Why Orthodox Can’t Sing . . . and How to Fix It

February 6, 2017 Length: 1:16:14

This episode includes an interview with Benedict Sheehan, the Director of Music at St. Tikhon's Seminary and the author of The Music Stand blog with Ancient Faith. He shares his thoughts on the state of our music and makes suggestions on how to improve it.





Fr. Anthony Perkins: Hey, this is Fr. Anthony. Today, let’s talk vocations. Today we’re going to continue our discussion on Church music, and we’ve got an interview with Benedict Sheehan, and he is just a fantastic person to help us continue and develop our understanding of Church music and where we are and how we can get to where we should be. He has started a new blog called The Music Stand with Ancient Faith. I recommend it to you, and I recommend him in this work, because he has a vocation to this, and that means he also has a charisma for it. When someone has been set aside for a specific purpose, and they have been trained to that purpose, then it’s a good idea for us to not only empower them to exercise their vocation, but also to listen to their discernment and to work with them as they develop that discernment, because this is a collegial, a sobornoye pravni, conciliar process.

Let me tell you a little bit about Benedict. He and I were one-off in a couple of ways, because I served in Rhode Island for several years, and that’s where his family has roots. While I didn’t meet him until fairly recently, I knew people who knew him. Anyways, he was raised in the Orthodox Church by parents who converted when he was very young, but it wasn’t until his secular humanist grandmother sent him a cassette of Russian Orthodox music for Christmas when he was 13 that he really fell in love with Church music. He says that that tape changed his life. He vaguely remembers doing other things, but from that time forward, his love for Orthodox music shaped most of what he did.

He went to Westminster Choir College in Princeton when he was 17, where he majored in composition, and it was there he met the woman who has been his wife for nearly two decades. They now have six children and another on the way. Glory to God! A couple years after he graduated from Westminster, he went to St. Tikhon’s Seminary in holy Pennsylvania, and that’s where he lives, that’s where we recorded this interview, and that is where he works as the Director of Music. Recently he went to and received a Master of Music and Conducting from Bard College in upstate New York, because no matter how much he studies music, he feels like he only ever scratches the surface.

With six kids, you can imagine he changes a lot of diapers, he drives kids around—but when he’s not doing that, he teaches music and conducts the choirs at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and Monastery. And when he’s not doing that, he composes and arranges music, writes articles, makes recordings, gives concerts, sings services with his students at other churches, and travels around and talks about why Church music is important and how they might be able to do it better. He also likes reading, woodworking, skiing, playing Frisbee with his wife, having friends over for dinner, and watching Netflix.

In 2015, he founded the Chamber Choir of St. Tikhon’s Monastery, the first professional vocal ensemble associated with an established Orthodox institution in America. They’ve given several concerts, and they made a recording of some of his music, called Till Morn Eternal Breaks: Sacred Choral Music of Benedict Sheehan. His first major anthology of music for use in services, called A Common Book of Church Hymns: Divine Liturgy was published by St. Tikhon’s in 2016. I have a copy, and I recommend it. It contains nearly all of the music necessary to sing the Liturgy on any given day, in a format designed for today’s smaller church choirs. Future volumes are in the works. He also has several of his compositions in print, with Musica Russica. If you’d like to read more about what he’s written, you can find more of his articles on Orthodox Arts Journal, the Orthodox Christian Network, and pravoslavie.ru.

So that’s enough about him. Let’s hear what he has to say. Just to let you know, in case you haven’t looked at your podcast feed: this interview does go a bit long, but I think that you will find the time invested in listening to it worthwhile. The reason it goes long is because both of us have accents that slow down our ability to get our points across sometime, but I think you will enjoy this. I know that I always enjoy my time with Benedict. Here’s the interview!


Fr. Anthony: Well, I’m here with Benedict, and this is Fr. Anthony Perkins. Y’all noticed, because you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, that I have an accent. For some of you, that’s a little bit off-putting. Well, Benedict has a little bit of an accent sometimes, too. Tell us about that.

Mr. Benedict Sheehan: I do. Well, since I could talk I’ve talked with a stutter. There’s a recording of me at age three, where I’m speaking to my mom, and sometimes I speak without a stutter, so there’s this little thing where I’m speaking to my mom and I’m speaking totally fluently, and then my dad and my brother come in, they start talking to my mom, and then I immediately try to kind of get attention again, to steer the conversation back at me, and I’m stuttering quite a lot.

Fr. Anthony: Wow. Three, man.

Mr. Sheehan: So it’s a very mysterious thing, about why I initially developed it, but it’s a thing that affects about one percent of the adult population. There’s a lot of people that stutter as children, but the vast majority outgrow it, but about one percent of adults continue to stutter as adults, so it’s a thing which, if you think about it, is quite a fair number of people.

Fr. Anthony: It is. That’s a fair number of people, yeah.

Mr. Sheehan: So as long as I could talk, I’ve had a stutter. I’ve had speech therapy a couple of times to deal with it, but by far the most effective speech therapy that I ever got was basically it taught me to be at ease and to be fine with it, to advertise it and to not let it bother me. My speech therapist, he said, “I could work with you to help you eliminate it,” but he said, “What I’d rather do is to help you stutter better, to stutter more effectively and to stutter more easily.” I’m like: I think that sounds like a good deal.

Fr. Anthony: Beautiful.

Mr. Sheehan: So that’s what was most helpful to me. One of the things, too, is that many stutterers don’t stutter at all, or they stutter much less when they sing, and that’s true for me. So I think in some way in order to find my voice and to be able to communicate the way that I wanted to and to say the things I wanted to say, it kind of helped to steer me into music in some ways.

