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Sacred Music Chair Chris Holwey Leads Archdiocese Musicians

Recently, spoke with Department of Sacred Music Chair Chris Holwey about how this essential department provides support, training, and encouragement to parish musicians throughout the Antiochian Archdiocese.

1. Chris, summarize for us the ministry of the Department of Sacred Music in the Antiochian Archdiocese, and your role within the Department. 

First of all, let me say thank you for offering me this opportunity to speak about the Sacred Music Department, which I believe is one of the most important departments of the Archdiocese. Officially, the department was established back in 1968 when Metropolitan Philip appointed Fr. James Meena as its first chairman. Unofficially, though, the Archdiocese began publishing music well before that, closer to the beginning of the last century. If anyone wishes to read about our history, Dr. Michael Farrow, our Vice-Chairman, has compiled it all in a wonderful article which is located in the Information and Resources section of our website. But to be more specific about the ministry of our department, I cannot say any more than is already said in the Mission Statement of our department: "The mission of the Department of Sacred Music is to provide leadership to the parishes of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese, drawing from the talents of the faithful in order to serve as a resource for the publication of music, to organize workshops and seminars, to build strong ties of communication throughout the Archdiocese, to support the work of missions, and to be a positive influence in the creation of new works of liturgical music for the glory of God and the Holy Orthodox Faith."  So, basically, our main purpose is to provide all of the music needed for our liturgical services, to help our choir directors, choir members, and chanters learn this music and know where to find it, so that our worship of God will be the absolute very best that it can be. In order to do that, we have a wonderful group of very talented musicians in our department, from our Diocesan Coordinators to our committee members, who help to make all of that a reality in so many ways. My role as chairman is to oversee that work, to assist them in any way that I can, to help computerize the music we need for each of the services being done in our parishes, to encourage others to arrange and compose quality Orthodox music, and to continue to communicate with the faithful through email and the PDF Library of music on this website.

2. As you support church musicians in parishes all over America, what do you find are their greatest challenges?

As I talk to some of our church musicians across the country, one of the main challenges I see is finding the music that they need for services. Some of our chanters and directors are still not aware of the all of the music we have available in our PDF Library on our website. Others know it's there, but need something that we don't have available yet, and wonder where they can get it. They also would like to be able to hear the music being sung by clicking on an audio file to listen to as they follow it in the PDF file. This is something that we are still working on with our Recordings committee, and hope to have something available this year. In addition to my thoughts, I also asked our Diocesan Coordinators their thoughts as well on this issue. Liz in the Diocese of Miami and the Southeast said that finding people who are able and willing to direct, and singers to be committed every Sunday, is one of their biggest challenges. Michael, our Vice-Chairman, says that it's getting people to rehearsal, getting our young people interested in joining the choir, establishing youth choirs and congregational singing. Paul in the Diocese of Worcester and New England says the challenge is how to bring Byzantine and Slavonic traditions together to create a coherent Liturgy. Also, education is a very important issue. Our priests and youth directors are trained, and so should our choir directors be as well, formally, according to an appropriate Orthodox standard. This is also something we are working on with one of our committees, trying to put together a course of study through the Antiochian House of Studies Program. Chris in the Diocese of Wichita and Mid-America sees our challenges as being excellence, putting forth our absolute best for God, communication between the priests, choirs, Diocese and Archdiocese, and evangelizing, understanding our role as church musicians in spreading the Word.

3. Your web page on is visited often. Tell us about the resources you offer to parish musicians in the department and via the web.

One of the most important parts of our website is our PDF Library. It is here that we offer as much music as we can to our parishes for them to use in our liturgical services. We offer this music in both choral and Byzantine chant format, for either Feast Days, Sacraments, various seasons throughout the year, individual saints, our standard troparia for Pascha, Pentecost, and the Elevation of the Cross, or our traditional Convention music and other music for the Divine Liturgy. But we are limited to a certain degree as to what we can offer on the website. We still have a Bookstore at the Archdiocese which sells some of our published works, like our Byzantine Music Project for Vespers, Orthros, the Triodion, Holy Week, and the Pentecostarion; our Music and Service book for the Presanctified Liturgy and our recently published one for the Akathist to the Theotokos (both of which are used during Lent), plus other older publications for Holy Friday, the Resurrection of Christ, Orthodox Hymns in English by Gelsinger, and our Three Divine Liturgies by Hilko in English and in Arabic. We ask people to purchase these published works from the Archdiocese, since we are not permitted to offer them on the website. We are also working on computerizing Prof. Karam's Major and Minor Divine Liturgies that Michael Farrow adapted into English. In addition to the music we provide, we also have a Mentor Program under the direction of Chris Farha. She is in charge of helping our choir directors, members, and chanters in our parishes (mentees) who need help in certain areas of music find and be connected with an appropriate mentor to guide them, and help them learn more about singing, directing, and chanting. You can also see a list of our committees in the "Did You Know" section of the website.

