The Art of the Cantor
This article is the first of a series, by various authors, on different liturgical ministries.
What is a Cantor?
To some, this may seem obvious. However, the cantors role can be a very flexible one, and varies from parish to parish. In some communities, the-musical director is the cantor: conducting the choir, musicians and organist whilst directing the assemblys musical involvement in the liturgy. In others, the musical resources of the parish are limited to an organist and a person who leads the assemblys singing. The cantor may also be an animator, although sometimes these roles are divided between two people. This article addresses the breadth in the ministry of cantor.
Cantors Are Not an Optional Extra
The General Instruction on the Roman Missal assumes that there will be a cantor at every Mass where there is singing. Indeed, it is quite forceful on the subject – it is rare to find words like should in the General Instruction (may is usually preferred), yet it states (n 64):
There should be a cantor or a choirmaster to direct and encourage the singing. If there is no choir, the cantor leads the various songs and the people take their own part.
The Qualities of the Cantor
Just as no human being alive is perfect, there is no such thing as a perfect cantor – so dont let this list of ideas put you off! Any liturgical minister needs, firstly, to be sympathetic to the liturgy of the Church, to love the liturgy, and to have a desire to learn more about it. Ultimately, one hopes, all liturgical ministers would become imbued with the spirit and power of the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Con cilium n 14 §2).
Secondly, a liturgical minister needs to love the Church and his or her community. That is not to say that one has to be able to get on equally with everyone – that is rather unlikely – but one cannot serve the liturgical assembly if-one has a me-and ¬them attitude to the congregation. (In one Peanuts cartoon, Linus has expressed his desire to be a doctor. You cant! he is told, you dont love humanity. I do love humanity, Linus responds, its people I cant stand.)
The liturgical minister also needs to be a person of prayer. Our lives as ministers need to be centred on Christ if our ministry is to be effective.
Finally, the cantor needs to be capable of singing (reasonably) in tune. He or she does not need an operatic voice. Having said this, everyones gifts are capable of improvement, and it would be good if cantors can find the opportunity for some basic voice training. It is to be hoped that parishes would see this as something they should support – financially as well as in principle.
Guidelines for the Cantor
What follows are some guidelines and ideas for cantors. Some may be more relevant to your parish situation than others. If some of the points appear to be rather basic, just take on board whatever is helpful.
Preparing for the Liturgy
Find time to pray.
• Read the readings of the Mass, as well as the texts of the music you will sing, and reflect on them.
• Pray for yourself and for the assembly.
Find out what you have to do and when.
• How will you know when you are on? (If you are cantoring the Psalm, make sure you have a copy of the First Reading to hand. If cantoring the Gospel Acclamation, is there a Second Reading, or does it follow the Psalm? If leading the Holy, holy, find out which preface is being used.)
• Are the choir taking any of the verses or harmonising at any point?
• Are you animating as well, or is someone else doing that?
Prepare the music.
• As-a cantor,-you are-not just singing to the people, you are ministering Gods word eye
• contact is vital. So, as I once heard Bernadette Farrell say: Try to have the music in your head, not your head in the music.
• If you are also acting as animator, practise singing and animating in front of a full length mirror. You may feel daft at first but, believe me, it works.
Liaise with other ministers
• Make sure the readers know that the
• Psalm or Gospel Acclamation is to be sung.
• Ensure the presider knows which parts of the liturgy are being sung, especially if you want him(1) to announce the hymn numbers. It can also be helpful to leave an additional note, slipped into the altar missal, so the presider is reminded whether (for example) the Holy, holy or the Lamb of God are to be sung.
• Liaise with your accompanist or organist (see below).
Rehearse with the accompanist or organist.
• Rehearsing can be as valuable to an accompanist as it is to you. For example, it can help an organist to work out appropriate registration, and help you to get used to it. (In Clifton Cathedral, the organ is close to the Sanctuary. When I cantor the Psalm from the ambo, I can feel as if my voice is being drowned by the organ – yet, in the body of the church, my (amplified) voice is actually louder than the organ. I find a rehearsal helps me not to be put off by this.)
• Rehearse with microphones and the sound system turned on. Among other considerations, this will allow you find the optimum adjustment for the microphones.
• If you are leading hymns, or through¬ composed settings .of the liturgy, find out what the organists introduction will be, so that you can be confident about when to sing.
Work out what will be sung from where.
It is appropriate to sing the Psalm (and, possibly, the Gospel Acclamation)(2) from the ambo. However, the ambo is not the appropriate place from which to sing other music which is not part of the Liturgy of the Word. Nor should the assembly be taught new music before Mass from the ambo.(3)
Try to have the music in your head, not your head in the music
• Work out, in advance, how you will get from one place to another without drawing too much attention to yourself. (It is your ministry, not you, which is important.) If you are singing the Psalm and the Gospel Acclamation from the ambo, can you find a place close to the ambo, but out of the limelight, where you can sit or stand while the Second Reading is proclaimed? More importantly, you need to avoid drawing attention to yourself during the Eucharistic Prayer, for example, between cantoring the Holy, holy and the Memorial Acclamation. Perhaps you could arrive at the Church ten minutes earlier so you can sort these things out.
