Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Constantine Stade

Joyous feast of the Ascension!

When we’re talking about Orthodox music, we’re usually discussing the disciplines of singing, conducting, composing, and teaching — and perhaps we might also include the text-based areas of liturgical translation and hymnography. However, there are absolutely other activities that fall under the rubric of “Orthodox music”. They may not come springing to mind immediately as fitting under the umbrella of a cappella vocal music, but a moment’s thought makes it clear that they qualify.

The Orthodox tradition of bellringing is one such activity. While separate from the sung tradition, it nonetheless leaves a musical footprint, notably in the music of Estonian composer Arvo Pärt and those works composed in his “tintinnabuli” style. Beyond that, bellringing is a complex musical system in its own right, with its own technical considerations, liturgical function, architectural environment, and traditions of performance practice.

Constantine Stade of St. Louis, MO grew up as the son of a priest in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia, and studied music in college with the intent of serving the Church as a musician. In recent years, however, he has shifted his focus from the choir loft to the bell tower, and he is making a unique contribution as a specialist in that area. Constantine hopes to, as he puts it, tell the story of Orthodox bellringing (which, for the record, he prefers be one word rather than two) to the Church in America in a way that inspires others to take up the craft.

We spoke to Constantine via videoconference on 3 May 2020.

CTS headshotYour name for the record?

My name is Constantine Christopher Stade.

When is your birthday?

November 6, 1990.

What do you do and where do you do it?

I operate The Church Bell Company, which is a rebrand of an older name (New Creation Bellringing). I offer every service that you would need for establishing a practice of live bellringing in your church, starting from the step of saying “We like the idea of church bells,” all the way to training your church bellringer. We help with the architectural design of a new belfry, purchasing bells, installing them, implementing the ringing system, and finally, the hands-on training. That’s the main focus of my Orthodox musical life. I studied vocal music at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, and then for about a year and a half was the music director at the Church of Christ the Savior in Chicago. Working as a professional musician in an Orthodox  church was the culmination of all of my studies. In every music theory course, every voice lesson, every choral ensemble rehearsal and performance, I was always thinking, how will this apply in the real world to Orthodox singing? But after being in Chicago for a year and a half, I hit the same wall that I think a majority of young Orthodox college student musicians hit, which is that Orthodoxy in America does not have a good system in place for how we support our churches. Because of that, we don’t have the means to support our ministries either. That’s a recurring theme that I’m hearing over and over again. At the time, though, I realized I wasn’t fooling myself and I knew what I was doing was kind of an investment in the future—not something that I would honestly be able to find a job in. So, at the same time as I was doing my undergraduate studies, I got my paramedic license as a backup plan. After I graduated, an amazing job opportunity opened up in Chicago, and it took it. During my time there, I was trying to do everything in my life simultaneously. Besides serving as the music director at Christ the Savior, I was also the office manager of the Annunciation Greek Cathedral. I studied conducting Maestro Peter Jermihov, sang with his choir, the Saint Romanos Society Cappella for the liturgical premiere of Father Ivan Moody’s Greek Liturgy in 2016, traveled to Alaska for a bell installation project in St. Herman’s Church in King Cove, and was applying for jobs as a paramedic. But at the end of the day, everything just wasn’t adding up. I got engaged to my beautiful wife Laura, and realized I just couldn’t make it work in Chicago with a living pierced together from so many sources. I had some important lessons to learn about achieving mastery in a field by focusing on it, and putting other interests on the back burner. So, I moved back to St. Louis in July of 2017, and made a commitment to myself not to pursue anything musical while I got my career established as a paramedic-firefighter. And I’ve been successful in that.

However, it soon became clear that being a musician in the Orthodox Church is an important part of who I am, and not something I’m able to cut out of my life.

So in the past 3 years I’ve doubled down on the bell installation and education projects that I was doing, started an LLC for my company, started singing at a parish here where they needed support. It’s become a question of finding a way to provide for my family financially and plug into the most meaningful thing in my life—worship.

What motivates you to do what you do?

The reason I chose to focus my professional efforts specifically on church bellringing is that there is almost no activity focusing on propagating Orthodox Church bellringing in America. There’s a gentleman named Mark Galperin, who runs a company out in the Bay Area, Blagovest Bells, and he has imported bells for a large number of parishes, but he’s not a bellringer and doesn’t provide installation services. When our parish bought bells, at the same time that I was studying vocal music, I started to do some installations for Mark.