Fr. Anthony: Yeah. And y’all don’t know Benedict, but he is a very peaceful man. If you start to feel stressed, you shouldn’t, because he’s not stressed out at all. This reminds me: one of my best friends in graduate school was from Tennessee, and he talked so slowly. He was brilliant. So he would be saying something, it would be so profound, but the less profound of us would try to finish his sentences. He’d be like: nope. And then he’d start over!

Mr. Sheehan: Start over from the beginning!?

Fr. Anthony: [Laughter] Oh, yeah!

Mr. Sheehan: That’s perfect.

Fr. Anthony: Oh, it was.

Mr. Sheehan: I should probably try that, because I do get people trying to complete my words or complete my sentences all the time. Sometimes maybe it can be helpful, but generally it’s just annoying, and then of course some of my best friends, just as a joke, they try to complete my words, but with a thing they’re sure that I’m not about to say.

Fr. Anthony: Oh, that’s awesome. [Laughter]

Mr. Sheehan: And that’s just mean.

Fr. Anthony: But it’s mean in that very special friend kind of way.

Mr. Sheehan: Of course. They’re just trying to throw me off, because ironically, this event, this thing that my parents recorded of me speaking at age three, trying to hold the floor—I’m still trying to hold the floor. I still have this problem, that I just talk, and I’m always trying to make sure that I’m the one who’s got the floor and I’m controlling the conversation. So I think it’s something that God has very mercifully given me to make sure I stay in my place—at least some of the time.

Fr. Anthony: Yeah. Well, there are a lot of temptations that come with what you do. I don’t remember where I read it, but it’s commonly quoted that the klēros is a magnet for demons.

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely. The devil enters the Church through the klēros.

Fr. Anthony: Yeah, why is it such a portal to the nether dimensions?

Mr. Sheehan: I think in great part because a singer in church has such a capacity to introduce the people to God, to introduce the people to an experience of the divine. You have these vehicles, both in the sacred texts which are one of the primary vehicles for the teaching of the Church and for theology that we experience, but I think it’s also through just the sound of sacred singing that you can help people out of their psychological state. You can kind of have the capacity to bring people together and to inspire them to pray. I think because Church singers have this capacity and have this role, it’s prime territory for the devil to kind of redirect in order to interfere with it or to divert it to the ego or just to make it go badly, because if you can get to the singers, then you can get everybody else in church, too. So the devil tends to be economical, I think. Which is why the same reason at a seminar there’s lots of temptations, because you can get somebody who’s going to be a priest. If you can get grab somebody right as they’re starting out, you have a lot of control over them. I think there’s a similarity. Of course, as a Church singer and a teacher of Church singing, at a seminary, there’s that much more temptation.

Fr. Anthony: So you really do have to double down on your peacefulness, on your humility, on your asceticism…

Mr. Sheehan: Yeah, I guess… [Laughter]

Fr. Anthony: Theoretically.

Mr. Sheehan: I’m not sure that I do, but actually I’m sure that I don’t, at least not as much as I ought to.

Fr. Anthony: Well, one of the things you just mentioned is that it’s a magnet for doing things poorly, and that can really affect the people’s ability to connect with the divine, so it can be a stumbling-block to our music, and that’s really what we’re here today to talk about mainly. I want to start out… You’ve written a couple of wonderful articles for your new blog with Ancient Faith Radio—The Music Stand?

Mr. Sheehan: Yeah, The Music Stand.

Fr. Anthony: And the first one was kind of a diagnosis. So when you go and you travel—because you do travel quite a bit—what do you see?

Mr. Sheehan: Well, we in the Orthodox Church in North America, I think we’ve known some time that demographically we’re in decline. Certainly there’s been a wave of conversion; there’ve been a few waves of conversion in the ‘80s and then the ‘90s, and there’s still people coming in, but in terms of where we were in the ‘40s, the ‘50s, the waves of conversion are nowhere near enough to replace the kind of generational die-off and the fact that a lot of young people are leaving the Church, or they were born into the Church and they didn’t stay. So I think we’re dealing with a demographic decline, and that’s the kind of overarching thing that we can’t forget about.

Fr. Anthony: Right, and that’s the context for musical decline. How does that work?

Mr. Sheehan: So within that context, naturally we’re seeing a musical decline as well. I think that’s something that everybody who’s paying attention can see. It’s not to say that there aren’t bright spots. There are bright spots, but they’re much rarer than they were, and they’re in much starker contrast to the average than they used to be. What I would say is that what I’ve been seeing over the past decade or so—I’ve been actively involved in Church music for about 20 years, since I was in my teens—what we’re seeing now in Church music in the Orthodox Church is not just a decline, but I would argue is a collapse, or an impending collapse; that we don’t have a new generation that is prepared to take leadership of Church music, prepared to be the choir directors, to be the singers that are going to carry the day for the next 25-some years.

Fr. Anthony: What was it like before in terms of these choir directors and music leaders, because it wasn’t just that there were more people.

Mr. Sheehan: I think that’s a big part of it—there were more people—but as you say there wasn’t only that there were more people. I think there was a sense—maybe it’s part of the American middle-class set mentality from the middle of the 20th century, that it was just part of being middle-class, to know how to read music, to play an instrument, or to sing and to know a body of songs. Then I talked to people of my parents’ generation, and there was a sense that there were just songs that everybody knew how to sing, and you sang songs with your family, you sang songs at school, you sang songs at camp. There was a kind of sense that everybody still was musically literate to some extent. That’s largely disappeared from our culture, and there’s lots of people that have talked about this.