• Are you carrying the music with you or leaving it where it will be needed? If you are singing the Psalm, dont leave the psalm book on top of the lectionary or the lector for the First Reading is sure to close it and put it on a shelf – thus losing your place!
Check your equipment in advance.
• Music stands are notoriously unreliable. It is disconcerting to have one that slowly collapses in the middle of Mass as soon as you place a heavy hymn book on it.
• Ensure you have the right music books in the right place. If there is a music/ service sheet ensure you have one.
• Check the microphones. Are they the right height? Do they have individual switches? If so, which direction is on and which is off? Do the microphones make a noise when switched on and off? If so, leave them on during the liturgy.
• Just before the liturgy begins (or just before you teach the assembly), check that the sound system is switched on.
If you have new music to teach, prepare how you will do this.
Work out what will be taught, and in what order (cf Teaching New Music below).
It is disconcerting to have a music stand slowly collapse in the middle of Mass when you place a heavy hymn book on it.
Warm up your voice
• You dont want your first note to be a ghastly croak, and you need to be confident about high notes. Exercise the voice beforehand without straining it.
If you are singing try out with joy: dont look as miserable as sin.
Leading the Assembly
For the most part, a cantor needs also to be an animator. If you are singing but someone else is animating, the assemblys attention will be on the animator rather than on you. As a result, you will not communicate the text as well as if people were looking at you. The only exception I would make to this is where a new cantor is being trained. The cantor may not yet have the confidence to animate as well asstand in front of the assembly and sing ¬but this should be exceptional.
You need to be visible.
• Firstly, eye-contact with the assembly is an important way of communicating the text.
• Secondly, your face and breathing will indicate to people (just as much as gestures) when they are to sing. • It is vital that the accompanist/organist can see your gestures so he or she can keep in time with you.
• If the assembly are seated at a very wide angle to you (eg Liverpool and Clifton Cathedrals), try to have eye-contact with every part of the assembly – but be careful to keep your mouth equidistant from the microphone as you turn your head (4).
When a look will do, dont use a gesture…
Resist the temptation to conduct hymns
Dont conduct: animate.
Gestures can indicate either pulse or pitch. The latter is more important to the assembly.
Use only essential gestures.
Be relaxed and clear.
If you look confident, and keep your gestures to a minimum, you will inspire confidence in the assembly. If your gestures are frenetic, the assembly will be confused.
• Remember the cantors creed:5
When a sentence Will do, dont make a speech.
When a word will do, dont use a sentence.
When a gesture will do, dont use a word.
When a look will do, dont use a gesture.
Techniques for animating:
• To invite the assembly to sing, raise your hand out in a gesture of offering. Raising your eyebrows at the same time can also help. Where the assembly will sing the response several times (as with a Psalm), you may only need to use a gesture the first and second times. Subsequently, you may be able to indicate, the assemblys entrance by lifting your head a little and using your eyebrows.
• When indicating pitch, keep your hand horizontal and your arm ¬movement vertical. Avoid dart throwing (making gestures, aimed horizontally towards the assembly).
• Use only one hand for animating. The hand to use is the one facing most of the congregation. Your other hand can be used very occasionally for emphasis, or (again occasionally) where the assembly are seated at a wide angle to you.
• Your gestures would normally be confined to an area between your shoulder and the top of your head.
• Once the assembly knows the tune (eg on the third response to a Psalm), only indicate entrances, not pitch.
• Avoid mixed messages. Let your face express the words you are singing. (If you are singing Cry out with joy, dont look as miserable as sin.)
• Be aware of places where you may need to give extra help, eg difficult rhythms or long notes.
• Keep your hands by your side when you are singing on your own. Conducting your own singing will confuse the assembly (see also Special Considerations for Music Directors below).
Hands off Hymns!
• Hymns need the least animation of all music. Resist the-temptation to¬ conduct the assembly throughout the hymn.
• For the most part, the only animation needed for hymns is to invite the people to join in the beginning. You may use your usual offering gesture for big hymns, but more usually using the (head and) eyebrows is sufficient.
• The only times animation may be useful are for unusual rhythms or for a change of tempo.
Special Considerations for Music Directors.
If you are cantoring whilst directing a choir or music group, your priority must be the assembly. The temptation for choir/music directors is to be so concerned with the choir that: (i) they are late in animating the assemblys response, (ii) they turn away
from the assembly and towards the choir or music group before the assembly has finished their bit.
The choir and the music group (and organist) assist in the active participation of the assembly (cf GIRM nn 63 and 275). The cantor/animator needs to support this role. The choir and music group, therefore, need to be rehearsed in such a way that they can sing confidently when the music directors attention is on the assembly.
If you must give direction to the choir, for example, at the end of an assembly response, keep your body turned to the assembly (and keep your eyes focused on them), and give a small, but clear gesture to the musicians low down and to the side.
Teaching New Music
Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Keep It to a minimum.
• There is only so much the assembly can take. For an average Sunday Mass it is better only to rehearse one item. If you are involved in planning the liturgy, keep this in mind.
• For big occasions, you may need to rehearse more items (and the assembly will wear this better). Work out how much time you have and work out your priorities in advance: sing-after ¬me items come lower down the list.