After a number of years he challenged me to take on a larger role in church bellringing. He told me, “You know, there are a lot of choir directors out there, but there’s only one bell installer.” I have met so many people exactly like myself who paid their own way through college to get a degree in vocal music or conducting, in order to be professional Orthodox Church musicians. But, there just aren’t any paid positions right now. Obviously, we are going to need a lot of trained, competent church musicians, but over the years it’s become clear to me that there were a lot of people doing what I wanted to do as a choir conductor, and there was nobody in the realm of church bellringing—so I shifted my focus there.

I grew up in an English-Speaking ROCOR parish where my dad was the priest, and we had a three hour vigil service every Saturday night. It really shaped me and instilled in me the sense of the centrality of worship. I was always captivated by the sounds of church bells—even though they weren’t real bells. We had a P.A. system on the roof and a cassette player. It was obvious to me even as a kid how integrated bells are with Orthodox worship. That was never anything anybody had to teach me, because that was what I was just experiencing. Finally in 2007, I finally bugged my dad to start a fundraising campaign to purchase church bells from Russia. We bought a set of bells, I was finally able to get my hands on the real thing and started figuring out how to interact with them. I started by looking online, but there weren’t a lot of videos available. I was able to piece together the Russian bellringing system—not just the music theory, but the actual mechanism whereby one person can ring over a dozen bells by themselves in a musical and coordinated way. As the years started to go by, more and more people would come to our church and hear our bells, and I started to get asked to help with the bells at other churches. Then I got on to Mark Galperin’s radar; working for him, I would install bells and also teach people to ring them. That went on for about ten years, and finally I decided to stop treating it as a hobby, even a paid hobby, and to turn it into a real company.

Along the way, I’ve been challenged by a number of people to think about it more and more seriously — Andrew Gould in particular has really challenged and inspired me to approach church bells within the context of the whole liturgical life of our American parishes. That’s prompted me to ask the question — what’s the bigger why of church bells? That’s a story I want to help tell. Churches that play recordings of bells, or only ring the bell on the night of Pascha, or that spend millions of dollars on a new building with a bell tower that has no realistic provision for where bells are put and how to ring them, or ring concert chimes with a hammer from the choir loft—these are churches that do not have a solid answer to the question: What are church bells for?

The primary purpose of church bells is not to entertain those already inside the church. Their primary purpose is to call people to prayer who are not already in the church. This includes two very important, distinct categories of people. It includes people that want to hear the church bells, who maybe live nearby and are going to come to church to pray when they hear the bells. But it also includes people that don’t want to hear the church bells — passive hearers, let’s say. 

So if the bells are rung primarily to call people to church who are not already inside, if this is your why, then it solves any number of problems encountered along the way. Where do you hang the bells? In a stone tower, at least one story above the ground. You ring in a serious way, and you ring real bells. We don’t do fake in Orthodoxy. We don’t play recordings of singing in our services. We have oil lamps and beeswax candles. We like real things.

Of course, bellringing also is an expression of our Christian joy, but in an era of Orthodoxy in our country where we struggle to offer anything more to our proximal neighbors than ethnic food, we need to be aware that our bellringing isn’t just a way to entertain ourselves, but contribute to the Christian soundscape of the actual homes and workplaces around our churches.

That seems like a sensitive topic in an age where it’s assumed that “being a good neighbor” means that your neighbors don’t know you’re there.

We need to be serious here about what the work of the Churches is. Are we here to make friends? Are we here to placate disgruntled non-believers? Is compliance with the secular authorities the highest good for us? Or are we here to preach the gospel, to baptize the nations, and to be the voice of Christ calling out to people? There are stories about people that have come back from the brink of committing suicide by hearing the church bells ringing. Let’s preach the Gospel and let people know that we’re here.

What projects are you working on that you haven’t told us about already?

One of the problems that I’ve run into is that I’m not yet able to spend one hundred percent of my time on church bellringing. I have a full time job with the fire department with a rotating shift schedule and four days off every week; that is just enough time to travel somewhere, get bells installed, and teach for a day or maybe two. Imagine trying to learn the piano in two six-hour blocks! To solve that problem, I’m launching a series of online video training courses this summer. The first course will be titled “Fundamentals of Orthodox Bellringing.” People will learn to ring Orthodox Church bells at their own pace, in their own belfry, on their own bells. I’ll continue to teach in person, but the online training course idea arose out of this need. I’m going to start out with a course on fundamentals of Orthodox Church bellringing that will establish a baseline and get everybody on the same page, using the same musical vocabulary and getting students familiar with the repertory of underlying melodic formulae that bellringers draw from when ringing for a service. From there we’ll move into some more advanced theory and also performance practice. The bellringer has to develop an understanding of the bell as an instrument—that’s where a lot of the beauty comes from.

