Last month we sat down to catch up with Zach Mandell, who is serving as Holy Trinity’s Choir Director as part of a two-semester internship. Here is the full transcript.
What have you enjoyed most?
On one hand, getting to know people a little bit better, like people that before I probably didn’t know that much at all even though I’ve been here for 3 years. We do have a large parish so it’s been nice to get to know people better. It’s been really fun working musically with people. There is a varying level of musical training and musical knowledge so it’s been enjoyable to teach and learn how to teach. Obviously part of my future profession is teaching and figuring out how to teach: that doesn’t just involve me knowing what I’m talking about, but it’s about how to convey the information correctly so that people understand. So that has been a fascinating experience. And then of course just being a part of the service in that capacity and be engaged. When you aren’t singing or [doing] something that involves you in the service, it is easy to become disengaged. To be at the heart of everything, of the prayers, of the Psalms—it’s just been a real blessing.
You see this as allowing you to develop skills that are beneficial in your career?
Yes. Certainly. It’s also showing me what I really know. It shows me what I don’t know with respect to music and the cycle of the services. Even just over Theophany weekend, I learned so much about the structure of those services and with respect to my teaching skills. But also understanding the church and how the services come together and why you do certain things. Things I probably took for granted before or just have no experience in. I’m being opened up to a new world of the Church.
There is a personal, or would you say even spiritual, benefit that is happening?
Certainly. I feel like as that is happening for me that is something I’m trying to instill in the choir as a whole. It is easy as you are singing to sometimes focus too much on the “little-d” details as opposed to the “big-D” details. When you really think about it, you are focusing right in on the prayers and the most important parts of the services and the most important parts of the church. That’s one thing I’m trying to make sure everyone knows. Don’t get worked up in the little things; you are there to glorify God. That is one thing I really love about this parish. So many people in the congregation sing. They are very engaged and that is very encouraged and I think that is very important for ones spiritual growth.
It’s a mutual thing with the congregation and the choir?
Yes, very much so.
What are some of your objectives during Lent for the choir?
One thing is to work with the choir so we can conserve our voices and use our voices properly. It will be a combination of things like musical technique so that when we have all these services we make sure we aren’t overdoing things. Another thing [I may do] is break things up a little bit and have smaller groups do [Lenten] services at times. Also, this semester I really want to reach out to the congregation to get more people involved in the choir. Especially when you enter [Lent] when there are so many services. I want to take this opportunity to extend a hand to the people who might be interested but haven’t come forward for whatever reason.
Have you thought about if the new members would be for a permanent choir members or just during the Lenten and Paschal season?
In and ideal world, it would be great if I could get people to be permanent members but I understand that people have busy schedules [and] can’t make it to every service. But I think during the Lenten and Paschal season to have people [sing at] a Friday Pre-sanctified and maybe sing in the congregation [on Sundays, or vice versa]. I have been approached by those willing to offer that kind of choral assistance. If it is seasonal or only certain days, I will take that and won’t turn anyone down.
So you are open to a variable approach?
I don’t want to lock into any one thing, because if I do, it’s too easy to just say no and create issues. If there are people who are willing to help, then I think you have to accept it with open arms. If you really want to be in the permanent choir, you do have to commit, but if you can’t but you can help in some way, I’m certainly open to whatever help you can give.
I noticed you put an emphasis on rehearsing. Tell me about why you think rehearsing is so important in church choirs.
There’s many reasons, but the foremost reason would be that you don’t want to serve as a detriment to the focus [on prayer]. When you are singing, you aren’t just performing—it is a sacred office so you need to know what you are doing and be committed to what you are doing. If you are just coming up and not familiar [with the music] it is best to learn first. Part of [benefit of rehearsing] is for you. You don’t want to go up there and get lost. You want to have some sense of familiarity. It’s just a lot more comfortable. [Rehearsing is] a benefit, not an inconvenience.
You keep talking about the choir being spiritual. Talk a little more about spirituality in church singing from your perspective.
When you sing in the church choir, it’s not a performance, it’s not about you, and I think that is one of the things that gets misinterpreted. We want to sing to the glory of God, not for entertainment, [and not be] the center of attention. What is the center is the Eucharist and the service itself. The choir is there to lead but not be the focus of everyone’s attention. You are a part of a much larger thing happening. If you are there, knowing [that] what you are doing is prayer, you are able to garner the spiritual benefits.
What advice do you give to your choir to prepare to sing besides the technical aspects?
You need to look at the words. You need to know what you are singing beyond the music. What is the prayer? What is the core of what you are leading? Especially as we are going into the Lenten season and Paschal season, I want to stress to the choir: Know what you are singing. If you understand it then you can really sing it. You can let the glory flow. Because if you don’t, then you are just singing. The spiritual aspect is lessoned.
That presents challenges.
Yes, but that is a good challenge. It is a learning experience. It is something everyone can use more learning on. There is always another level of understanding you can place on these things. There is always something more to learn and understand. It is a challenge I face. The Creed, for example, is something I only started to understand within this past year. Especially since I have been in the choir since I was 8, some of the music was something that I just did. But I feel like once you really focus on the prayer, you reach a higher level of understanding. I know that I have so much more to learn about these things, but that is the beauty of my position right now [is that] I’m able to engage these things. And beyond me, the choir as a whole can engage these things. I really look forward to really doing this with the choir and allowing all these thing to coalesce.
If someone wanted to join the choir what is the best way to do that.
Just come talk to me. If I don’t know, it is a lot harder [for me] to reach out [to you]… If you have any interest whatsoever, talk to me, talk to Deacon Alex, talk to Father John. If you have [any] interest in the slightest, you are welcome. All you have to do is ask and I’ll be there.
About how many people are you able to count on regularly in the choir now?
I would say 10.
Any parts you are in particular need of?
Any part is welcome. Any part can be bolstered. I would say because of numbers, I would say tenor and the soprano section can always use more.
You have been experimenting with some different kind of voicings or groupings of singers in the choir, not just the standard 4 part. What have been the benefits of that?
On one hand it can give you more flexibility and [it] creates a different element to the sound. In the case of the choir right now it creates a much better balance. You want to make sure every part has strength. So the way we are kind of redoing stuff, it creates a better balance… I feel [it is] important [for] a choir to be flexible and not be locked into one thing but to understand everything that is going on. The ideal is if everyone can sing the melody [part,] then you can start figuring out other things.
This internship is an experiment for the parish. Would you recommend the parish doing this again in the future?
I think so. I mean I think it’s been very good for me and my perception is that it has been good for the choir. When you have an internship you know you are going to do things differently than they used to be, and if [Holy Trinity commits to another choir internship] again, that person is going to do things differently. I think that is an important thing for a choir as well. A little bit of change is a good thing within context. Once you do the same things over and over you get complacent. If you aren’t adverse to change and are able to be adaptable and to understand how the choir [can still] function regardless of minor changes or of who is running it, I think that is a good thing for the choir. That is never a blow to the past, just a little bit of change within a framework to allow people to be adaptable. I feel like that has been a real success so far. The choir has been really helpful to me and I feel like they would be just as helpful to someone in the future.