Our Woman of the Week is Valerie Yova, music director at St. Athanasius Church in St. Barbara, California. Valerie was nominated for the role she has played in Orthodox music in America over the last decades. She has been music director at Romanian, Antiochian, and OCA parishes in California, Michigan, and New York; founded or co-founded pan-Orthodox choirs, chorales, and singing academies, and was President and Chair of PSALM Inc., a national pan-Orthodox organization for church musicians. You see her here conducting a workshop at Antiochian Village and performing the St. Matthew Passion in Detroit in 2000. We asked her to tell you how she ended up where she is:
"Being asked to write this post has taken me on a trip down memory lane, and has been cause for reflection on how I ended up where I am right now. I want to share a few thoughts that might be helpful to young women who have a desire to serve in the Church AS A CAREER, and to mothers of young girls. I am not special or extraordinary, but I do think I was unusually blessed. As I pondered the positive influences in my life along the way, my heart filled to the brim with gratitude.
"Even in 2021, it is still not terribly common for women to be employed in full-time professional positions and as ministry leaders in the Orthodox Church. For that matter, for anyone to be employed even half-time to lead the music in an Orthodox parish is rare. I am particularly grateful that the priest under whom I have worked for the past eleven years is also somewhat rare. He treats me like a colleague with respect for my training, experience, and viewpoint. He asks my opinion, confers with me about changes being considered, is not a micromanager and knows how to mentor ministry leaders in a way that gives them wings to soar. I am blessed, indeed, and have been fortunate to work with two other such priests in my 31 years of either hourly, part-time, or full-time work in the Church. This has played a large part in my ability to stay on the career path that has led me here.
"I have been employed full-time by St. Athanasius (Antiochian) Orthodox Church in Santa Barbara, California (aka 'Paradise') since January of 2010. My job is theoretically split 50/50 between music and administration, though that flexes a bit according to the liturgical seasons. I conduct the choir for liturgies, including the major feasts, lead the chanting at Great Vespers, and supervise the music for most of the other services. I also create all of the service text handouts for the parishioners. The administrative side of my job includes everything you can think of that keeps the wheels of an active, growing parish turning smoothly: communications, publicity, ministry coordination, scheduling, monitoring of upkeep and repairs, bookkeeping supervision, and whatever assistance the priests need in their daily work.
"My formal training included bachelor’s and master’s degrees in vocal performance followed by eight years of continued study and the pursuit of a full-time performing career, with four different stints living in New York City, and some time studying in Europe. I suffered a serious back injury right about the time I realized that the lifestyle of a full-time performer was not for me. So in 1990, I moved to Detroit for 14 years, where I enjoyed a rich artistic life, and also the stability of church and family. I had the additional unexpected opportunity of working in arts management, where I learned how to write grant proposals and do fund raising “by the seat of my pants.” This experience in non-profit management has served me well over the years, including in my current position, and during the six years I worked for Project Mexico & St. Innocent Orphanage, founded by my brother, Gregory. Some of the most rewarding work I have done in the past 30 years has been helping to initiate and coordinate musical endeavors that united Orthodox musicians from many jurisdictions and ethnic traditions. I have met some of my dearest friends through Inter-Orthodox music ministry.
"I have moved to new places many times—often on my own. My own mother used to marvel at this, because I was kind of shy as a kid. I have stepped into new opportunities many times where I had to learn on the job. I was able to make the case several times along the way for creating either a half-time or full-time paid parish position because I wanted to give more of my time and energy to the Church. I was tired of giving what was left over after doing the multiple part-time jobs that paid the rent. I wanted to give the “first fruits” of my energy to the Church.
"The common threads of influence in my life have been role models, mentors, and opportunities. I was surrounded by people who “walked the walk,” and taught by example; people who modeled hard work and integrity, never succumbed to self-pity, taught me with patience and love, gave me chances along the way to try my wings, even before I had any real training. They were people who saw promise in me and trusted me. These people were my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, clergy, monastics, church elders, high school and college teachers, scout leaders, music instructors, colleagues and employers.
"What I have realized is that how we think about ourselves as women, how we behave with each other and with men, the limits we put on ourselves and the things we give ourselves permission to do—all of these things teach and influence those around us. The best thing we can do for other women, especially those coming up behind us, is to find a way to be all that God is calling us to be, without apology, with confidence and passion. I am not saying that this is easy. Often it is not. But this website is showing us that we can support and encourage each other along the way. Sharing our stories is one great way to do that! I pray that I can be for even one person the kind of role model and support that SO many have been for me.
"As one can see from the individuals highlighted here, women in the Orthodox Church today have varying perspectives and widely differing experiences. While I agree with some ideas and opinions expressed on this site about the Church and what kind of change is needed, I do not endorse all of them. I have chosen to share the positive experiences and influences in my life which have enabled me to serve within the Church and find a fulfilling career doing so. I have done so hoping to encourage other women."
Valerie Yova is our Woman of the Week, nominated for her service to a pan-jurisdictional vision of Orthodox music. We asked her to tell you a bit about the parish where she currently works. You see her here conducting at Easter in 2018:
"Sometimes the people we are asked to lead and to teach end up becoming our teachers.
