Last week, I accepted an invitation to lead several workshops and a WLP choral reading session for the Archdiocese of Seattle in February. One of the workshops is "Cantor Basics." As someone who sits in the pews these days and who has spent a considerable part of his life at the organ or piano, or directing a choir, or being the cantor at Mass, I find, in general, that cantors need more and more to become less and less. Let me start with these two paragraphs from Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship.
38. As a leader of congregational song, the cantor should take part in singing with the entire gathered assembly. In order to promote the singing of the liturgical assembly, the cantor’s voice should not be heard above the congregation. As a transitional practice, the voice of the cantor might need to be amplified to stimulate and lead congregational singing when this is still weak. However, as the congregation finds its voice and sings with increasing confidence, the cantor’s voice should correspondingly recede. At times, it may be appropriate to use a modest gesture that invites participation and clearly indicates when the congregation is to begin, but gestures should be used sparingly and only when genuinely needed.
39. Cantors should lead the assembly from a place where they can be seen by all without drawing attention from the liturgical action. When, however, a congregation is singing very familiar responses, acclamations, or songs that do not include verses for the cantor alone, the cantor need not be visible.
About a year ago, while leading a parish mission in a southern diocese, I attended all four weekend liturgies. The cantor was the same for all Masses; I assume she was a "paid cantor." For every single piece of congregational music, she sang into the microphone and overpowered the singing of the assembly. She had a wonderful singing voice and a reverent demeanor.
Yesterday at Mass for the First Sunday of Advent, I experienced the same thing. The cantor had an absolutely lovely voice, but she sang into the microphone for every single piece of congregational music. The parish has just switched music for the Mass parts, so it is understandable that she would help us along with those parts. But singing into the microphone for O Come, O Come, Emmanuel? Frankly, if she had moved away from the microphone, I think we would have seen just how meager the singing is in this parish, or perhaps not?
Several years ago, when I first began my music and liturgy ministry at Saint Marcelline Church in Schaumburg, Illinois, one of my tasks was to introduce music at the parish's so called "quiet Mass," the 7:30 A.M. Sunday Mass. At first, I introduced just the Gospel Acclamation and the Sanctus. Gradually, over several months, the music for that Mass mirrored the music at the other parish Masses. I was the cantor and led the singing from the organ or the piano. I will never forget the first Sunday that I decided to give the assembly the responsibility to do what is their right and duty. I played the introduction to a very familiar responsorial psalm. I sang the refrain, then did not sing on the repeat of the refrain nor after any of the verses. At first, the assembly's singing was quite weak, but after the first verse of the psalm, it grew stronger. Several people came up to me after Mass and said that they were "scared" when I didn't sing with them, but that eventually they became comfortable. Eventually, I did very little singing at all at that Mass. Less of me and more of them: this has become a principle that I have come to embrace in my own music ministry.
Think about your own experience. If you have been in a parish where the cantor sings everything into the microphone, what would happen if the cantor announced a hymn, there was a strong introduction, and the cantor stepped away from the microphone for the entire hymn? Frankly, I think there are many music directors who are afraid that the singing from the assembly would be too weak; the assembly members have simply become too accustomed to having someone else do the singing for them. I have seen this from the "pew side" way too many times. My plea to music directors is to let the assembly do what we are supposed to do, without a cantor's voice amplified and drowning us out.
This, of course, takes time and training for the assembly. I remember at that parish in Schaumburg, on my last Sunday there. I said my tearful farewells after each Mass. I said that, as a musician, my favorite musical sound was not that of a symphony orchestra, or that from a massive pipe organ, or a concert grand piano. My favorite musical sound was the sound of a singing assembly. I thanked them for giving me the gift of my favorite musical sound week after week and encouraged them to continue.
So, what do you think of all of this?
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.