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Music Program’s Rebirth Includes Master Classes and Choral Concerts
21 September 2012 • Faculty Notes • Deborah (Malacky) Belonick
“The musical environment at St. Vladimir’s is one of transition,” says Assistant Professor of Liturgical Music Dr. Nicholas Reeves. “New arrangements are being sung in Three Hierarchs Chapel, new avenues of presenting music are being tried—namely, in the form of concerts— and new professors are instructing courses; all of these changes result from the theological, pastoral, and musical needs of our students.”
Dr. Reeves, who was appointed to his position in Academic Year 2011–2012, admits that he “truly inherited a significant responsibility replete with high expectations,” when he was charged with the development of a Music Program that would meet the challenges of church musicians in the 21st century.
“My predecessors—highly skilled in Orthodox liturgical music—left behind a legacy that both encouraged and challenged me,” he said. “St. Vladimir’s recordings and publications of our Church’s rich collection of sacred hymns, responses, and psalms have been essential components not only of the libraries of our local church communities but also of the consciousness of a broader audience seeking a clearer understanding of the meaning of this repertoire.
“My job is to chart the course of the Music Program over the next two years,” he explained, “and I have chosen the following criteria to inform the methods and music instruction here at St. Vladimir’s during that period: 1) the musical needs of the parish 2) the essential technical skills necessary for church musicians to fulfill their sacred music ministry 3) the need to impart knowledge regarding the theological, historical, and contemporary significance of Orthodox liturgical music; and 4) the need for our students to understand the spiritual ramifications of music, both sacred and secular.”
To accomplish some of these goals, Dr. Reeves has injected two major objectives into the Music Program in FY12: Master Classes and public concerts. Both have augmented the classroom instruction and natural learning that takes place as seminarians conduct chapel services and participate in them as choir members.
“The classroom education prepares future clergy and singers in voice, music theory, conducting, and the basic genres of all eight tones [of church music],” he said. “And, the chapel services on campus are exemplary in every liturgical aspect, especially singing.
“But, in order to address the needs of parishes, one must also possess the technical skills required to execute the proper conducting and singing of sacred music,” he continued. “Therefore, for those seminarians wishing to pursue a music ministry, a solid foundation in vocal production, music theory, and conducting is indispensable—such experience must be gained not just in a parish setting, but also by participating in model choral ensembles.”
To that end, two Master Classes under expert leadership were held on campus in FY12: the first under the recently appointed Lecturer in Choral Conducting, Matushka Robin Freeman, and the second under renowned choral conductor and expert in Russian choral music, Vladimir Gorbik. Additionally, Mat. Freeman, along with Hierodeacon Herman (Majkrzak), lecturer in Liturgical Music and director of Chapel Music at the Seminary, also conducted a public concert, “ORIENT: Sacred Song and Image,” in Manhattan, New York, using the exquisitely trained voices of the St. Vladimir’s Seminary Chorale—a group made up of seminarians and alumni, with a few other Orthodox Christian singers adding to the ensemble.
All of the newly designed courses in the “rebirth” of Music Program focus on intensive technical training. Dr. Reeves is teaching “Introduction to Vocal Production,” a remedial voice-training course that introduces students to phonation, rhythm, and pitch recognition; and “Vocal Instruction,” an advanced course that combines group and private lessons and that addresses problems of diction, pedagogy, and vocal technique.
Matushka Freeman, in turn, is teaching both beginning and advanced classes in choral conducting, and relishing the experience. Of her new ventures, she said, “It is a true joy for me to work with the talented, inquisitive, and hard-working musicians at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. The beginning conducting course focuses on acquiring the technical and musical proficiency necessary to build an effective vocabulary of conducting gesture.
“In addition to strengthening their technical conducting skills,” she continued, “advanced conducting students learn how to plan rehearsals and choose repertoire. Church musicians who acquire these skills will leave St. Vladimir’s with a solid foundation that will help them bring out the beauty of Orthodox services in their future ministries.”
Special lecturers in the Music Program address particular liturgical traditions. Mariam Ceena Varghese, as Lecturer in Malayalam, is teaching a 4-semester sequence in the chant language of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. These courses aid the Malankara Orthodox students in their ministry to help serve those who have Malayalam as their first language. Students are introduced to the Malayalam alphabet, pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. Special emphasis is given to reading liturgical texts and increasing the knowledge of liturgical vocabulary. The language is practiced by reading, chanting and singing in the Malankara Orthodox Chapel on the Seminary’s campus, in addition to in-class instruction. The courses also aim to familiarize the students with the eight-mode music system of the West-Syriac Tradition adopted by the Malankara Orthodox Church.
“I am grateful to the Seminary for its commitment to pan-orthodoxy and for providing the atmosphere for the Malankara students to grow in their faith and traditions,” said Ms. Varghese. The Seminary has made this possible by providing the Malankara Chapel, the Malankara Curriculum, and the Malankara Scholarship program.
“The Seminary’s initiative to offer Malayalam as an academic course has helped provide the training necessary to chant and sing in the first language of the majority of the people in the Malankara Orthodox Church,” she noted, “and has enriched services in the chapel.”
The Rev. Charles Baz, as Lecturer in Liturgical Music, is teaching Byzantine Liturgical Chant Theory and subsequent intensive courses in the Arabic language for liturgical use.
“Understanding the theory of Byzantine Psaltika,” said Fr. Baz, “is essential to comprehending and practicing this ancient form of liturgical chant. Students are presented with a thorough survey of the major Byzantine musical scales, how they are incorporated in chant, and how they are interrelated and made distinct by application.
“Although historically this sacred art was introduced relatively late in English in the West (within the last half century),” he added, “it is nevertheless widely spreading across Orthodox churches in the New World, especially in recent years. The Seminary's lifelong goal of engaging the world with Orthodoxy will definitely be more fully realized as it incorporates these and other courses, which are part of the rich and diverse history of the Church.”
As well, Fr. Herman continues to train the chapel choirs (male and mixed voices) and the traveling Men’s Choir—a 21st-century version of the “Octet” that visited parishes on goodwill tours from the 60s through the 90s. In referring to his teaching ministry at the Seminary, he remarked, “It is sometimes said that every seminary instructor believes his own subject to be the most important, and perhaps I am no exception.
“When we read the descriptions of the life of the Age to Come in the Book of Revelation, we see what we are preparing for by striving for salvation: to praise and glorify the All-holy Trinity in song for all eternity,” he explained. “In the chapel, in the classroom, and on the road with the Men's Choir, I strive to convey to my students how solemn and yet joyful is the task of liturgical singing, for it is nothing less than a foretaste of the kingdom of God and an image of the worship of the angels.”
“There is much to accomplish at St. Vladimir’s,” concluded Dr. Reeves. “But, practical experience, technical proficiency, and the rigors of academic life are worthwhile only if they lead us closer to our Lord Jesus Christ. The tools a church musician gains over time are inseparable from sacramental life. Proper preparation for the services not only includes the organizing of musical scores and the sorting out of rubrics, but also the self-emptying of the musician by prayer, fasting, repentance, and forgiveness.
“The spirit exuded by the choir director or chanter can have a strong effect on the choir or congregation,” he acknowledged. “Hence in class, reflections on the emotional experience in services and the spiritual struggle found in them are commonly attached to lectures on liturgical structure, historical style, and repertoire.”