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"A Flood of Musical Splendor": 2016 Sacred Music Institute

By Paul Jabara, Chairman of the Department of Sacred Music, and Emily Lowe, Coordinator of SMI

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Last year, the Sacred Music Institute celebrated its thirtieth anniversary, and it was truly a banner year. For three decades, the Department of Sacred Music has offered this annual retreat, giving singers, conductors and chanters the opportunity to develop their God-given gifts. Sessions included several informative and entertaining retrospectives; we introduced the brilliant Nazo Zakkak as our new composer in residence, and we held a chanted monastic-style vigil that lasted until the wee hours of the morning. We offered courses on choral conducting and vocal techniques, on Byzantine chant and notation in addition to our numerous rehearsals and presentations. The crowning glory of the weekend was a visit and address by our Father and Metropolitan Joseph, who expressed the utmost encouragement for the work of our department.

It was an amazing and exhausting weekend, so when it came time to plan this year's Sacred Music Institute, scheduled for July 13–17 at Antiochian Village, we wanted to keep it simple. We would go back to basics: the most commonly celebrated service in most parishes, the Divine Liturgy, would be our theme. We would have classes on the structure of the services, conducting skills, and vocal techniques in addition to an expanding our Byzantine music program.  We would work to minister directly to all attendees, so that they would return with practical skills and knowledge to strengthen the musical programs in their churches. 

Then on March 9, 2016, in an unprecedented show of support, Metropolitan Joseph sent a letter to every parish in the Archdiocese, mandating that they send at least one representative to the Institute. We were stunned and thrilled at the same time. This meant our attendance would nearly double. As we received a flurry of communications from interested attendees, we began making changes to our programming. We added a class on the basics of Matins and Vespers for beginning chanters, we invited Kh. Rebecca Alford, a director and composer in the Western Rite, to attend and share her knowledge about Western Rite traditions, and we engineered a series of small-group sessions led by presenters who would give every attendee an opportunity to listen, ask questions, and receive instruction in a smaller setting. Meanwhile, we worried whether the chapel would be too crowded for services and how the dining staff could accommodate such a large group and feed everyone within an hour. Most of all, we were worried that our “newcomers” might not feel the spirit of the SMI.

By the glory of God, we found the opposite to be true. Those who had attended past SMI’s were able to guide our welcomed newcomers to the same level of hospitality, creativity and encouragement we had always enjoyed – and perhaps even more, because of our numbers. The chapel was warm, but the sound was glorious and the voices angelic. The programs we offered were enthusiastically attended by, not a handful of people as in the past, but twenty or fifty or even eighty participants – participants who asked questions, took notes, sang along, laughed and learned an incredible amount in five short days. A major highlight was a visit by Bishop Anthony, our department overseer, who spoke about the beauty and mystery of the Divine Liturgy. Dr. Sam Cohlmia delivered several lectures about the Typikon and answered numerous questions about the Online Liturgical Guide.

Of course, one of the biggest draws for church musicians continues to be singing with the combined choir, nearly two hundred voices strong this year, who sang the Divine Liturgy every single morning. We sang a Byzantine liturgy, a simple choral Liturgy drawn from the works of modern composers, and a glorious Russian-style choral setting directed by James Meena, former department chair and son of the late Fr. James Meena. Participating in such a flood of musical splendor is a balm for any overworked choir director, and it moved many to tears – but more importantly, it inspired determination as they vowed to bring a piece of that beauty home with them.

In the same week, our Youth Music Ministry, coordinated by Chris Farha, celebrated its fifth year by recording a CD highlighting some of their favorite hymns from the past five years. Under the capable direction of Mareena Boosamra Ball and Charles Marge, the choir of thirty also performed at the Sacred Music Institute, singing selections from the recording for Bishop Anthony and a very enthusiastic audience. In addition, and for the first time, the teens also joined the adults for many of the breakout sessions, receiving instruction in chanting and directing and asking pointed, intelligent questions to further their own understanding. As always, we were touched to see the level of enthusiasm and accomplishment displayed by these young people, the future of our God-protected Archdiocese.

We are already working on upcoming Sacred Music Institutes for 2017 – check back soon for details! We have some ideas already, of course, drawn largely from the helpful feedback provided by this year’s attendees – but we know better than to think, as we did last year, that we can predict what will happen. As always, that mystery rests firmly in God’s hands.

Christ is in our midst!