Know the music inside-out.
For each piece, study the music and get to know its melodic structure: are there identical phrases or sequences?
Work out how to teach the piece.
• If it is a through-setting of a Holy, holy, it may-be-best-to–start–with-the– —-¬hosannas and then go back to the beginning.
• If you have to teach a whole new hymn tune, teach it a phrase at a time. Sing to la. Repeat and then ask the people to sing to la. Only then should you try the words.
Liaise with your organist and musicians.
• Usually, people will better hear and better remember a melody sung unaccompanied. You may need to be given a note by an instrument.
• In longer rehearsals, once the people have got the idea, you may want the organist/instrumentalists to join in, so make sure they know that in advance.
Have a tuning fork handy.
• It is usually better to get your note from a tuning fork, rather than have the assemblys attention drawn away from you by your request for a note from the organist.
• Even if you are going to get your note from an instrumentalist, its good to have a tuning fork as a backup. (Technical hitches distract the assemblys concentration – you need to keep their attention and keep them motivated.)
Even if its awful, always encourage.
Greet the people (briefly).
You are probably the first person to address the assembly that day. Your face should be welcoming and your demeanour should put people at ease.
Say little about the music.
This is not a music lesson, so keep your comments brief. The assembly should spend the majority of the time hearing or singing the music.
Be clear and deliberate
… whether you are explaining something, or singing something.
Be relaxed and confident.
This will help the assembly feel confident about participating.
Sing, then repeat.
Dont expect the assembly to sing immediately after you. Sing it once, then repeat. Only then invite the people to sing.
Keep It short.
Teach a phrase at a time.
Even if its awful, always encourage.
Point out helpful shapes.
This includes such things as repeated which sang at the Academic Mass for the phrases and sequences.
We can all grow in our ministry, so feedback is useful. Keep positive, and avoid being self-deprecating. Get a friend to listen to you and watch you. Explain that you need all the encouragement thats going (we all do!) but you also want the truth. When you get the feedback, plan a strategy to improve your weak points, to avoid pitfalls and to build on your strengths.
Even negative feedback can be helpful (though it is hard to believe it at the time). Try to respond positively. If a person has a go at you, and you feel really hurt, try to listen to what is being said rather than the personal comment – there may still be some truth there, even if the person is being uncharitable. Thank them for their comments. Later, think over the criticisms quietly in prayer and (if necessary) respond further when you are calmer.
Things to Remember
You are a minister of Gods Grace.
Your ministry is to help people to pray.
Keep focused on that.
Believe in yourself.
Believe in yourself and the gifts God has given you, especially your voice.
Believe In the people you serve.
• If you do not have faith in the assembly, they will not have faith in themselves.
• Be patient, be understanding and be encouraging.
Oh dear! I made a mistake.
• Keep mistakes in perspective.
• The odd mistake can actually be quite helpful. People relate to others who demonstrate their humanity! (In one parish where I was Director of Music, I had been training some new cantors. During one rehearsal, one of the trainees told me: The thing that encouraged me to try was that every now and then you go up there and make a complete fool of yourself.)
Keep mistakes in perspective.
In Conclusion – a Reminiscence
During my first term at Heythrop College, I was in the schola which sang at the Academic Mass for the beginning of the new term. Before the Mass, the cantor came to the music stand to teach the assembly the Eucharistic Acclamations, which she (a recent graduate of Kings College) had written. She spoke gently and unassumingly, encouraging everyone, even when they barely made a sound. Her gestures were small and few in number. With the arrogance of youth, I thought to myself: She hasnt a hope! She needs to be much firmer with them. How wrong I was ¬when it came to the Mass, the assemblys singing filled the building.
Who was this cantor? you ask. It was Bernadette Farrell. I have come a long way since those days, and it is Bernadette who, together with Chris Walker, has taught me most of my cantor skills. Indeed, I am indebted to Bernadette for many of the ideas in this article.
Patrick Geary is Liturgy Editor of Music and Liturgy, and a member of Its Editorial Board. He lives and works in Clifton Diocese, and is “currently engaged as Project Manager for the Catholic publishers Viewpoint Resources Direct.
1 Although the presider is referred to as he, it is recognised that, at Liturgies of the Word with Distribution of Holy Communion, or at non-Eucharistic liturgies, the presider may be a woman.
2 There are logistical problems with singing the Gospel Acclamation from the ambo. The Acclamation accompanies the Gospel Procession. Ideally, it concludes at the same time as. the priest or deacon reaches the ambo to proclaim the Gospel. If the Acclamation is sung from the ambo, either the minister has to wait while the Acclamation concludes, or the cantor has to leave the ambo before the music has ended, and is thus not able to lead the assembly effectively.
3 The use of the ambo is reserved for the readings, the Psalm, the Exsultet, the homily and announcing the intentions for the General Intercessions (cf GIRM n 272). If there is no proper place (with a microphone) from which the cantor can sing, this needs to be addressed.
4 For a further treatment of this issue, see Richard Jeffrey-Grays article, How Shall They Hear? following this article.
5 By the French cantor, David Julien.