"I was born into and raised in a very ethnic Romanian parish in Ohio. Being Orthodox and a Christian seemed inseparable from being Romanian for several decades of my life. In 2010, as I began my current job working for and with this very 'American' parish that is not ethnic in any of the ways I was used to, I had to recognize that there actually WAS an “ethnicity” that united them, and it needed to be honored and respected. Their common roots and spiritual history had brought them together to look for the New Testament Church of the Book of Acts (a fascinating story documented by Fr. Peter Gilquist in “Becoming Orthodox.”) And when they found it and joined the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese en masse in 1987, they brought to the Church a freshness, joy, sense of discovery and wonder. They infused with new life an American Church that had lost many of its youth during the 1970s and 1980s, ironically, to Protestantism. (I had my own spiritual identity crisis in my 20s. Fortunately, I did not stray too far.) When, in 1991, I sat in a church social hall in Detroit, packed with cradle Romanian Orthodox folk, and listened to Fr. Peter Gillquist tell the story of the ten-year journey of the 3,000 plus believers called the Evangelical Orthodox Church (EOC), it was life changing. Many of us in the room were moved to tears. We wept partly from the contagious and profound joy of Fr. Peter’s story telling. We also wept from sadness for all that we had taken for granted, the jewel we had inherited that we could not see glimmering right in our faces. It took a group of former Evangelicals to help us to appreciate what we had. I felt mysteriously connected to these people way back then, in 1991, when I first heard their story.
"Nineteen years later, I was hired by this parish in Santa Barbara that had been the hub of the EOC, and I thought I was the 'experienced' cradle Orthodox person being brought here to teach them. I learned very quickly that I had much to learn from THEM about The Faith, and about faith in general. Their deep, abiding, personal love for Jesus Christ never ceases to humble me. They bring this love to worship and singing and the daily struggles of life. On a regular basis, I have the great privilege of standing in front of singers who love Christ with their entire beings. I see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. I never have to remind them that we are there to pray. Singing with them has always felt like prayer.
"One of the things I think I have been able to share with them is a more 'classical' approach to vocal production. Throughout most of the past 2,000 years, the model sound in sacred music focused on pure vowels that create a more unified choral texture, make the sound 'ring' more beautifully and carry better in reverberant worship spaces. At some point in Evangelical Christian worship, the model shifted to a pop or folk style of music and vocal production, and incorporated the use of microphones and praise bands. This approach to worship music creates a very different aesthetic, and in a choir makes each individual voice stand out. I like to think that we have had fun together learning about classical vocal production and applying it to our liturgical music, whether it be Byzantine chant, Slavic chant, newly composed music, or some of their most beloved hymns composed when they had first become Orthodox. Another contribution I think I have been able to make is in the “flow” of the services, mainly because I have always believed strongly that what happens on the kliros needs to flow right out of what is happening in the altar. There needs to be a strong connection of tempo, pitch, and energy. And that changes for every service. My opera training actually has helped me to be sensitive to these things! I have to add that we have some AMAZING folk, pop and country singers in our parish, and we still enjoy singing favorite hymns and Christian songs at our social gatherings like St. Nicholas Night and the Pascha picnic. …with the band!
"When I look back on my journey, all of the places I have lived, and the people God has brought into my life, it seems that I was being prepared to come to this Church at this particular point in my journey, partly for what I could offer to them, but also for what they could teach me.
"As we continue to try to discern what 'American Orthodoxy' is supposed to look and sound like, we would be wise to remember that EVERY land and culture into which Orthodoxy was taken went through a process of making the Faith its own. It is a fascinating process to observe and of which to be a part, as pious traditions develop out of love and local culture. Our bishops continue to guide that process, and it will take MUCH longer than any of us would have ever predicted for the Orthodox Church to become truly American. But something tells me that these folks, whose roots in America go back MUCH farther than mine, are playing a significant role in that process."
We asked Valerie Yova, our Woman of the Week, as always, about her morning routine. You see her here standing with her mother:
"There’s the morning routine I fantasize about, and then there is reality! I have always LOVED the early hours of the morning, was one of the first people in the music building every morning in college, vocalizing by 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. My best energy was and still is the first 5 hours after I awake. But when I turned 50 and went through menopause, I suddenly stopped sleeping soundly and so mornings became much S-L-O-W-E-R! I still get up early, but it takes me 3 or 4 hours to feel fully functional. I take pretty good care of myself, know a lot about inflammation, and have worked with some excellent healthcare practitioners over the years to improve and guard my health. But mornings are still slow. Here’s the present reality:
- Coffee first. Almost always. Usually black, even though I prefer it with cream.
- A little news and/or email. (Less social media these days.)
- 10 minutes of stretching, without fail. I have had a bad back for 35 years.
- 5-10 minutes of deep breathing exercises for immune support and to strengthen singing.
- 15-minute brisk walk 3-5 days a week while listening to a podcast (usually “Search the Scriptures” on Ancient Faith Radio). My goal is to walk 5 days a week for 30 minutes.
- Continue to listen to podcast while getting dressed.
- No breakfast. Have been doing intermittent fasting for the past 20 months, 5-6 days/week.
- I often pray while doing my walk, and while driving to work. I have been an utter failure at developing a prayer rule.
"The morning routine to which I aspire includes LONGER walks, regular prayer, more meditation/active listening, journaling or writing every day, and more reading. Perhaps when I am semi-retired and not working 5-plus days a week, I will be able to move more in that direction. It has been a great encouragement for me to read what others have written on this site about their morning routines. It made me realize that many of us struggle with this, particularly in the past year of lockdowns and disrupted routines. May we continue to aspire to be better and continue to encourage each other in that endeavor!"
Thank you, Valerie!