Orthodox Music in America’s 40 Under 40: Amy Hogg

Amy Hogg, of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Pittsburgh, is actively engaged in the world of Orthodox music in a number of ways: she is a cantor, a teacher, and an innovator. With the guiding principle of making Byzantine music education more feasible for students in this country than she herself had experienced it, Amy has applied her expertise as a trained music educator to the development of a chant curriculum called Byzantine Beginnings, and she is starting an online school as a collective effort with colleagues across the country. She has also been involved in the liturgical arts more broadly through study of iconography. (For purposes of disclosure, we must also state here that Amy is a member of the Saint John of Damascus Society board of directors.)

This Friday is Amy’s 40th birthday, so as with Benedict Sheehan, we’re getting this in just under the wire — many years, Amy! — but we spoke to her by phone for this profile at least a few weeks ahead, on May 23 2020.

Amy Hogg headshotYour name for the record:

Amy Jean Hogg. 

And your date of birth?

June 19th, 1980. 

What you do and where you do it?

I live in Pittsburgh, PA with my husband and three children. In addition to being a stay at home mom, I teach Byzantine chant to private students. I’ve spent the last several years developing Byzantine Beginnings, a chant curriculum to teach Byzantine notation, ear training, and fundamentals of theory. I have a background as a Suzuki piano teacher, and while I was active with that, I studied a curriculum called Music Mind Games — it’s a game-based curriculum, using interactive games used to teach Western notation, ear training, theory, and so on. I’ve used those ideas as the jumping off point for my own game- and visual aid-based Byzantine chant curriculum. [Editor’s note: since this interview, The Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music has published an overview of Byzantine Beginnings that you can read here (LINK).]

I’m currently working with my chant colleagues Samuel Herron and Gabriel Cremeens to found an online Byzantine music school. That’s been a long-term goal of mine for years, since it’s clear to me that there’s a great need for it. I had been offering a range of private online courses under the Byzantine Beginnings banner; Sam had been teaching some of those classes as well as developing some of his own. We decided to team up with Gabriel and launch a school; we’re calling it the Trisagion School of Byzantine Music, and it will offer the Byzantine Beginnings curriculum for introductory students as well as intermediate and advanced classes. The goal of the Trisagion School is to train students for parish musical ministry through Byzantine chant, with all that entails — to be able to sing all of the services with a beautiful and healthy sound, to have a good understanding of the music and theory, to have a traditional vocal style, and to understand the liturgics. Also, once a student finishes our program, they will be prepared to take the exam for the Byzantine chant performer’s certificate at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.

I chant at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral, where Stephen Esper is the protopsaltis. In non-COVID-19 times, generally we have a pretty large Byzantine choir, with as many as 12 people on one side. I sub for Stephen regularly if he has to be away, and there’s a Friday Matins service that I normally lead on a weekly basis.

I also co-host an Ancient Faith podcast on Byzantine chant, A Sacrifice of Praise it launched in fall of 2018, and we’ve produced thirty-nine episodes so far. The goal is to raise awareness of what’s going on in the chant world, to provide basic background knowledge, and more generally to be the kind of resource I would have loved when I was starting out — I had only just converted, and I didn’t know anything about the wider chant world in the States, let alone in Greece or the Middle East.

For me, the podcast was stressful when I started working on it — I’m not a big talker, and the thought of having conversations that other people would be listening to was intimidating. It took us about a year to work out all the technical kinks, and that was very helpful to me — if we had launched a year earlier, I would have had a much harder time handling it. I was very stressed about putting myself out there in the public eye. In that sense, the podcast has helped me get more used to doing that kind of thing and not being stressed out about it. It’s also allowed me to meet more people in the chanting world, which has been invaluable. The feedback on the podcast has been very positive — people have told me that they find the interviews that we do with different composers and chanters to be inspiring and informational. I also think it’s helped to raise the baseline of knowledge amongst the average chanter. There are absolutely people in this country who have been doing this at a high level for 10 or 20 years and who have built a chant culture and community at their parish. At the same time, there are a lot of smaller parishes where people learning Byzantine music are isolated, and they don’t have the luxury of a chanter the next level up who is there for them to connect to. There’s always the question that gets asked, who’s your teacher? It’s treated almost like apostolic succession. That annoyed me at first, but I get more where it’s coming from now — you can’t just pick up a book and learn how to chant; the skills have to be learned from someone. So, if you don’t have access to that in your local community, our podcast helps fill that gap. I’ve heard from listeners that it helps them feel more like they’re part of the broader chant community, and I think building that broader chant community in our country and making it accessible to everybody is something that we really want to work for.