4. What are some of your favorite aspects of the annual Sacred Music Institute, and what will be its focus this year?

The Annual Sacred Music Institute has grown to be quite a spectacular event, especially last year which was our 25th anniversary year. There is such a warmth and camaraderie with all of the participants who come from all over the United States and Canada, you can't help but feel the presence of the Holy Spirit guiding and directing us all. For me, being able to be with other Orthodox musicians who have a passion for the music of the Church, and being able to direct them as their choir director, is quite an awesome experience. Plus, it is amazing to see how much we offer in classes and learning sessions in about three and a half days. They learn about Byzantine chant in many different aspects, choral directing, singing & giving a pitch, vocal techniques, music theory, specialized services & feasts, music for small choirs, children and teens, and what makes music Orthodox. Then we have some fun on the last night with a Talent Show, which is truly entertaining, thrilling, and hilarious. This year will be the second year for our Sacred Music Chamber Choir that our SMI Coordinator, Paul Jabara, started, and they will be performing on Friday night. The theme this year is: "The Theotokos and Mother of the Light, let us honor and magnify in song." Our Keynote Speaker will be Dr. Eugenia Constantinou, who will be speaking on this topic. We have the registration form, agenda, and a biography of our speaker all available on our website. It is our hope and prayer that each parish in this Archdiocese will send someone to experience all of this, to "come and see," to grow with us in the Faith and in our understanding of Orthodox sacred music, and to share in this spirit-filled Orthodox fellowship, whether it be in July at the Antiochian Village, or in January out on the West Coast.

5. Music and the Divine Liturgy are inextricably linked. Will you explain for us how you view the importance of the church musician's ministry?

Our ministry as church musicians is one of great importance, commitment and dedication, and should never be taken lightly. Our role is to be humble in our ability to learn and grow in the Faith, never thinking that we "know it all," to inspire others and to lift up the hearts and minds of those who are there worshiping God, honoring the Saints and celebrating the Feasts, so that when they leave the church, their desire will be to spread the word and bring others to "come and see," and to say to them, "we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth." As I've said before, music is the means by which we pray. But the music in the Church is there not only to help us pray, but also to help us understand what is being prayed. In 1 Corinthians 14, St. Paul talks about speaking in tongues as well as interpreting what is being said in those different languages. He says, "I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding. I will sing with the spirit, and I will also sing with the understanding" (v. 15). So therefore, how we sing a particular response, or hymn in the church, is very important. For example, the Trisagion Hymn is not a ballad, and should not be sung slowly. It is a time for dynamis (power and purpose), majesty and proclamation, since we have (at this point in the Liturgy) processed into the Kingdom of heaven and are standing at the throne of God. And so, we join with the angels in singing: "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us!"  Also, following the Epistle reading, there should be life, joy and movement in how we sing "Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!" Nothing disturbs me more than to hear this sung slowly and devoid of the Spirit. But then, when we sing the beginning of the Cherubic Hymn, before the procession, the music should not be done quickly or too upbeat. It is now time for a deeper sense of reverence, holiness and contemplation as the Holy Gifts, the Bread and Wine soon to become the Body and Blood of Christ, are prepared for procession to be offered upon the Holy Altar. So, as you can see, the music must be the vehicle by which we offer this variety of prayers at various moments within the Divine Liturgy and services. The church musician, therefore, whether he or she be the choir director, choir member, or chanter, must know how to offer, chant and sing these prayers properly and with great attention, so that we might understand all that is happening and taking place at that particular moment in the service.