How I Learned to Chant

When I moved back home after two years at a tough architecture school in Manhattan, I was exhausted.  My body was worn out from weeks of sleepless nights, and my spirit was weak for want of nourishment.  I took a regular nine-to-five job in an architecture firm, drawing details for doctors’ offices, and from five until nine I wondered what to do with myself, and what to do with my life.

Byzantine music was a large part of what had brought me into the Orthodox Church years before.  The language is thick and the melodies foreign-sounding, but a closer examination reveals shocking metaphors, poetic descriptions and the essences of the foundational truths that define my faith.  But it was not until my life was largely empty that I began to really learn why the ancient chants had been so deeply attractive to me: desperate for something to do, I asked our church’s head chanter, also one of my closest friends, to apprentice me, and as I studied with her, I found parts of myself I had never known existed.

I found my voice.  Though musical (I studied piano for eighteen years, and am now a teacher), I had never had a good singing voice; I could carry a tune, but I was not a soloist.  When I began to chant, I discovered that moment of magic that all artists experience at some point: secular artists might call it the inspiration of the muse, but for the spiritually-minded, it is nothing short of divine.  When I chant, it’s not me singing.  It’s something much bigger than me, something I could never have done on my own.

I found my faith.  The theology of the Church is embedded in its hymnography, and there is no better way to understand its truths than to study its music.  I discovered in a new way what it meant to be Orthodox, and what it meant to follow Christ, and what it meant to include beauty – poetry and song together – in worship.

I found myself.  Though it sounds trite, I discovered what most spiritual seekers discover on their journey to a deeper faith: by submitting to a higher authority, and embracing humility as a virtue, your soul is freed from suffering and sin, and draws closer to its creator.  It’s a long, uphill battle, but the small steps of progress are well worth the struggle.  As St. John has said, “He must become greater, I must become less.”

I found my life.   My interest in Byzantine music, coupled with my unfinished education in architecture, eventually led me to Greece, where I lived for a summer (one chapter of the book takes place there.)  This led to the completion of my bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies.  Meanwhile, my immersion in the world of music awakened my desire to study the piano again (I had abandoned it amid the pressure of architecture school), and I began teaching.  Byzantine chant, for me, was the link between my past and my future: It solidified my beliefs about the Church and allowed me to use my musical abilities to take part in a fulfilling vocation.

That's my story.  (It was also part of my first and only book proposal several years ago.  I had high hopes, but I knew it was all over when the editor, formerly very gung-ho, used the exact same words used by the agent in "Sideways": "This might be one of those unfortunate cases of a great book that there's just no place for right now . . . "  Zing!  No, I'm over it.  Really.)

For an interesting segueway between my learning process and my teaching process, read this post by one of my most treasured chanters.  I love hearing about what first interested people about this unusual mode of worship!  And I'm honored to have been a part of his journey.