What motivates you to do what you do? 

Music is a huge part of worship for us as Orthodox Christians. I think that we all aspire to offer something beautiful to God as we worship—both the prayer in our heart as we sing, and the sounds that come out. As I learned to chant I realized that there was a need for more teachers of Byzantine chant in our country. So, I worked hard to learn to be a better chanter and better serve God in my own parish, while also working so that I could help others do the same.

I am a teacher at heart — it’s fundamental to who I am. At the same time, what I learned as an elementary educator is that it’s not just the music itself you have to deal with; you have to take into account the external and circumstantial challenges that students deal with, too.

For example, when I started studying Byzantine music seriously, around 2010, we lived in Washington, D.C. The priest’s wife was the chanter at the parish I was chanting at, and she was very good, but her circumstances and my circumstances combined made it very challenging to learn what I wanted to know from her. There was a teacher who did offer lessons, Nick Jones in Falls Church, but that was an hour’s drive away on a weeknight. I was pregnant at the time and already taking care of a two and a three year old, so that was beyond what I could handle. I wound up trying to study on my own, finding what books and resources I could on the Internet, and it was frustrating. When we moved back to Pittsburgh in 2012, I started chanting at St. George, and I was able to study with Stephen Esper as well as Dr. Nick Giannoukakis. Not only that, but the biggest difference of all was that I was actually able to chant services with someone who knew what they were doing, while also chanting from scores all of the time. Still, I was very aware that I had come out of a situation that’s common for a lot of Americans, where you don’t have someone to chant with and don’t have a local teacher. 

When I decided to take Holy Cross’ certificate exam, it gave me an important motivator, a goal to study towards. I knew that standing up and chanting in front of five master chanters was going to scare the daylights out of me if I didn’t prepare and develop confidence. At that point, I was practicing for services, but I wasn’t studying with a teacher in a consistent manner. I had a bazillion questions and no one to ask, and my progress was very, very slow because basically I had no guide. When I started preparing seriously for the exam, I prepared with systematic, regular guidance from teachers who told me, learn these classical pieces, study this, listen to these recordings, practice this, and so on. I had to get serious about learning some Greek, studying more difficult music, and also taking voice lessons. Suddenly I was able to make much, much more progress. I want to make that experience more accessible and attainable for everybody.

Something that I’ve realized is that learning Byzantine music has been such a journey of personal growth. Four years ago at the Antiochian Village Sacred Music Institute, Bishop ANTHONY of Toledo and the Midwest spoke about 2 Timothy 1:7 — “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity but one of power, love, and self-discipline.” That really spoke to me at a time when I had this great desire to make learning easier for other people and for myself, but I was also struggling with being scared and timid — even the idea of chanting in front of other people was very scary to me. I took Bp. ANTHONY’s words to heart; his words really helped me at the time and I think of this verse often. Whenever I start to feel anxious about a new project or getting in front of people, I remember that I’m doing this because I love God and others. That the things I’m doing are not about me but are for God and other people. So for me, this journey of chanting had helped me learn more about myself — my struggles — and to trust in God more.

What projects are you working on that you haven’t talked about yet? 

In the last year, I’ve started studying what’s called the Estill Voice Training (EVT) method with a teacher named Kimberly Steinhauer. Estill Method was developed by Jo Estill, who was a longtime professional singer when she decided to study the science of the voice. In the early 1970’s, she worked as a research associate and lab technician studying laryngeal cancer, and she investigated aspects of vocal quality through acoustic analyses, perception studies, and so on. Jo hypothesized that the average person could identify different speech qualities — what she called speech, sob, twang, and opera. After she proved this, she set about researching how people manipulated the different structures in their larynx to arrive at these different voice qualities, and she found that there are 12 different structures that we can independently control and that change different aspects of our vocal quality. In short, EVT’s model allows you to understand the big picture of how your voice works so that you can make informed decisions about how to use it. I think that the EVT model has a lot to offer to chanters; both in terms of analyzing what great chanters are doing, as well as opening up new possibilities for how to sing this music in your own voice. It’s certainly helped me understand my own voice better and how to get different sounds with it, and I’m learning to analyze what I hear other people doing and how to apply the EVT model to get a more traditional vocal style. Currently I’m working towards the first level of certification in EVT, Figure Proficiency; I hope to work towards the second level, Master Trainer, after that. The third and highest level is Mentor and Course Instructor; that’s the qualification for talking about all the science involved and training the trainers. We’ll see if I go that far with it; I haven’t decided yet. Overall, EVT has helped me be a better chanter, and I want to be able to share that benefit with my students. 

