The lay brothers' choir of the Convent of Saint Elisabeth has always sung in one, or a maximum of two, tones. Previously, this was largely a necessity caused by the singers’ limited musical abilities. Today, the situation is very different. The transformation of the choir is remarkable, if not fundamental, and it has happened very fast. The change began four or five years ago with the coming of the new precentor Yevgeny Prokofiev. At the time, he was in his mid-twenties, almost the same age as his choir that had just celebrated its 25th birthday. The choir has since made remarkable progress and has achieved a high standard of musical performance, as evidenced, for example, by its participation in the festival «Derzhavny Voice» , on par with the other choirs and mature performers.
We met Yevgeny Prokofiev after a prayer service to talk about the positions and roles of the singers in a choir, the perspectives of the precentor, the old traditions and the use of information technology in making the choir known to the wider public.
During services at the St. Nicholas and St. Elisabeth churches, the choir stands almost in the midst of the flock, and you, as the precentor, stay among the singers. This is also true for the services at the Church of the Holy Royal Martyrs and the Church of St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. In contrast, the Church of the Reigning Icon has a choir gallery, which is upstairs, while you stand facing the choir. Which is the most comfortable arrangement? Which puts you in the best position to have good contact with the choir?
In the churches that you mentioned, there is almost no room for the precentor to place himself in front of the choir. It is possible, of course, to put up a lectern, but we sound a lot better when we are in front of the lectern together, singing from the same set of texts and notes. This way, we are in a better position to focus on the quality of performance and errors in the singing, rather than on some outward irregularities that may be visible to you when you stand in front, like when someone is being distracted, or is wearing jeans. Standing in the midst of the choir makes you feel more involved in the service and more integrated in the prayer and the Liturgy. Incidentally, this is the preferred arrangement in Valaam, which I visited about a month ago: in the choir everybody sings together, and the precentor stands with the choir, not in front of it. This is absolutely amazing - the precentor, Father David, is standing in the midst of 20 - 30 other singers, and the singing is seamless and spectacular. I have been among the singers, and it felt very exciting to stand and sing with the others. This is where I came to understand that I felt more comfortable standing among the singers. Although from a purely professional standpoint, you might be better off standing in front. This is because this is a better position to hear the overall balance and every singer individually. In general, because of the acoustics of the Reigning Icon Church, it is possible to hear each singer separately and the choir as an organic whole. It is amazing; I have never experienced anything like that before.
It is said that the precentor's main task is to develop an intuition for each singer. In your understanding, what does this involve?
Each member of a choir is a unique personality. This is very true for our choir. Only recently, I was asking myself, how could all these people have possibly been brought together, other than through God's will? They are so different... We would not have been very likely to meet in any other setting because of our very diverse backgrounds and interests. However, as a part of the choir, everyone sings as one, and contributes to the common cause, the worship service, in the best way they can.
For them, it is also a way to disclose their potential, and it is so exciting to watch them do that. That feels very nice. Only two years ago, I used to view the choir as one of my duties and obligations. Today, it feels more like a family, and I look forward to each new worship service and welcome the chance to spend time in the company of the singers outside the church. At practices, and during services, my seniority over the choir singers may result in some minor incidents - like criticising or even raising my voice (without crossing the boundaries of professionalism, of course). But as soon as the practice is over, the status quo is restored, and the incident is forgiven and forgotten. That is because we have a lot of understanding among ourselves. I think that this is very important and something that is in short supply in many choirs. People do not come here to display their talents or for the money; they come because they realise very well that “it is good for us to be here” (Matthew 17:4). And, it is also good to be a part of such a group.
Some would say that a choir is much like a lottery. You seem very fortunate since you have been trusted to lead a whole choir at a young age and many of its singers have degrees in music. Nun Juliania is always ready to give a hand, and the priests are all understanding and open to creative innovation. What do you say to that?
