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How the Sacred Music Institute Changed My Life

by Venise Kousaie

Imagine being appointed to a leadership role in your parish without knowing whether you are truly prepared or equipped to handle it.

Imagine that it is a position requiring specialized knowledge in liturgics, music theory, conducting, enunciation, pronunciation, vocal technique, byzantine tones and hymnology, teaching, and so forth. Imagine there is no one with all of these skills that you can talk to, because you really wouldn’t know where to begin to find the sources of all the information you need to be successful in your leadership role.

Early in my ministry as an Antiochian Orthodox Church Choir Director I found myself in precisely this situation. Although as a musician I had majored in voice and piano, there was a lot about directing a choir I needed to learn. As the result of a directive from His Eminence Metropolitan PHILIP, the opportunity came to attend the first-ever Sacred Music Institute (SMI) at the Antiochian Village in 1984. I didn’t know what to expect. I attended, believing that my faith would guide me to solutions. What I found in the hills of Pennsylvania shaped my sacred music ministry and my contribution to my parish, my diocese and the Archdiocese for the next 28 years. The courses I took at the SMI were given by a group of musicians and clergy who were experts in their respective professional fields, and the courses served to fill gaps in the knowledge I needed to be successful. There were music-school teachers, theologians, conductors and key-note speakers.

Each and every year upon returning to the SMI I would tap into this wealth of resources in sacred music and take away something new, whether it was new music to teach my choir at home, or conducting techniques, or a better understanding of the Byzantine tones and the order of the liturgical services.

I learned something each and every year! Over time, the Sacred Music Committee identified the strengths and talents of the participants, and I, too, have imparted my expertise to others.

No one person except Christ himself is all-encompassing. In the quest to make my contributions meaningful, I found the fountain from which knowledge flowed freely. It is hard to describe to someone what he or she would gain by attending the SMI, whether he or she is a choir director, a choir member, a chanter or a member of the clergy seeking musical support. The only way really to know, is to attend and experience the Grace of the Holy Spirit, take it back to your parish with you, and then come back for more spiritual and musical renewal each year.

In July 2010 the SMI celebrated twenty-five years of excellence in sacred music. The Department of Sacred Music has grown and developed, and so have I. I am grateful to His Eminence Metropolitan Philip for his vision in providing us with the Antiochian Village, without which I might never have made the connections that helped me grow in my ministry. I am also grateful to His Grace Bishop Basil, the overseer of the Department of Sacred Music, for his deep understanding of the role and challenges of church musicians. The SMI changed the course of my ministry in sacred music, and it can change yours too! I hope to see you at the next Sacred Music Institute, July 20–24, 2011.

Venise Kousaie, Choir Director
St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church
Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada