There Must not Be Trickery in the Church

An interview with Matushka Olga Sholkova, the precentor of the Parish Choir of the Church in honour of Pantanassa icon of Theotokos (Minsk), which has participated in the Royal Voice Festival that year.

Matushka Olga, first of all please tell us about yourself. Are you a professional musician?

Yes, I am. I studied in a specialised music school at the Belarusian State Academy of Music first. The Lord must have brought me there because I had lived in a small town called Liachavičy, BR, with my grandmother. One day a commission from that school visited our nursery school. They listened to me and other children and invited to Minsk to study in that school. My mum is a piano teacher. She had not taught me to read music but I taught myself to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata when I was 7.

I studied in the specialised school until Year 8. Nun Juliania (who was known as Irina Denisova at that time) was our homeroom teacher all those years. She is a lively, talented, and creative person. Perhaps, the most essential quality of a teacher is not just to teach music to children but also to help them to fall in love with music. We liked our homeroom teacher and everything she was doing. We are very grateful to her.

After my graduation from the music college I went on to study in the Academy of Music as a violinist, and I was invited to play in Minsk Orchestra when I was a third-year student. It was there that I met my future husband. It must be noted that both of us had already been attending church services, albeit in different parishes.

At the beginning of our family life, our friends invited us to a small St Nicholas Church located on the outskirts of Minsk, in a suburb called Sokol. There was an amazing priest — young, ardent, and very enthusiastic — who served in this railroad carriage cushioned in bricks and made into a church… Father Sergius Komlik was singing the Akathist to St Nicholas together with the parishioners one evening. He heard me singing and invited me to sing in the parish choir. It happened twenty years ago.

There was a “formidable” book in Church Slavonic called The Octoechos. I was very afraid of it and I didn’t know how to sing (and even read) it. Little by little I started learning it, looking for sheet music, learning the tone system and teaching the girls who sang in the choir, and they in turn taught me. My academic knowledge wasn’t actually useful here, especially with regard to the Church rubrics.

How did the choir you are in charge of now came to be?

When I realised that my music majors weren’t enough, I went to Minsk Theological College to become a precentor of a church choir. It seems to me that education is important in every field. The Theological College provides a knowledge base that allows us to see the field you specialise in as a single whole: you have studied theology, liturgics, worship rubrics, and special music subjects. Studies of theology gave me necessary knowledge to support my ministry as a choir director, and I am very grateful to my teachers for their hard work, patience, and love…

After my husband was made a priest, I continued to sing in St Nicholas Church for several years. I have been singing in church choir in the Parish in honour of the Pantanassa icon of Theotokos, where my husband serves as the parish priest, since 2013.

How did you organise the new choir? How did you find the singers?

At the time when our parish was founded, I was Deputy Principal of Minsk Theological College, so it wasn’t difficult to find the singers — my students helped me. Later, I was looking for young people who wanted to sing in church. Girls started coming to our choir first, and then, when I cried unto the Lord, He sent boys who came to sing with us. Of course, I am very glad to work with young people, and I thank God for this opportunity.

Who sings in your choir now?

Two girls have graduated from the Academy of Music where they majored in choir singing. Two other members of our choir still continue to study in the Academy… There are singers who do not have a special music education. Thing is, education isn’t the only requirement, although it is very welcome… I consider my task as a precentor to not just praise the Lord but also teach my singers proper church singing.

What do you mean when you speak of “proper church singing”?

It appears to me that the singers must learn not just to sing to score but also to understand what they sing about and to pray during the singing and reading. First of all, we should teach them the basics of the church singing of the Russian Orthodox Church – the authentic Russian singing tradition, not author treatments of church chants. There are church choirs that base their repertoires on one-part znamenny or Byzantine chant. Our choir was raised on four-part obikhod chant. We have to be context-aware: there are people with severe illnesses among our parishioners, so concert singing during worship doesn’t suit them. In addition, our church is small and wooden. Its architecture itself prevents us from singing concert-like chants. The singing style and the architecture of a church must be mutually compatible. It would be wrong to perform concert scores in a small wooden church with a low ceiling. It is imbalanced and un-harmonious. There have been many precentor conferences where choirs are called to sing simpler! With that said, we should sing very well and be aware of what we sing and for whom we sing it.

Sometimes we admit non-religious singers to our choir. My task as the precentor is to really introduce them to the Church. Some of them took communion and started their spiritual life in our church for the first time.

Is it absolutely impossible to sing in church without faith?

People like those will not be able to fit in our choir. We are united around one common cause; we share common goals and convictions. We are comrades because one must sing to God “with one mouth”. How can we sing together if we think, live, and believe in different things? We are not just a choir but a family. Each person is loved, cherished, and deemed absolutely precious.

That is, church choir is not merely a job for your singers, is it?

It is an honour to become a member of the choir. Beside that, it is a great pleasure, responsibility, and joy.

I can’t agree with you more, but there are so many professional singers who were taught in recent years, that it is hardly possible to start singing in a church choir in Minsk for a newcomer.

Of course, we precentors in the capital have the chance to select singers for the choir. However, there is an alternative, too: for instance, all people can sing the Akathist to the Pantanassa icon of Theotokos together in our church. Neither a deacon nor a precentor lead the singing. It’s just a priest and all parishioners singing together. When all people sing and pray together, it sounds good, consistent, and prayerful.