So in the Orthodox Church I think that we’re dealing with that, with that loss of musical culture generally, and the fact also that music in public schools has really declined over the last 25 years or so. A lot of programs have been defunded or underfunded. A lot of music departments in public schools are not really teaching music theory any more; it’s teaching people how to read music. And when there is music going on, they’re more interested in doing a Broadway-style musical than they are in actually singing real classical repertoire, which if you think about it… Last year I’m in a church where it’s primarily Byzantine music. The European classical repertoire is a lot of what we sing in church, at least in the Slavic traditions, to some extent. So the fact that that’s not being taught in schools, we’re now having to pay for that; we’re dealing with that problem.

There’s no hard data as far as I know—nobody’s really studied the historical track of Church music in American Orthodoxy across the 20th century. So the evidence that I’m working off of is partly from my own observations of what is being done right now, what I’ve seen over the past 20 years or so, and a lot of anecdotal evidence from people that I’ve met.

Fr. Anthony: What are some of the indicators, when you travel? It’s like the old myth of the frog, being warmed up, doesn’t notice. What are some indicators that we can look at to see how our music is in our own parishes? Because when I travel, the music is done in a way that would not have been acceptable probably 30 or 40 years ago.

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely.

Fr. Anthony: And certainly would not be acceptable outside of Orthodoxy. One of the points you make in your article is that people have a tremendous capacity to put up with stuff. I tell this to people when I teach preaching, too. Just because someone’s willing to sit there for 15, 20 minutes doesn’t mean you’re doing it well. What is it that we look for? What are some indicators that our music program has either collapsed or it’s right on the verge?

Mr. Sheehan: That’s a good point. I think one major issue is: Does your church choir regularly prepare? Do they have choir rehearsals regularly? Are there criteria for participating in your church choir? Meaning, if they do regularly prepare, do you expect people to come in order to sing? So that’s kind of a basic problem of is there order? Is there some sense of artistic discipline in what you do? Because if you care about what you do, you will figure out an early way to do it so that it can be good every time you do it. That’s one of the major indicators that I see, and I hear stories from people all the time about how “yeah, we tried having choir rehearsals a few times, two or three people came, and it just didn’t get off the ground.” Or sometimes I’ll hear a story about “well, I wanted to have choir rehearsals, I told everybody they had to come, we did them, but then my priest said you can’t really require people to come to them, that you need to let them sing whether they come or not.” So you get this problem of the priest—of course, he’s dealing with the pastoral issues of “I don’t want to upset somebody, I don’t want to alienate them”—but the reality is that you’ve just undermined the choir director, and you’re not permitting this person to really do their job.

Fr. Anthony: Right, and this is one of the big things. I did a podcast on this: suggestions on how to work with a choir director. You are a worship team.

Mr. Sheehan: You are!

Fr. Anthony: And you have to agree on the front end and create an agreement: This is what we’re going to do, and the long-term goal is this. This is our vision, our shared vision, and these are the steps we’re going to take to get there. It is hard, once you inherit a culture that is used to not practicing, used to just getting by, it’s very hard. But, y’all, let’s be honest. Other churches did it. I came to Orthodoxy as a Methodist, and of course there were rehearsals. Of course you were expected to go to rehearsal.

Mr. Sheehan: You go anywhere else and you realize that what we treat as normal is kind of…

Fr. Anthony: We’ve settled.

Mr. Sheehan: ...is kind of absurd.

Fr. Anthony: And our whole thing is sung, and we have the theology of beauty. This is one of our big draws is this idea: we embrace beauty, and we’re supposed to provide it. And here we are: we’re not having rehearsals.

Mr. Sheehan: Right. And we actually have to sing a lot more than anybody else. The Orthodox liturgy is, what, 75% sung by a singer or a choir or the congregation or whatever ensemble is supposed to sing at the time—but it’s sung. And the priest really has to sing what he does, too. And yet, we think we can just wing it every time.

Fr. Anthony: Because “it’s the same thing every week.”

Mr. Sheehan: Maybe, but it’s not. Of course, it’s not the same thing every week. The Church builds variety into the liturgy. It’s not made up on the spot, or it’s not entirely at the whim of the choir director or the chanter, but there’s variety built into it. We’re also free to pick different versions of things. We have this incredibly rich tradition of music, like we have an incredibly rich tradition of architecture and iconography and vestment-making and textiles. There’s the whole artistic life of the Church that has been built up over the past two millennia. I feel in many ways like we’re treating it like entitled children; we take it all for granted. We don’t really respect or understand the work that was required to produce this tradition and to maintain it and to build on it. The fact is that, unless we do our part, it will not only decline, it may, as far as we’re concerned, disappear.

Now, it’s not going to disappear from the world. I mean, Christ promised that he would maintain his Church.

Fr. Anthony: St. Luke’s may disappear, because the people who are willing to put up with bad music, because that’s where they’ve always gone, they’re eventually going to die off. When their kids—they know what good music sounds like, and they know it’s not being done. We’re kind of set up for failure. We’ve really got to be intentional about this, because what I hear you saying is that the supply of people who can read music is declining—

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely.

Fr. Anthony: —and we’ve been resting on the laurels or maintaining the initiative or inertia of earlier generations, where you had professional choir directors who were maestros. They often composed their own music, they were trained in Europe, and then they would come here and establish these programs with these large choirs and stuff. But we’ve maintained that, but not really; we’ve just been coasting from there.

