“Have you ever gone to a new place or tried a new experience and thought to yourself, ‘I’m never doing that again!’ Tell us about it.”
In the summer of 2000, I was a choir director at a Greek Orthodox church whose chief qualification seems to have been that I was the only member of the choir who could read music, and that I knew most of the music these folks were singing. And there it might have remained, had I not received in the mail a notification concerning something called the Summer School of Liturgical Music.
When I mention this school to people, visions automatically rise in their minds of old ladies singing, “What a Friend We Have in GEEEE-zus,” off-key. Well, they have the old-lady part right: The only person in that choir who was younger than I was my son. For the rest, though, let me put it this way: Orthodox services are entirely sung, and the music is supposed to help people understand what Heaven sounds like; when it’s done right, it does sound like Heaven. You don’t sing off-key, and nobody in the Orthodox world sings cutesy little ditties from the nineteenth century. I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it.
And these old ladies were good. They had sung together since high school, every single Sunday, and they knew this stuff cold. Which isn’t to say that they could have sung without a director; even though they had known one another for fifty and sixty years, they’d talk non-stop if I let them, and lose their place in the music in nothing flat. (Or sharp. Sorry. Couldn’t resist.) So they needed a director, and what they got was – me.
Always room for improvement, they say, so when I got this brochure in the mail from the Summer School of Liturgical Music, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a bit more about my craft. Of course…I should have realized that I was in for an entirely different experience when I saw that one side of the brochure was in English and the other in Russian.
SSLM, to give it its abbreviated title, is held for two weeks every summer at a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Upstate New York, about twenty miles north of Cooperstown (home of the Baseball Museum). The entire course takes three years to complete. and anyone who completes it earns three college credits. There are courses in Church Music History, Solfege (sight reading), Music Theory, Voice Production, Choral Methods, and Choir Direction – and that’s only the musical portion of the course. There are also courses in the Structure of Divine Services and Church Slavonic, the Russian equivalent of King James English. Students who are graduating that year have two weeks to pull together a disparate group of people who have probably never sung together before, and form them into a choir that can perform a piece of music roughly equivalent to something written by Rachmaninoff.
This is what I signed up for.
Nobody who takes this course has any idea of what it’s actually like before that first year. It’s a little like military basic training must be: two weeks of being shuffled from class to class, while instructors throw knowledge at you that takes you through a thousand years of Russian Church history, and seventeen hundred years of Orthodox Church music. You’re in class for eight hours every day, and the classes held at noon and five p.m. always run over, since those instructors take the opportunity to cram a little extra into resistant brains. At least they don’t scream it at you, the way DIs do.
Here’s the kicker: Most of the people there have at least some idea of what the music sounds like. They’ve been singing it in their choirs back home, and they’re just there to refine skills they already have. Not me. Greek music and Russian music are like from two different solar systems. Sometimes I wonder: If this music is really sung by the angels, as the Orthodox believe, are there Greek angels and Russian angels in Heaven? What do they sound like when they get together? Do they get together? In this world, Greeks wouldn’t be caught dead singing that “Western-sounding Russian music,” and Russians think that Greek music sounds like camel-calling (hat tip to M.T. Riggs, husband of a dear friend of mine). That’s how different the music is. I had never heard any of the Russian music, and I was supposed to have whole melodies memorized. In two weeks. On top of Church Slavonic, Church Music History, Music Theory, etc., etc., and so forth.
And all the music was in Russian. Fortunately, I could read Cyrillic (barely – the last time I was exposed to it, I was fifteen). And I could read music. In addition, most of the classes were held in English, so I wasn’t completely lost. Note the operative word, “most” – there’s one instructor who’s a bit sensitive about his English (which is perfectly good), so he insists on teaching in Russian, and relies on the School to provide translators for us Cultural Illiterati.
This is the environment I found myself in, for two weeks. No escape possible: My husband had driven me out, and would be back in two weeks to collect me. Oh, and the housing arrangements were, to say the least, monastic: Rooms the size of cells, each with two World-War-II-surplus Army cots, whose springs were so shot that boards had been fastened to the bottoms of the beds to provide support for Flopsy-Bunny mattresses. Three toilets and one shower per floor – and the showers, that first year at least, lacked even the most rudimentary flow-control valves, so that you’d be peacefully showering, and someone would flush a toilet – anywhere in the building – and you’d get scalded. Or someone would be showering on the other floor, and you’d freeze because they had diverted the hot water.
There were two bright spots: The church services, and the food. This being a monastery, there were church services every day, beginning at 6:00 a.m., and if you happened to be up at that hour, you could walk the mile from the guesthouse to the church, sit or stand in the back, and soak it all in. Weekday services aren’t as glorious as Sunday services, but there’s something about worshipping at that hour of the day that more than makes up for the sleepy singing emanating from monks who’ve been up since four a.m.
And the food was nothing short of phenomenal. The School had its own kitchen, staffed by the wife and kids of the School’s Director, and these people cranked it out three times a day in true Russian style – lavishly, prodigally, and on a shoestring. I don’t know how they did it, but we never went hungry, and there was always plenty of talk and laughter at the table. They knew what we only dimly perceived: There was no way we could sustain the frenetic pace set for us by the requirements of the curriculum, without a lavish diet. Yet I always lost weight during those two weeks.
At the end of the two weeks, that first year, I was cross-eyed and beyond cranky. Some of the conducting was so slow that I had to breathe between syllables, forget about not breathing for whole phrases. I took to mouthing the words without making a sound, so it looked like I was singing, but at least I could breathe. I gritted my teeth, passed all my classes (except Slavonic – I have never yet passed that course), got through the final exam for the graduates, which was a full hour-long concert, and promised myself I’d never set foot in that School again.
Only one problem: I couldn’t get that music out of my head.
When I got back to my own choir, Greek music really did sound like camel-calling, and I ended up giving up my post as choir director. I played my taped copy of the final exam over and over and over, just for the pleasure of listening to that music; I found myself thinking, at odd hours of the day, of the peace that surrounded the monastery. At 6:00 a.m., it was so quiet you could hear the bees buzzing in their hives. You could hear traffic approaching from half a mile away. By Easter of the following year, I knew I’d be going back.
Due to the distance between my home and the nearest Russian Orthodox parish – fifty miles – I was unable to attend Russian services every week, so it took me an extra year to complete that course (except for Slavonic). But in 2003, I finally achieved my goal: I became a certificated choir director of the Russian Orthodox Church. And I am so grateful I ignored my initial declaration of, “Never again!”