I remember describing my first experience in a praise/worship service in the Protestant tradition. I remember texting my mom, as this happened at the college I was attending as a freshmen, and describing it as being “bizarre, not good nor bad, just bizarre.” It was culture shock, something I never have experienced before as an Orthodox Christian. It was like being the only person wearing a gray t-shirt in a room where everyone was wearing neon: you felt hidden and misplaced. I selected this school due to its impressive music program, as I was going to school to receive my bachelor’s in music education. At that moment in the service, I remember my thoughts being: “Did I really choose the right school? Is this what college is going to be for the next four years of my life?” I was scared, because I was exposed to something that I had no clue what it was, and people were worshiping in ways I had never seen. I put myself at a college where I would be completely outside my comfort zone, being integrated into a Protestant culture, rooted in Anabaptist and Wesleyan traditions.
Now, as a junior in my spring semester, I understand why I did choose here. Yes, it is Protestant, but everyone is a Christian! Can you imagine a campus where everyone shares a common belief, a common faith, even the musicians, playing and singing together with a common faith and purpose as well? Text in music, as a result, became a great focal point in my education, especially in sacred singing. I am a vocalist and am incredibly passionate for the choral art, so this was a very different perspective, but also a necessary perspective for me to adopt. In the choral ensembles I’m involved with, we take the time to really delve into the text, discover its meaning, and then apply it to the music, our own lives, and then to the people. This has given new meaning to secular texts, such as poems, folk songs, and stories, but also expresses the need for sacred devotion to texts using the scriptures or sacred poems. Along with this, the choirs I’m involved with at this school focus on the essentials such as good tone, blend, and sound, but also diction (pronunciation of words), meaning of the text, phrasing, and facial expressions, putting the text on our faces and what it means. As a Christian, all of us could relate to sacred texts because they always applied to our lives and our faith.
This approach to music brought me to thinking about how we as Orthodox Christians approach our music and our hymnography. We have such a beautiful abundance of hymns and texts, several written for the feast days, and then entire books such as the Triodion, the Pentacostarion, the Ochtoechos, and so many more for saints, martyrs, bishops, and especially for Christ our God and the Theotokos. Then the Church has such an abundance of musical forms: byzantine modal music, four-part choral, Prostopenia (the Carpatho-Rusyn style of chant), and many more! Here is the question however: when we sing, chant, or listen, how often do we pay attention to the words we are saying? What is the text? What do we actually mean when we proclaim, “Glory to God in the Highest”?
This is something we all have to think about. Often if we are the chanters at the stand or are chosen to read the epistle for the day, how many times do we go to the stand or the center of the church and just do it? How many times do we only think about the way to proclaim it instead of what we are supposed to say? Text brings so much more to our lives when we take the time to interpret, apply, and understand it fully within the context of the Church. The theology behind all the phrases have to mean something to us, or else they are merely syllables and sounds woven to fit a line of melody and harmony. If we, as collegiate students are the future of the church, then we must be able to recognize this. Music should be used to accentuate the text and allow it to be heard, not to dominate it. If the musical style dominates our worship/listening experience, then our focus needs adjusted.
Therefore, the next time you chant, sing in the choir, read a psalm or the epistle, or just listen to the hymns, think about this: How often do you know what is being said? Do you know the theology behind the words you read?
Do you know what you are saying?
Jacob Mandell is a junior at Messiah College studying music education, with a double concentration in voice and saxophone studies. Jacob attends Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is becoming active in the organization of an OCF at Messiah and in other area colleges. In the summer, Jacob also works at Camp Nazareth, where he has served as a Head-of-Kitchen and a counselor for the diocesan weeks of the American Carpatho-Rusyn Diocese of America.