Mr. Sheehan: Yeah, and we’ve been coasting downwards, because really the only place you can coast is down. To go up or to even continue on the flat you need to maintain some energy.

Fr. Anthony: Right, and so the things that we do… We’re doing these initiatives where we do things like, well, your repertoire gets smaller. We know that we can reliably do… The OCA has some simple set things, so you’d end up doing just that simple thirds, and you can work that for a while, but another point you make is that if people aren’t trained musically and if they’re not rehearsing, simple music can sound just as much train-wreck.

Mr. Sheehan: We’re at the point now where in many churches we’re not even able to do simple music. Some people argue to me, “Well, what we need is simpler music.” Music can only be so simple until it’s not music any more. And we have the basic requirement, at least in the Slavic milieu, that we have to sing a cappella. If you have an organ, then that can cover a multitude of sins, and I would argue that in some ways there’s a real, practical argument for having an organ. I’m not saying I’m advocating that there be organs, and the reality is that a lot of times in the churches where you do have an organ, it’s not even a real one—it doesn’t sound that great—but what it does allow you to do is to kind of maintain the flow of the service without people that really know how to sing.

What I’m saying is that if we really want to dumb it down, then we should stop trying to sing a cappella, and we should stop trying to sing a cappella. If we want to sing a cappella, then we can only fall so far before we can’t manage it any more.

Fr. Anthony: Yes, or we go: “Organs: Is outrage.” Then you go to the “low Mass,” the spoken Mass.

Mr. Sheehan: Sure, [but] is that where we wanted to go?

Fr. Anthony: Exactly.

Mr. Sheehan: So that’s my fear, is that we haven’t really faced reality. And because of that, nobody’s really yet ready to do anything.

Now, when I say “ready to do anything,” what are the things that I think we need to do? Maybe I’m taking…

Fr. Anthony: No, this is great. Now we’re going to start talking solutions.

Mr. Sheehan: If you want music in the Church that’s worthy of the liturgy… because when you say “doing music badly,” I want people to think not about doing music badly—when you’re singing badly you’re doing the liturgy badly. It’s not music as something for snobs and aesthetes who have high-brow standards. We’re just saying “doing the liturgy.” St. Paul says to let everything be done decently and in order.

Fr. Anthony: Well, I’m going to push it a little bit further, because there is a structure to sound, so we are doing a theological disservice when we do not act in accordance [with] those laws. Just like there are laws of theology, I wouldn’t separate those. They’re all just part of creation, and we need to work in harmony with that, and it should become beautiful.

Mr. Sheehan: That’s true. The size of musical intervals are measured; they are prescribed. There are tuning systems, and historically that’s what musicians do.

Fr. Anthony:  So you have an obligation, just as we have an obligation to do theology well, we have an obligation to do music well.

Mr. Sheehan: Yeah, or just to sing what’s on the page. I completely agree with you, and I would even say that doing music well is part of good order. Starting together, ending together, saying the words at the same time, singing in tune, singing where one person is not drowning somebody else out—this is all part of the order of the liturgy. So in the same way that we wouldn’t want in the altar for people to be dropping things all the time or to fall down and trip on the stairs…

Fr. Anthony: Or in conversations for people to be passive-aggressive or selfish or mean—all of this is part of good order.

Mr. Sheehan: Exactly. So singing well I see as part of the order of the liturgy, and it’s not a matter of snobbery, it’s not a matter of just some people have good tastes or high tastes and some people don’t, it’s not that; it’s just: can we do it decently and in order? I think the reason that so many of us just react instinctively to poor singing in the liturgy is because it’s not orderly. I’m not saying that every church choir needs to be the telescope of colors or the Glinka Choir of Leningrad or to be Angelopoulos, God rest his soul, one of the greatest Byzantine chanters of the last generation. It’s not that we all need to be that, but we all need to be orderly. We all need to present the liturgy or do the liturgy in a way that tells somebody that we believe in what we do, that we’re serious about it, and that we want other people to be involved in it. We’re not just singing for ourselves.

Fr. Anthony: The way I see it, you provide two major solutions, and they’re related. One of them focuses on the general level of music literacy in the parish, and then the other one looks at the leadership of music in the parish. One of the things you’ve already mentioned for the literacy was the need to have regular choir practice. That is tied in with the other one, because that needs to be led by someone who’s competent. But there’s one other thing that I want to stress on before we get to your main point, which is musical leadership: is training children to sing and to read music.

Mr. Sheehan: Totally. There’s no better time to teach somebody music than when they’re three or four or five years old. Learning music—there’s lots of music out there that’s been done on music pedagogy and just the neurological component of learning music. As far as I understand it, music in many ways is just like a language, so there’s a certain window of time when it’s really easy to make those neurological connections, to build skills, to build up musical aptitude. Really, it’s before age nine. So after age nine, while you can learn—just the same way an adult can learn a language—while you can learn, it’s a lot more difficult and won’t have that instinctive quality that it would have, had you started earlier. So obviously, if you want people—or a generation—to be musically skilled, you have to start them when they’re young.

Fr. Anthony: Right, and then this involves having classes dedicated to it and/or working music into the regular programming. Camps are good at this. Camps are great: everybody sings together. You and I both experienced this growing up. This was part of our musical training. We could step it up a level, because we use Western notation: teach, reinforce Western notation, because they’re not getting it in schools. Maybe singing together in the opening and closing of Sunday school, because here’s what’s going to happen. I know this as a pastor. If I say, “We’re going to have children’s music group meeting on Wednesday nights”—because this is what I did growing up: you’d have the children’s music group, and then after that you’d have the chancel choir practicing. And people would come. Not everybody would come; not everybody was regular, but you’d always have people there. Parents won’t buy in; they won’t buy into it.