People sing in Ss Peter and Paul Cathedral every Sunday. However, when I hear their singing, although it does give me an impression of unity and community, I would still prefer a good choir performing a prayerful ancient chant. It makes me more inclined towards prayer.

The majority of our singers are females, and most of them are professional singers. They cannot always perform znamenny chant or Byzantine chant with voices like theirs. I have to take it into account when choosing the chants for them to perform. Ancient chants are great for perception and for prayer, especially when they are performed by male voices. Our choir does sing one-part chants with ison (as a rule), though very seldom, mostly during the Great Lent.

You are a precentor and a teacher with big experience, so I would like to ask for your opinion: what kinds of chants must be dominant in the church? What kind of singing will help to make every service a worship pleasing unto God. Can there be various alternatives?

The Lord has plenty of everything, and all this diversity is wonderful. The fact that choirs use various traditions and sing in different styles is good. There is an emphasis on traditional church singing nowadays, instead of concert-like style. However, church classics is very diverse and rich. On the one hand, author chants can be unfit for singing in church. On the other hand, there are excellent pieces, as well as harmonisations of traditional chants, made by composers, which are beneficial for prayer. It depends on the precentor: her taste, her abilities, and her spiritual state. Properly speaking, the tandem of the parish priest and the precentor determines the chants that will be performed. Some priest dislike polyphonic singing, while others don’t like simple or monophonic singing. The precentor should obey the priest because she together with the choir has to create an atmosphere of prayer so that the priest could lead the worship.

We must have love between us. Everyone should be in agreement, like a family, instead of the choir singing as they want, the sanctuary praying as they please, and the parishioners left alone. There has to be a dialogue of some kind between the priests and the choir – without breaks or bellyaching, without haste. It’s our common worship.

The choir can help to pray, and it can also hinder the prayer. We must not sing to attract the parishioners’ attention. When people start whispering or looking at the choir, it means that they do not pray and instead are listening to the singing, to the singers’ voices or to a new chant… It means that the choir, frankly speaking, has failed to meet its purpose.

Alternatively, if there is a celebration of one of twelve major feasts or a patron saint’s day in your parish, you can choose a chant that fits the solemn moment well. This is what church education is for: the precentor must be well-versed to know what and when to sing. This is even more important when you have a small choir or a trio. You cannot sing something complex and big because it will sound worse than intended or just plain bizarre.

How many singers are there in your choir?

Most of the time, there are eight or nine singers. Our choir is small, like our church, so there is not enough space for many singers. There is a live broadcast of the service to the church yard for those parishioners who cannot get into the church. For instance, there were over 300 people who came to church on our patron’s day (August 30).

Has your choir participated in any contests? Has it sung anywhere except church services?

We do not take part in contests, and it’s our deeply held position. We are a worship-oriented choir. We sing in the Church in honour of the Pantanassa icon of the Mother of God, and there are quite a few services in our parish every week. We also sing during services held for the patients of the Oncology Clinic of the First Clinical Hospital in a designated chapel three times a week.

We seldom take part in concerts but when we do, we have a definite purpose, such as collecting donations or promoting spirituality or supporting the volunteers who cater to cancer patients. Their movement is very active in our parish. We also sing for patients who stay in hospitals and hospices…

We have already mentioned that some services in your parish are sung by the flock. Couldn’t they sing all the services, like they did in ancient times?

According to the Canon Law of the Church, there have always been special people who sang in the choir, even in ancient times. There indeed are invariable chants, which the parishioners can sing during the service. Nevertheless, there are chants like stichera, troparia, and irmoses, which are variable. The parishioners will not be capable of singing them. They simply lack knowledge and skills. We analyse Church Slavonic texts, translate the words and expressions that we don’t know into contemporary Russian, and learn the rubrics in the choir. That is, a precentor must also know Church history…

Isn’t it too much responsibility for a precentor? Is she really so important?

Musicians are accustomed to criticising each other. They are eager to criticise other musicians and the conductors and judge if they are good or bad. It is inappropriate to do so in the Church because the precentor is the main figure in the church choir and he is responsible for everything: for the selection of pieces to be performed, for the performance style, and for the overall character of the service. He is fully responsible before God for the worship and for the singers. No one must look at someone else with criticism and rebuke others. Everyone must do what they do to the best of their abilities and with love but in the end, it’s the precentor who carries the burden of responsibility for the service. If the choir members aren’t obedient, proper church singing is impossible. The choir might sound very nice and correct; the choir may consist of professionals and perform concert-like pieces, but there will never be a true prayerful singing the way it must be in the Church.

In fact, singing in a church choir is special. If singers in the choir consider performance clarity and quality to be more important than the interaction of the entire choir, than singing “with one mouth”, that’s bad. In my opinion, peace within the choir is more important than professionalism. The relationships in the choir are special: one should make concessions and tune down his selfishness and pride. You can’t have prayer without peace. You cannot sing in the choir without real Christian relationships. It will be a deception, and there is no place for deception and trickery in the Church!

St. Elisabeth Convent

October 13, 2017