Orthodox institution such as St. Tikhon’s Monastery. It has become relatively commonplace over the past several decades for major monasteries and theological academies in Russia to create professional choirs as a sort of outreach arm for the institution, but St. Tikhon’s Monastery is, as far as I know, the first Orthodox institution to do this in North America.

Some people may be asking here: why would you want a professional choir singing under the name of a monastery? Why not just have the monks sing? As a practical matter, this question is fairly easily answered: while the monastery brotherhood has indeed started making its own recordings of some of the music they sing in daily services, the capacities of the brotherhood aren’t yet equal to the kind of repertoire we wanted to record on our current disc. The same can be said for the mixed choir who sings on weekends and feastdays at the monastery church, and for the choir of St. Tikhon’s Seminary, who sings many of the services during the academic year. All of these are excellent ensembles in their own right—St. Tikhon’s Seminary Choir in particular has a grand tradition and a respectable discography—and all are steadily improving year by year. But none of them on their own, we decided, was finally equal to the level of music-making that Fr. Sergius and I were hoping to achieve in our new project. So as we gathered together several members of the St. Tikhon’s community, both past and present, who are professional-level singers, we knew that a core group of active professionals would be called for.

However, I suspect for some people the above question may go beyond merely the practical musical considerations and point at something more philosophical. I imagine someone asking, why would you want a professional choir singing Orthodox liturgical music at all? How can you be paid to do something that’s supposed to arise from the pious devotion of the heart? This is an interesting question, and one worth considering for a moment.

The word “professional” tends to be a tricky word for Americans to deal with, since it can mean different things in different contexts. On the one hand, in the business world, “professional” can mean someone who behaves honorably and scrupulously, someone who doesn’t confuse personal inclinations with the demands of his or her job. On the other hand, in the realm of the arts or sports, for example, “professional” can sometimes mean something more like “mercenary”—someone who merely does what he does for money, as opposed to the “amateur,” who does it for “love” (the literal meaning of the French word). In the realm of choral music in particular, there can be a lot of ambivalence, even in the mind of a single person, over the meaning of “professional” and “amateur.” The eminent American conductor Robert Shaw reportedly said once that there was no sound more perfect or more pure than the sound of a good amateur choir; however, he is also said to have coined the oft-repeated adage: “If you want the best singing, you hire the best singers.”

For Orthodox Christians in America, I’ve found that sentiment surrounding the concept of “professional singers” can sometimes go beyond ambivalence and become outright distaste or even animosity. The idea that somebody might be paid to sing services is, for some people, akin to simony. Having discussed the question of paying church musicians in a previous article, I won’t go into that here. However, there is another side to the issue that I would like to address: the question of whether a professional truly “sings from the heart” or not.

Aside from overall musicianship—that is, vocal quality and skill, including the ability to sing precisely in tune, as well as music reading ability—there are myriad skills that come together to make up a good ensemble singer. Skills like attentiveness, listening, self-discipline, cooperativeness, eagerness to strive for perfection, endurance (especially important in a recording process), patience, the ability to consistently produce excellent results over and over again, to name just a few. These are all things professional singers have to cultivate in order to succeed in their profession. And success, as is true in the case of most professions, largely means getting a job in the first place, and then doing it well enough to get asked back again. Cultivating any one of these skills, let alone all of them together, is no easy undertaking, and generally speaking, professional ensemble singing is not a highly lucrative profession. Given all that, and given moreover that, in general, professional singers tend to be well-educated, literate, intelligent people who probably wouldn’t have much difficulty finding better-paying jobs, it’s hard to argue that they don’t really do what they do for love.

There is one obstacle that can sometimes hamper professional-level singers in the specific task of singing Orthodox sacred music. Some people might call it “ego,” but I think that’s misleading. Ego can creep in anywhere, even in the most convincingly spiritual circumstances, and I doubt that most of us have refined enough ears to hear with that level of discernment. I know I don’t. The fact is that what many people think of as “ego” in singing is merely a superficial quality based on differing approaches to musical interpretation and vocal style. Simply put, somebody might call a more “operatic” style of singing (or composing), with vibrato, a dark vocal color, and dramatic musical effects, an example of “ego”; conversely, the same person might call singing without vibrato, a brighter sound, and a more restrained approach to dynamics, tempo, and other musical nuances, an example of singing without ego. While there may be something to this, I think it’s ultimately superficial and says nothing substantive about the spiritual state of anyone involved. It’s basically a matter of style.

