How I Teach Chant

Our church is 10 minutes from an international airport, so we get a lot of passers-by.  We're also blessed with our very own PR agents, Frederica Mathewes-Green and Terry Mattingly, who sing in the choir on Sundays and write about the church, and more generally about faith and the modern world, on the other 6 1/2 days of the week.

So, even though I'm there for the majority of the services we offer, it's not unusual for me to look out at the crowd on Sunday morning and think, "Who are these people?  I don't know half of them!"  After chanting Matins and singing in the choir during Divine Liturgy (when your mom is the choir director, there is no taking a break.  Did she take a break from raising you in all those years?!  And don't you dare mention that trip to Acapulco!) I am usually too exhausted to go downstairs for lunch and fellowship, but almost every time I do, someone comes up to me to tell me how much they love the Byzantine chanting.  Not me, but the music itself.  "It's so . . . strange . . . complex . . . transporting . . . "  I watch with a smile as they fumble for words.  Then I invite them to Saturday chanting practice.

We've had around a dozen chanters here for close to a decade now.  As with any group, some are very dedicated, while some are more fringe members.  Our last protopsalti used to meet individually with everyone; although I admire her (okay, I bow before her) for that kind of sacrifice, it's just not possible for me.  Plus, as I discovered by accident when I called a group practice for a special service, the music sounds so much better when people rehearse together!

So, last fall, our priest asked me if I'd consider leading weekly practices for anyone who wanted to chant the following weekend.  Glibly, I said, "Sure!" without really considering the implications.  We meet for close to two hours every Saturday before Vespers; we spot-practice whatever's coming up that weekend, and we usually rehearse one or two more major pieces for the next season (Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.)  It's a lot of work, but since we've started, I've heard an incredible difference in the voices of the chanters who come over and over again, sit through my incomplete explanations and pet-peeve lectures (the wrong ison . . . UGH) and sing through dozens and hundreds of services throughout the year.  I've also grown attached to them, so that when they threaten to leave -- one for a monastery, another for seminary -- it's hard to be happy for them.

So, what's difficult about teaching adults?  For one thing, they're adults.  They're independent.  You can't hold the threat of detention or a failing grade over their heads and expect them to comply.  My priest is my biggest advocate, but even with him on my side, it's not always possible to keep the group unified.  Some are perpetually late to practice (I'm not the most timely person either, though I have improved since taking a leadership position, so I try not to whine about this.)  Some don't come to practice, but expect to chant anyway.  Some come to practice all the time, and I feel the most for this group, as they have to adapt and bend to the whims of the less reliable members.

People are messy.  They don't fit into the neat definitions you've set out for them.  You can think you've thought of every possible situation, and here will come someone with an exception you'd not considered.  Then you have to make a decision, because even if your students are twice your age, you're still their teacher.  Some will be miffed and stop chanting altogether.  Some will understand and apologize for putting you in a tough situation.  Some will say nothing, and you're not sure what they're thinking -- whether they're secretly seething with resentment or whether they've already forgotten about it.

In Frederica's wonderful book Facing East, she describes similar frustrations with parishioners, and the ensuing paragraph is so good I'm going to reproduce it here in its entirety, while telling you to buy the book for yourself (and you can get an autographed copy here!)  She happened to be writing about our church, but really, it could be any church, or school, or place of business.  Human nature hasn't changed much in the last few millenia.

"I don't see why we have to have a church with people in it.  They could just mail their checks in. [Fr. Gregory] and I could sit in our living room, with our own little icon corner, and listen to recordings of beautiful Orthodox chant. Maybe have a little wine or cheese and crackers. We could have delightful conversations about spiritual things and be quite edified. When it was time for church we could phone it in. We could hold church over the computer, online."

She goes on to say that, ironically, her online group of Christian friends is involved in the same kind of squabble.  (What?  People can fight on the Internet?)

So here we are, messy and uncategorized, trying to learn something that promises to change us.  I may be the teacher, and this may be a cliche, but I think I learn more than any of my students do.