I’m also working on a streamlined way for churches to be able to go from wanting bells to having them installed with newly trained bellringers — in other words, to take all of the guesswork, all the complexity, all of the hassle out of getting churches’ bellringing ministries up and running. Right now that process is very difficult and very disjointed. The goal is a simple pathway for people to be able to purchase bells, but in the meantime, I’m also continuing the reinstallation projects for churches that already have bells but don’t have a reasonable way to ring them—the ringing system.

constantine stade 2What projects would you like to work on that nobody’s asked you to do yet?

Like I said earlier, it’s all about communicating the whyOne of the biggest direct challenges that I am facing is that, thank God, we’ve gotten, you know, maybe one hundred and fifty to two hundred churches in America that have Orthodox church bells custom-cast specifically for them. But other than the physical bells themselves, the musical culture of bellringing has not been brought to our country. People try to imitate what they hear on recordings, but don’t realize all of the technical craft, the craftsmanship and the technical work that goes into getting the bells set up, and establishing a ringing system with trained ringers. So, given that I’m trying to help tell better stories about what it is that we’re doing with bells overall, rather than propagating individual little local traditions at the expense of others, I would love to be able to work with all of the major monasteries and institutions in America to help improve the state of bellringing everywhere. I want to help establish some outstanding examples of bellringing at our monasteries, since they’re always a haven for our liturgical life. They don’t have to apologize about doing things well and properly and long and in full. 

I don’t mean to make everybody do exactly the same thing; I’m not trying to bring Russian church bells ringing to Holy Cross Seminary, for example (unless they want them). Rather, just to start with, I want to help get everybody on the same page with terminology, because we don’t even all mean the same things with words like peal and toll. I would love to be able to get bellringing instruction as an optional course into all of our seminaries for priests and people that are interested — or even open a bellringing equivalent of Jordanville’s Summer Music School or Holy Cross’ Byzantine chant certificate program. In-person instruction at a dedicated location where the student comes out with, ideally, a certificate that means you can be trusted to teach, and with some kind of quality control mechanism in place. 

I think what’s going to be most productive in our current environment is to focus on individuals who are motivated to bite the bullet and train themselves, rather than catering to specific jurisdictional organizations. Something that is successful on its own merits will create the market just by virtue of having a superior product and a far better vision than what an individual ethnic jurisdiction might be able to do.

But speaking of things nobody’s asked me to do yet, there’s an interesting situation at Harvard University, in the Lowell House, one of the residence halls. In a tower on top of the building there is a set of 17 Russian church bells from St. Daniel’s Monastery in Moscow, rescued from certain destruction by Communists during the Bolshevik revolution by an American businessman, Charles Crane. They were given to the University and rung for years by the students. In 2007, the original bells were repatriated, and the Russian church donated a set of similar bells to Harvard in exchange. There’s an extremely active cultural exchange now between St. Daniel;s Monastery and the Lowell House Bellringers.

So, we now have a situation where the largest set of Orthodox bells in America, including the largest bell is rung at a secular institution by a group of students. The next time that we build a church for the ages in America — maybe when the Assembly of Bishops finally becomes a real Synod of American bishops and we build a new cathedral for the primatial seat of the Metropolitan of America — I’d love to spearhead the project of putting a larger set of bells at that church. Someday, God willing.

What’s your sense of the big picture for Orthodox music in America?

Right now, we need to recognize that we are an American church, and within that, strive for authenticity of practice. Americans can sing Byzantine music, for example; it’s not unlearnable, and there are people who are good examples of musicians who can perform in different styles. 

I’m starting to wonder if what we’re experiencing isn’t just kind of a generational shift, that the way things were done in the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s is having to change, by attrition if nothing else. When I see the larger context of work being done to benefit our liturgical life, whether that’s Andrew Gould in architecture, Fr. Seraphim Dedes in liturgical texts, and all of the current generation of musicians like Benedict Sheehan, it gives me a lot of comfort that in the long run, sanity will prevail as long as we all keep doing our best in our individual fields to be creative within our traditions of liturgical beauty while not reinventing the wheel. In that sense, I think we’re in a birth period of sorts; we’re trying to make it mean something to the rest of the people that live in our country and not just ourselves. 

At the same time, I’m also very scared by our ethnic jurisdictions seemingly becoming more entrenched in our separate identities. I worry that we’re going to end up stuck in our individual ethnic traditions and miss the forest for the trees. I really I really hope that we can come together and see the commonality between the best music making of all of our traditions. Let’s have people of like mind from all jurisdictions connect with each other. Let’s learn. Let’s let’s pray and be Christians together, and let’s create the future that we want to see. Let’s have the most glorious Orthodox church bells be in a church in America.