No, I think the real obstacle for many professional-level singers in singing sacred music is “sensuousness.” It’s a subtle thing, but it does audibly distort the sound, and it thus distorts the overall spirit of sacred music as a self-emptying offering to God, a “sacrifice of praise.” What I mean by “sensuousness” has nothing to do with eroticism; rather, I mean the subtle experience that singers sometimes have when they take pleasure in the immediate palpable feeling of singing beautifully. This experience, in itself, is not a bad thing, but if left unchecked—or worse, if allowed to become the raison d’etre of a given performance—it has the capacity to detract from the sacredness of the music. However, while the problem is subtle, the solution, in my experience, is fairly simple: keep your mind focused on conveying the meaning of the words, and on all the technique that must be brought to bear in order to make that happen, and sensuousness usually disappears.

Amateur singers who sing sacred music are perhaps less prone to a sensual experience of singing—though they aren’t immune to it—but they (and I include myself as being at risk in this respect) often suffer from a much less subtle kind of malady. Capable amateur singers—and I don’t mean the ones who are just struggling to keep up in a choir, but the ones who do what they do with some degree of ease and competence—often succumb to the “big fish in a small pond” mentality. Spending little or no time with other musicians who are better than they are, capable amateurs in church choirs can easily start believing that they are indeed remarkably skilled. Furthermore, given that their livelihood in no way depends on the quality of their music-making, capable amateurs risk falling into the thought that, since they do what they do for free, they are owed a debt of gratitude and that they deserve a measure of deferential treatment. In short, capable amateurs are especially susceptible to pride. I say this from experience, having fallen into such a way of thinking myself more than once. Genuine professional singers, on the other hand, who spend a good deal of time around musicians who are just as good if not better than they are, whose ability to pay rent often directly depends on how well they sing, and who usually have made a number of sacrifices in order to be able to continue doing what they love, are generally eager to please, ready to work, and happy to do whatever is asked of them. In other words, professional singers, in my experience, tend to be more humble, at least as far as singing is concerned.

The solution for the “amateur’s pride”—and I worry that such a mindset has become endemic in American Orthodox church music—is to start striving upwards. We have to realize that there are miles and miles of sky above us, and that we have a great deal to learn. One way to do this is to start working with real professionals and to start measuring ourselves against their standards. I don’t mean that we have to eliminate amateur church singing—far from it!—but rather that we all start expecting, maybe demanding, more from ourselves. It will do us no good if we bury our talent in the ground.

Having said all this, I’m eager to hear the results of our recent recording. I’ve gotten one track back from our phenomenal producer and engineer, Elias Dubelsten, and I’m looking forward to hearing the rest. You can listen to the demo below. In making this recording, we don’t presume to be setting an example for the world—there are plenty of choirs out there who are moving in orbits light years above ours—but we are rather, I hope, trying to answer the call to increase the talent given us. Someone who is striving to perfect an art or craft knows that complacency is a bitter enemy, but she also knows that one of the best ways to fight it is to find somebody better than herself to learn from. This is the paradox of Orthodox spiritual life: in order to rise, we have to lower ourselves in our own opinion. In gathering a group of such remarkable singers as made up our Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, I was deeply humbled by the talent, dedication, skill, and profound good will that permeated the ensemble, and I realized how much I myself had to learn. I recommend the experience to everyone. So, while I wait for the rest of the tracks to come back, I can guarantee that I’ll be thinking about how to do it again.


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Benedict Sheehan

Benedict Sheehan is a composer, conductor, arranger, writer about, and teacher of, music. He currently plies his trade at St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary and Monastery, where, since 2010, he has taught Orthodox liturgical music and directed the choirs. Working together with his wife, Maria Sheehan, the current operations manager of the Patriarch Tikhon Russian-American Music Institute (PaTRAM), Benedict is also a regular clinician in Orthodox choral singing around the United States. His musical education includes a Bachelor of Music in Composition at Westminster Choir College, private studies under Vladimir Morosan and Vladimir Gorbik, and a Master of Music in Conducting at Bard College Conservatory under James Bagwell (in progress). He also has a Master of Divinity from St. Tikhon’s Seminary. In addition to writing for The Sounding, Benedict is a regular contributor to the increasingly popular blog, Orthodox Arts Journal. Four of his liturgical pieces are currently in print with Musica Russica. Benedict and Maria, together with their five children, one cat, one turtle, and four chickens, live in rural Pennsylvania.