Working with professional people is one of the most enjoyable things in life. Where else could you find a choir with three sound engineers and several professional guitar players and all of them musicians at heart? (Laughs) Each member brings something with them from their professional area to support our common cause. I match their input by doing everything within my power to run the choir as one big whole, spending every minute of my free time looking for ways in which we can improve, and finding and copying sheet music. In this way, I strive to make singing as comfortable and enjoyable as possible for every member. Personally, I am comfortable enough even with the handwritten copies, but I understand that the other singers may not be happy with this. I am quite convinced that any precentor should care about the comfort and convenience of the singers.
You asked me how I became the precentor of this choir. Honestly, I never actively sought this position and even tried to find a reason not to take it. But, now I am really thanking God for not letting me have it my way and steering me towards this obedience, which I find both exciting and challenging.
And yes, Nun Juliania is making a great contribution, professionally and spiritually, to the choir's growth and development. One would be hard pressed to find any other choir who benefits from the same kind of advocacy and support that we are getting from Nun Juliania. (Smiles.) I know that she prays for us a lot and will always give us her valuable last-minute advice at a worship service.
What, in your opinion, is the life mission of a precentor?
To serve God. To be God's honest and true servant. How can we accomplish this? For my part, I realise that what I am doing now is perhaps one of the few things that can help me in my spiritual life. I often ask myself: 'What more can I give to God, other than doing my best job conducting the choir and singing praise to Him from the depth of my heart?’ This is my path towards salvation, in all honesty. If I died now, why would I be saved? I realise very well that there is no good reason. There are too many things in my life that I am not doing properly, the way I should, but I hope that my selfless service to God will ultimately weigh in in favour of letting me be saved.
The Convent's film 'Parables' has an episode in which a singer in a choir is kept from praying at a worship service by multiple distractions - such as the tenors being too loud and the bases being too overwhelming. How do you manage to remain prayerful, while still continuing to conduct the choir? How do you cope with that kind of distraction?
Any precentor will have to struggle with some of those distractions from time to time, although some may not be willing to admit it. In the beginning, I was oftentimes very critical of things that seemed to be getting out of hand, going over and over every small error, particularly if it was mine, but those times have long passed. Today, I am determined not to let myself worry over a small error or a minor fault, and they are never good enough reasons for pestering and annoying others with my complaints, which half of the singers are not going to hear anyway. All minor problems such as those should be dealt with at the practice session. All that is needed at a worship service is silence. Despite my new attitude, the singing is still beautiful, and I enjoy it very much.
The brothers who sing in the choir must be very serious and responsible people. They are sacrificing a lot of things. Instead of singing in the choir and worshipping at church, they could spend that time with their families or catching up on their housework. Yet, they are not at home; they are here at church. In your place, I would probably forgive them any false note. I also understand that as a choir conductor, you can use a carrot but also a stick. What are your carrots and your sticks, and where do you keep them?
Of late, I have been relying almost exclusively on the carrot. I never use a stick in principle. This is to a large extent because the singers are very good, and negative motivation is simply not needed. I will settle any misunderstandings with a singer one on one, and this happens peacefully and to our mutual satisfaction in almost all cases. We are very fortunate in this way, since the singers are very responsible. As you have rightly observed, all are very tired after their regular work. They all work very hard. One works all day in a metal workshop, another spends days translating texts in front of his computer, and some hold high-level management positions. One of us is a sound engineer, who is surrounded by sound all day, and even the evening brings no respite, since he attends choir practice after work.
But, this is their sacrifice. They make it every time when they come here despite being physically tired and missing out on the opportunity to relax in the comfort of their homes and their families. Instead, they spend this time here. The recognition of this rules out any possibility to use the stick. On my part, I certainly do not abuse my powers, knowing that the people will sacrifice their time and comfort whenever I ask them to. I may be happy to sing at every service any time of day or night, but unlike the other singers, I live at the convent and have no family or children.
So there is no need to get on the phone and implore with each singer to come and sing.