Mr. Sheehan: That’s part of the problem. What my vision for teaching kids… it goes beyond just a Sunday morning or a Sunday school kind of thing, or even what you get at a church camp, which really is only a week or two, maybe three weeks in a year. Music is a motor skill, and what do we know about motor skills? How do we learn?

Fr. Anthony: Repetition!

Mr. Sheehan: Exactly. So the more you do it—correctly—

Fr. Anthony: Correctly. Yeah, it has to be correct!

Mr. Sheehan: —the more easily it comes. It’s like learning any other motor skill, like learning to ride a bike or drive a car. But music is on the upper end of the spectrum of cognitive complexity and the refinement of motor skills, but it’s still a motor skill. Your vocal apparatus—your lips, your tongue, your vocal chords, your abdominal muscles, your lungs—all the things that are involved in singing, to sing better they have to be coordinated. So it’s like learning to ski or learning to dance. You’re having to coordinate a variety of muscle groups as well as learning to think at the same time. That’s also why I say music is like a language, because there’s a cognitive element, and there’s a sheer kind of muscular element.

Kids are kind of wired to learn these things, especially when they’re young, because there’s just a basic biological imperative that you have to learn a lot of things very quickly to survive, so you learn to walk, you learn to communicate, and you learn all the skills that are involved in doing your job or feeding yourself, these kinds of things. Music is one of those things. While it can be taught to adults or it can be taught to older kids, the best time to do it is when they’re young. In order to do it effectively, it has to be done regularly. It has to be done not a few weeks a year, but it has to be done every week, and ideally every day, in small increments, because a small ten minutes a day is far better than one week a year.

Obviously, the best place for this to occur for kids is in the school, because that’s where they spend a lot of their day and most parents are not able to do it themselves. Most parents can’t teach their kids math, especially after they get past sixth grade—I know I can’t. So you need people to teach kids music. So my vision is that a church or a group of churches could start to become centers for musical learning outside of the school atmosphere. So a group of a few churches could get together and start a music school and to do it under the auspices of a church and you’re already a non-profit so the legal issues are not as complex. I’m sure there are legal issues involved in who’s allowed to work with kids, and I know that some of the jurisdictions have got their own protocols for background checks.

Fr. Anthony: Yeah, and Pennsylvania’s kind of strict on that.

Mr. Sheehan: All that kind of stuff. So I’m not saying… They start a music school and it not be only for kids in the church. There’s lots of kids out there. There’s lots of parents who want their kids to sing in a choir that’s actually serious.

Fr. Anthony: That’s the thing. It has to be serious. Parents will buy into something if it’s done well, because parents are trying to be efficient. This is one of the traps of being a parent. I want to make sure my kids… all their moments are put towards their future.

Mr. Sheehan: I do the same thing.

Fr. Anthony: And you can sell music for that. Music can be a part of that if you offer a quality program. We offer dancing at our parish, and there are about 20, 25 kids that show up every week for the dance group. There are four of them that are members of our parish. That’s fine! You create a music program, and you offer a quality program, and you open it up. And people will come.

Mr. Sheehan: And people will come. And it shouldn’t be only for Orthodox kids, exactly. It shouldn’t even be necessarily Orthodox music. There’s lots of great music out there, and in many ways music is music, so learning to sing, learning to read, just learning the cognitive, psychological skills of singing in an ensemble, performing. There’s a lot of benefits, and there’s lots of studies that show that kids that study music do better in other areas. I don’t think a church would have a hard time selling the idea—provided that they had somebody in charge of it that knew what they were doing. So what I would say, and maybe this is a good segue into the problem of musical leadership, is that you need to have somebody who’s trained, who knows what they’re doing, who knows the vocabulary, who knows music pedagogy. They’re out there. They’re going to music schools. Music schools still have students.

Fr. Anthony: And they’re underemployed.

Mr. Sheehan: And they’re underemployed. And even when they are employed—I can use my wife as an example of somebody [who] went to school for music ed and was really inspired, because she’s a gifted educator, she loves to work with kids, and she gets into a public school, she gets a job, and you find—and I think a lot of teachers will know what I mean—maybe ten minutes out of an hour are really spent training or imparting content and really working with them. The rest of the hour is just crowd management. I think a lot of teachers want an atmosphere where they can really teach and really work with kids and impart what they know, impart what they love. We should employ these people.

You get a school started at a church, a school for music or a children’s choir—and their job is not just to sing the communion hymn or something like that—maybe there are benefits there, but I worry that that kind of a model is just there for the adults to think that the kids are kind of adorable, but the kids don’t really get much musical training out of it. It seems more symbolic to me than really substantive. What you need is a thing that’s regular, that will deal with multiple ages in the way that those multiple ages are supposed to be dealt with, because there’s different types of pedagogy for different ages; there’s different repertoire—there’s a vast body of repertoire out there that’s designed for different ages. This is not even what I’m trained in, so I’m not qualified to speak a lot about this, but I know enough to know more or less what we could be doing, and I know it’s not being done.