I’m also working on a virtual choir project. A few years ago, I started a women’s Byzantine chant Facebook group called “Psaltic Sisters,” which provides a space for women chanters to form community, support each other in our endeavors, and make each other aware of what we’re doing. The virtual choir came out of that; I had been thinking about it for awhile, since recordings play a huge role in learning, particularly for students who don’t have a teacher standing next to them. The members of the group were excited to do it, so we decided on Philip Phares’ concise setting of “O Heavenly King” for Pentecost. I made the master recording, and then Photini Robinson transcribed it into staff notation so that as many women as possible could participate. We’re shooting for it to come out on or near Pentecost.

[Editor’s note: It was released on June 5 2020. Here it is:]

Are there any projects that you want to work on but nobody’s asked you to do them yet?

Every year I re-record all of the music my students work on; as I get better, maybe I’ll eventually feel more comfortable sharing the recordings more widely instead of just making them available to my students. Along the same lines, for the Trisagion School, we’re planning to record all of the music that the students study, and we’ll probably do one set with a male voice and another set with a female voice. We definitely want to have good representations of men’s and women’s voices, because it’s very helpful for women to hear other women chanting. That’s gotten me thinking about starting a women’s Byzantine choir; I’ve had some initial conversations about that with other women who chant, but with the pandemic, that’s realistically still a ways away. So, for now, I want to do more virtual choir recordings with other women. 

One of my overarching goals is to support other women chanters and their unique needs. I’ve heard from many women that they have a feeling of imposter syndrome, and I have definitely felt that at times myself. With women still a minority in the Byzantine chant world, I really want to do things that support women in their growth. Producing more recordings of women is one way to do that, as well as providing women opportunities to participate in things like a virtual Byzantine choir as well. 

What is your sense of the big picture right now in terms of Orthodox music in America? 

I think that we’re in a good place. In the last ten to twenty years, we’ve seen a lot of growth happening in Byzantine chant, and the efforts of Fr. Romanos Karanos, Holy Cross’ professor of Byzantine Music, with all of his students in the certificate program, have borne a lot of fruit. The younger generations seem very interested and excited about learning Byzantine music. It seems to me that there will definitely be people excited and ready to carry the torch once the current generation needs to hand it off. There are so many more resources and more teachers readily available now in America than there used to be, and it’s growing and growing — more publications, more recordings, more online resources. It looks to me like that growth is going to continue, so it’s an exciting time for Byzantine music.

That said, a reality it seems to me we have to talk about is that most of the people working in Byzantine music are doing it for free, particularly composers. Dn. John El Massih composes for free, Chadi Karam composes for free. Composers like Samuel Herron and Gabriel Cremeens work on paid commission sometimes, but more often than not it seems that if they’re being paid at all it’s through other positions. That’s partly why I wanted to start a school; right now it’s just the three of us, but we plan to grow, adding more teachers and expanding the curriculum. It’s important to me to make sure everybody is paid — teaching for the Trisagion School won’t be a full-time job, so I don’t mean a living wage, but I want people to be compensated for their time at appropriate professional rates. That’s something I think we all need to think about as we move forward.

I do think Byzantine chant will continue to coexist in one form or another with polyphonic choral music, but exactly how it coexists will vary from parish to parish, based on the parish’s history, the talent pool, and interest levels. The pandemic is definitely going to change things up, and for that reason alone we need to train chanters. It could be that when the dust settles, parishes decide to build their Byzantine choirs and not to go back to four part settings. But I think it’s just as likely that there will be parishes that miss their four-part music and decide to go back to it.