By Fr. Vladimir Berzonsky
“Liturgy” by definition implies action, and children more than most are soon bored when placed in the role of mere spectators. Now that most of our dioceses and parishes are encouraging the attendance of children at the sacred Liturgy, it becomes all the more important that we discover new ways for them to express their prayers to the Lord. It will not do merely to discipline them for restless behavior and reward them for remaining immobile throughout the worship.
Choirmasters are not normally pleased to include children in the regular choir because their vocal abilities are limited by their undeveloped voice organs, and they do not harmonize with the adult singers. Should they be formed into separate choirs? Of course, whenever that is possible; however, our experience is that this becomes a practical difficulty since the time required to sing an entire Liturgy makes an enormous demand on choirmaster and children. Best results have occurred when youth choirs are rehearsed for specific holidays, and led to sing portions of the sacred services.
Rehearsal Time - A Challenge
Nobody needs to be reminded that time is a rare commodity. We must not, therefore, sacrifice the precious time we have together; we must set fixed priorities for what we attempt. Worship always heads the list. Nothing is more relevant to the youth of our parishes than to know, to love, and to praise the Lord within the Orthodox community. If we do not permit children to be taken from the holy service and made to sit in classrooms for Christian education, we also ought not utilize the precious time for church school in order to rehearse the young people for singing.
Here is another case where strict priorities must be adhered to, and classroom time must be protected at all costs. I feel we gain little by utilizing learning time in order to sing, although it can be argued that such singing is a form of learning; however, each time we forsake curriculum we treat Christian education as something secondary, negotiable, and of relative importance, showing to teachers and pupils that what they are about is only of nominal significance.
When and What Should the Children Sing?
When during our worship should the children sing alone? When they are just starting, and might feel awed by crowds, it could be possible to give them a place during the Hours preceding the Liturgy, perhaps singing the special hymns of the day or the season. Those parishes where the congregation actually assembles on time and even a quarter hour prior to the Introit would probably encourage the young people to try their voices then. Another such moment is during the communion of the clergy.
What shall they sing? I have a simple, personal, and rather homely test for church music, and that is: Do the people sing it on the way home from church? If not, we are not infecting our people with the joy of the Lord. As a kid, I sang church hymns all week long; of course, all in Slavonic, but with great gusto. They filled my soul with meaning.
Here is a challenge for all our aspiring church musicians who enjoy talking about styles, composers, and chants: What will be sung in the car on the way home? Will your listeners sing what you have sung, or instead turn on the radio? It’s not enough for us to deplore rock music, acid rock, punk music, and all the rest; rather let us find ways to challenge its effects by presenting the Lord’s holy Gospel in a manner that our children will internalize and make part of their daily lives, having the tunes in their heads drowning out the noises of the world.
Inspiration From the Suffering Church of Russia
One lesson we might adapt from the suffering Church of Russia. Visitors there must be impressed with the way those dear believers enjoy devotion. They are caught up in the liturgical cycle something like the way young Americans are drawn by rock concerts. I do not feel the analogy to be disrespectful, for Orthodox believers over there are as emotional for spiritual nourishment as teenagers over here are for the sensual. One quickly realizes that the Church there is indeed alive in the Spirit of Christ. Each holy day does more than merely come about; God’s people go forward to greet it.
Singers in Russia share the joy by encouraging true antiphonal singing, by two separate choirs. At certain moments, select groups sing: male, female, or mixed, in sextets or octets, will come forward to sing a special hymn of the feast which is obviously well rehearsed, and the presentation is its own reward. Could we capture such a spirit here in the land of earthly delights? Would it be possible to rekindle that love for praising the Lord which our ancestors knew and our spiritual relatives in captivity still manifest? Herein lies a challenge for us all.
Summer camps and Bible classes frequently feature singing, and we must be grateful for that, but we must also discover ways to relate those summertime experiences to the local parishes. How do we integrate our youngsters into the singing, praying experience of the church? Somehow this must be done.
Choir - An Anchor During Stormy Years of Growth
Finally, during those years of tumult which every young person lives through, from adolescence well into his adult, mature years, Christ is both challenge and problem, refuge and the One refused. Sometimes it is not much more than the choir which holds a person to the Church during the stormy years. Living choirs are those ever in search of young, new members. Bless the directors who go out in search of new talent, ever on the watch for young singers.
How deplorable are those parishes where children who sing in the school choirs and choruses are not encouraged to take part in the church choir, those closed shops, where only the privileged few are allowed to parade into the lofty area “reserved”, in every sense, for the select few. And it’s not enough merely to announce rehearsals. Youngsters must be invited, or they will not feel welcome. Let us break up those elitist cliques for the sake of our young people before they simply disappear.
Questions For Discussion:
1. Are children encouraged to sing in any part of your church worship? If yes, when and how are they encouraged? If no, what are the reasons they are not encouraged?
2. Discuss the feasibility of developing a children’s singing group in your parish, taking into account the need for the “natural” director someone who enjoys working with children, rehearsal time, the extent of the singing, i.e. special holidays, special parts of the services, engendering parish support for their endeavors.
3. How are new members solicited for your church choir? What are some ways of seeking out potential members? of making potential members feel they would be welcome?
Fr. Vladimir Berzonsky is pastor of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, Parma, Ohio, a feature column writer for The Orthodox Church newspaper and the author of several Orthodox publications.