I approach everyone individually. Some may need some convincing, others will just say ‘OK, I’m coming.’ For example, we may be singing at the Liturgy at the residential institution on a weekday at six in the morning. I can afford to get up ten minutes before and get there in ten minutes. The other members of the choir will need to get up at 5 or even 4.30 and drive here, perhaps even in bad weather, but they all come. This is what I find both amazing and inspiring, and whenever I am too lazy to get up early, I scold myself: “Look at them - they have come from so far afield ready to sing while I can’t force myself to get up. I should be ashamed of myself!” This is a powerful source of motivation for all of us, which many other choirs may not have.
Of the five choirs at this year’s festival, only two are choirs of lay brothers - one from the Convent of Saint Elisabeth and the other from Serbia. You have a special mission, which is to make the Convent and its monastic tradition known to the wider world. Let us discuss that more. The chant used at the Convent is the Valaam Chant, and you are tasked with conveying its beauty to your audiences at the festival. How can this be accomplished, given that performance at the festival is different from singing at a worship service?
True, but the festival is not an ordinary concert or an entertainment event. It takes place in a church, not at some secular venue. Its contestants are choirs that sing church music. The setting of a church rules out a secular attitude. The programme consists mostly of church music, and to a smaller extent, some traditional music.
Which pieces will your choir be performing?
We will be singing worship songs in the Valaam and Byzantine chants and some old Russian verses in the Znamenny chant. We hope to inspire in our listeners some worthy thoughts and emotions. Our audience will not consist fully of monastics; we expect spectators from other places and members of different parishes. We hope that our performance will be welcomed and enjoyed by the festival’s guests, as well as its participants. We will also be interested in hearing the programmes of the other choirs, for every festival is a valuable opportunity to exchange our practices and experiences.
Recently, you returned from a visit to Valaam. What impact did this visit have on the choir?
For us, the visit was truly a turning point and an important step in our growth. Half of our choir had already been to Valaam before. For most, that was not a short visit to kiss the icons and leave. They actually stayed there for a substantial period of time. Some lived in a camp, others in a monastic cell. My first visit there was not until this summer, and I went with one of the choir’s singers, Sergey Losev. Together, we sang with the monastics at the matins and complines. The monastics did not expect that we would sound so well together, as it usually takes a lot of time for newcomers to fit in, but we managed to do that very fast. We told them that we were singing almost the same pieces at our Convent. I also was amazed at how similar our singing was. We sang with the Valaam monastics at different sketes; we performed at five church feasts; and we even sang the whole compline - just me and Sergey. The visit helped us feel the atmosphere of the monastery and confirmed that at our Convent the perception of the music and its spirit was very much the same.
You are now busy promoting the choir on social media, but surely, watching and listening to the choir online is not the same as hearing its live performance?
It is perhaps an open secret that before we post our videos on the net, we process the sound tracks to make us sound as close as possible to a live performance. This is because, when unprocessed, sound from the camera microphone always distorts the real sound of the choir.
How do you make the recordings that you post on the net?
The process generally looks like this. We will record the video and the sound separately, process the sound, synchronise the sound with the video and only then do we post the recording on the Net.
Why did your choir need a separate YouTube channel and an account on Instagram? After all, you sing at worship services, not at concerts.
It had been my long-time intention to promote the choir on the net, since very few people seemed to know about it. ‘What is a lay brothers’ choir? Do only monks sing there? Or only the lay brothers? Are most of the brothers from the Podvorye [monastic farm]?’ This is despite the fact that the Brothers’ Choir is one of the top three choirs of the Convent, singing regularly on Sundays and at feasts. By going on the net, we were able to give answers to a lot of these questions, and make the choir somewhat better known.
I pay for our advertising on Instagram so more people can watch us, and possibly, discover us for themselves. Why do I need to do this? The answer is simple. For example, we are now finishing production of our new CD album “God is Over Everyone”. We expect it to be available at the festival, but the album at present has a limited audience because few people know about us. To make ourselves known, I am actively engaged in the promotion of the choir, with the help of our partner groups in VKontakte [a popular Russian social network] through which we disseminate our materials for free to thousands of our potential listeners.
Maria Bakhvalova is a new director of the Convent’s Monastic Choir and has worked with many choirs, participated in international competitions and won prestigious awards.