Fr. Anthony: Okay, let’s use that as a segue because the main point that you made is that you are calling us to account as Orthodox in America for not supporting the profession of music leader. There was a time when we did, when the assumption was that you would have a well-educated person who would lead the music and that music would be done well, there would be rehearsals and so on. And now every church probably has a music director or a choir director or something…

Mr. Sheehan: Not every church.

Fr. Anthony: No? Okay.

Mr. Sheehan: I guess theoretically every church does or feels like they ought to, but sadly there’s too many out there that don’t have anyone at all. I know, because I get phone calls and I get emails. “Do you know anyone? We don’t have a choir director. We don’t have anybody to sing.” So, yes, normally, I would say they do have some kind of music director.

Fr. Anthony: We’ve got a crisis here.

Mr. Sheehan: We have a problem.

Fr. Anthony: We’re more familiar with the crisis in the priesthood, because you’re not having services if you don’t have a priest. But you know, that’s hard enough. Now you’ve got a profession which does require certain skills for it to be done well, and it pays much less than the priesthood—

Mr. Sheehan: If at all.

Fr. Anthony: —if at all. So how does the market respond? The market is made up of people. It’s very inefficient. We’re not getting choir directors where we need them. What do we do about this? Churches barely can pay their priests.

Mr. Sheehan: Of course, whenever I bring up the issue “you have to pay musical leaders if you want them,” the first thing that many people say is, “We can’t even pay our priest.” I guess what I would say is that most people recognize the fact that you can’t pay your priest is a problem, but we haven’t yet gotten to the point where we all agree that not paying a music director is also a fundamental problem.

Fr. Anthony: Let’s face it. Don’t settle. Let’s stop settling. What would a healthy parish look like? Well, it would have a full-time priest (at least one). It would have a full-time, paid music director. It would probably have a youth director, and it would have a staff person.

Mr. Sheehan: That’s exactly it.

Fr. Anthony: This should be normal, and we should recognize when we’re not doing that that we are not providing the services that a healthy church would.

Mr. Sheehan: Exactly, and what I would even say, and maybe this is a problematic point to bring up, but what I would say is that we would be better off if we started with an idea of “what is a viable church?” and then we built towards that rather than “how do we find everybody for all the churches that we’ve already got?” The reality is that the church is getting smaller. I’m not reading data; I know there’s data out there on the Orthodox Church in the United States.

Fr. Anthony: It’s collapsing.

Mr. Sheehan: It’s collapsing, yeah, but it doesn’t mean, though… The fact that we’re demographically declining doesn’t mean that we have to be weakening. What I would argue is that we can be smaller and stronger, but for the stronger to occur, we have to pool resources. Right now we’re too spread out. I would even argue there’s too many parishes for what a church needs to be.

Fr. Anthony: We have to be intentional about this.

Mr. Sheehan: This is something that I have no control over. I doubt if you have any control over this, but it’s a problem that we need to think about collectively. I would say it’s a problem for the bishops to solve, but if we’re not thinking about it collectively, if we’re not supportive of the idea of consolidating churches or maybe creating magnet churches or something like that, then the bishop are not going to feel free to do something like that.

Fr. Anthony: So some of the examples of pooling resources like you brought up, one is [that] you would have these—you use the word “magnet,” but the usual role of a cathedral was not just to provide beautiful services within that space, but also to provide services to the smaller parishes around, to be like a feeder system.

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely! But they’re not. That doesn’t tend to be what they’re doing. We have a problem, too, that many of the cathedrals are linked to an urban center, and in many instances those are the ones that have suffered the most declines. We have suburban churches that are a lot stronger, a lot better populated, a lot better funded than the cathedrals. So they’re not able to be a model in anything. Again, this is something we have to think about.

Some of my concrete ideas are: a group of churches gets together—and I can’t take credit for this idea completely. My wife actually is the one that had the spark for this idea. So four churches in a relatively contiguous geographical area—I’d say a maximum of about two hours apart, maybe three, depending on logistics—they get together, and the four of them employ a full-time music director. So there would be one of them that would take the lead, maybe be the magnet church, so the music director would have some kind of a home base, but then the other three weeks of the month this music director would go from church to church. Part of this person’s job description would not only to be to sing for services and direct, but would be to help put a choir together, to train those people to sing, to teach them music that they can manage, and to get them into a state that they can get by when the music director’s not there with them for the other three weeks of the [month] or for special feast days, that kind of thing. So there would be a kind of traveling music director. I say about two hours apart so that it would be commutable for this music director on the weekend.

The point is for somebody to commit to doing a job of being a music director for a church, they have to be paid a wage that’s livable. It has to be something reasonable, and it seems to me if you shoot us your target kind of minimally paying a music director $40,000 a year, which is not enough to support a family, but it’s enough maybe for a family with two incomes. It’s enough to get somebody that’s actually gone to music school and had the years of training that it takes to be able to lead people musically. It’s enough for them to say, “Okay, I’ll move into the area and take the job, and I’ll be available full-time.” That’s kind of the minimum to actually get somebody. So that’s one idea.

One other idea is to do something like that on the diocesan level, so that dioceses collect some kind of music director “tax” or they get some kind of small funding from each church in the diocese, or depending on how many members there are, to create a position for a diocesan music director that’s also a full-time, trained and can kind of start to build up a music program at the diocesan cathedral and maybe even travel with the bishop along with some other singers so that at least when the bishop is there in your church they have a group there that can sing and can do a bishop’s service, because the reality right now for many of the bishops I know, because I speak with them, [is that] they can’t even do a bishop’s liturgy when they go to a church because the choir at the church doesn’t know how to do it or they just don’t even have a choir at the church.

So we could say this is just the reality that we’re in now, but do we want to accept this? Do we want to accept this state of affairs, that a diocesan bishop won’t be guaranteed that there would be a choir to sing when he comes to a church? I mean, this is not a good state, I think.

Fr. Anthony: And part of the job of that person,—because I’m against centralization in general; it’s very fragile, and bureaucracies tend to get co-opted at the top and focus less of their attention at the local level, where we’re trying to help—their job would be to help develop the music in each of the parishes.

Mr. Sheehan: Yes. So part of their job would be to produce musical resources that could be used in the diocese to start training, have there be training programs. There are some dioceses that do musical workshops regularly, that have an administrator for Church music, but as far as I can tell, none of these are full-time, professional jobs for somebody that has been to music school or at least has had a substantial amount of musical training in order that they could teach somebody else. So, yes, part of the job for a diocesan music director would be to build up music in the diocese generally.

Fr. Anthony: Okay, I have a question for you. In order for me to serve at one of our parishes, I have to have been vetted by the bishop and have been selected for that particular position. That’s one way of looking at ordination and assignment. Is that something that we should do for music leaders? Should there be some kind of vetting for them? So if I’m accepted and I have a regular training, and they say, “Yes, we’re going to ordain you and we’re going to assign you provisionally”—they could say this—“but you have to make up your shortfalls with this, this, this”—and they’ll come up with a training program for me and so on. That’s not done right now. Right now, you look for the best person you can afford, and you do it at the local level. It’s not vetted. How can we improve this process?

Mr. Sheehan: We could have a musicians guild, a kind of pan-Orthodox musical guild, where it would need to be independent of any diocese or any jurisdiction per se; that’s not to say totally independent, but it would need to be broad-based and not under the control necessarily of one group. That’s one thing that I would see… They have this outside the Orthodox Church. There’s the American Guild of Organists, and it’s a venerable guild, and it’s been around for some time. It’s a body that provides resources and has regular conferences, but a big part of the American Guild of Organists does is it certifies people, and there’s various levels of certification. The top level of certification in the AGO is more or less a doctoral level. It’s the kind of certification that you can only get if you have a doctorate in music. It’s tied to real criteria that exist in the musical world, so it’s a meaningful certification. Just as an aside, I think one of the pitfalls we’ve allowed ourselves to fall into as Orthodox is we have our own criteria for everything, that in any context outside of Orthodox wouldn’t really hold water. I’m hesitant to say this, but we have to be careful to not allow people that do music in the Orthodox Church to be big fish in a small pond.

We have a problem now where, if you are good at Church music, you’re seen as a kind of luminary leader, and the danger is that you can believe that yourself, whereas you go outside of what we do, and you realize that we’re kind of average. Speaking for myself, I’m good at my job, but I know that in the musical world outside the Orthodox Church… I try to stay connected, because it helps me know that I’m only moderately good at what I do. There’s no end to the standards that we can apply to ourselves.

Fr. Anthony: But we should have standards.

Mr. Sheehan: And I think we should be careful to keep our standards, to not just look inward, if you know what I mean.

Fr. Anthony: I do, yes.

Mr. Sheehan: Now, that being said, I’m not saying that everybody needs to be a musician that could play in a major orchestra…

Fr. Anthony: No, but if you had a guild, then your small parish, St. Luke’s in coal cracker country… but you have a guild, so they just took the job because they needed somebody and they could do it to a minimum level, to the best person available who was willing to do it. But then if they’re part of a profession, then there’s a system for bringing them up to speed, for always working for their improvement.

Mr. Sheehan: One key ingredient is that we need training programs, and that’s something that I hope we start seeing a lot more of. Online training is the way many institutions are moving right now in order to diversify their student base and a way to reach people on a much broader scale, and I think that online training for music works pretty well—it doesn’t work for everything, but it works for many things. So I hope that we’re going to start seeing more online training for Church musicians. This is a think I’ve been involved in, my wife is involved in. One of the classes I teach right now—I teach at St. Tikhon’s but also, for this year, I’m teaching the music class at Jordanville at the seminary, and part of that class I’m teaching online, because I can’t be there every week. So I go every other week. My wife is also; she’s co-teaching the class with me. On the weeks in between, we do it online, and it’s working quite well. There is a lot of musical training that can be done online. One of the things that you can’t do online is sing together with somebody else. The time lag is not manageable. But there’s a lot you can do. So I think that’s something that I hope we see more of and that I know other people are working on also.

Fr. Anthony: So there are things that we can start doing tomorrow in our parishes. Priests can start looking at how their music is being done and ask people… Here’s one of my big things—I came from the intel world, and collecting data is one of the most important things that we do. There’s a recognition that your reporters are biased and that you’re biased when you’re seeing the information. A preacher rarely knows how badly they preach; singers don’t notice that they’re off-key unless they’re trained.

Mr. Sheehan: Unless someone tells them that.

Fr. Anthony: So what you have to do is you have to find people who are willing to come in from outside and then give you an honest situation update. How was the music? How was the preaching? How was the atmosphere? I think we need to do that. There should be a checklist.

Mr. Sheehan: I agree.

Fr. Anthony: I bet you you have friends going to other churches that would be willing to come and do that. They’re not doing it to be mean or anything. We need this information.

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely. That’s actually something apparently that I’ve been told started to occur in Russia right after the fall of Communism, that one of the things that the Moscow Patriarchate did was they brought in, especially one Archimandrite Matthew, as I’ve been told, who was the choir director at the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Monastery. He was brought in to be the music consultant for the Moscow Patriarchate, and part of what he did was he traveled around the different churches, and he gave them big feedback. He did specific prescriptions about what they could do. I think something like that could occur. Yeah, I think that’s a good idea.

Fr. Anthony: So the first thing we could do is get an honest assessment of where we’re at. You have to have a vision of where you want to be. And start having that conversation with your music director. That’s your teammate. They can provide valuable input on your profession. “How am I doing with my liturgizing? How am I doing with my homilies?” They’re not experts on homilies, but they have to listen to it every week. And they’re professionals.

Then also that conversation: Where would you like to see, as the priest, where would you like to see the music go? I guarantee you that that music director is frustrated about two or three things, and they would love to have your support in changing it, because when you talk to most music directors who aren’t having rehearsals, they’ll tell you why. They’ll say, as you said, “I tried it and this, this, this, and this.” But if you’re on the same page, you can figure out a way to change the culture. We can do it, and we have to do it.

Then these other things: we can support our bishops, we can support our dioceses and so on, and let them know that we really do want to do this better. But there’s no reason for us to have bad music in our parishes.

Mr. Sheehan: I know. And I think we’ll only stand to benefit from trying to improve our music. Again, I can’t stress enough that we have to stop seeing music as a kind of rarefied, specialist discipline or domain of snobbery. It’s about the liturgy. It’s about our offering to God. It’s about the firstfruits and making a worthy sacrifice, about increasing the talent given, and it’s about church growth. I get people arguing with me about “How can you tell somebody that they’re singing badly? They’re giving their best to God, and you can’t criticize this.” I think that we’ve allowed ourselves to buy into a certain not-good American volunteerism. My good friend, Vlad Morosan, has this term: “entitled mediocrity,” that “It’s my offering, so therefore you’d better accept it—as the Church, or, God forbid, as God.”

But really we have to look at ourselves more critically. Are we really offering our best? Is this our firstfruits? Is this the best we can manage? I know lots of people out there are working, a lot, and they’re putting a lot of effort into it. But sometimes you shouldn’t work harder; you should work smarter. You should take a step back and say, “Well, yes, I know I’ve been banging up against this wall for the past 25 years, but maybe there’s another way.” So that’s what I would say. I would encourage a church: If you really want to better, can you think of other ways you can do better? Can you think of other ways around things?

Fr. Anthony: Just as priests should have a fellowship, a group of priests that they bounce things off of and they get mentored by and that they can share best practices with, share things that didn’t work with, music directors need to do the same thing. This is a profession, and all music directors, they’re like pastors. They’re going to have their own tolerance levels; they’re going to figure out what they’re willing to work with in terms of off-key. As long as it’s working towards a common vision, I have no problem with that, but it needs to be out in the open.

Mr. Sheehan: You have to work with people where they’re at, but you can’t leave them there.

Fr. Anthony: Right, yes. You have to be working towards that vision. As priests, if we haven’t even talked to our music directors about this kind of thing—what is their tolerance level? how do they feel about people who can’t sing singing along?—they’re there for a reason; they have a charisma. We should be soliciting their—I call it their opinions, but their thoughts on this. What’s their discernment on where the music is and where they want it to be and how to get it there?

There’s many other things that we can talk about, but Ancient Faith Radio is already being tolerant in letting us publish this much of our time, but hopefully you’ll be willing to get together at some point in the future.

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely. I’d be delighted to talk more.

Fr. Anthony: Until then, I encourage you to check out Benedict’s blog at The Music Stand at Ancient Faith Radio. He’s at St. Tikhon’s, and if you want to find out what good music sounds like, you can follow him around. You’ve been traveling with a choir recently.

Mr. Sheehan: Yeah. Part of my job is to regularly go out with the seminarians and sing in churches.

Fr. Anthony: If somebody wanted to have y’all come, are y’all available?

Mr. Sheehan: Absolutely. You just need to contact… Don’t contact me; contact the office or the Director of Development, Seraphim Danckaert, and we can book you. That’s part of what we do. And if you want me to come to meet with you or to hear your choir or to work with your choir, to give you some encouragement or some tips—that’s also part of what I do: I go out on the road often with my wife, who’s a very talented music teacher, and we team up and do a workshop—that’s a think I’d be glad to do.

Fr. Anthony: You and I served a wedding together, and that was fantastic. We’d met before, but we’d never served together at anything. That was just—it was wonderful. It was so good. They were so responsive. They have their own set music that they’re doing; of course, that was just over-the-top beautiful. People knew God that day. They saw it in the love that the couple had for one another, but they also knew it through the music. But the way you worked with the clergy was fantastic. We were able to work together in a way—you could tell that we were on the same page, but it’s more than that. We were serving the same God, and we were doing it together. So often you can have talented clergy and talented choir directors, but it’s like they’re not on the same team.

Mr. Sheehan: They have to dance. You have to see the clergy and the singers as dance partners.

Fr. Anthony: Yes. Yeah. And that’s where we’re headed with this. That’s part of the vision. Well, God bless you. You’ve got a wonderful ministry. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.

Mr. Sheehan: There’s a lot of work, and I just hope I can encourage people to do the work.

Fr. Anthony: Amen. Well, until next time…

Mr. Sheehan: Thank you so much for having me on the show and being interested in what I have to say.

Fr. Anthony: Amen. Amen.



Fr. Anthony: So that was Benedict Sheehan and our discussion about Church music. I told you it’d be worth the extra time! Until next time, Godspeed.