Monday, December 2, 2013

Cantors: More and More to Become Less and Less

Monday of the First Week of Advent has dawned crisp and clear here in Chicago. I hope that your Thanksgiving was a graced one.

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?
Happy Advent.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


R K said...

Excellent insight, Jerry! I have found myself at a local Episcopalian Parish for various things over the past few months and I am always amazed that they can sing hymns with out announcements and a cantor waving them down and singing at them. One of my favorite quotes from the book "Why Catholics Can't Sing" is that a "congregation of 30 Episcopalians could ousting a Catholic congregation of 300".

We, as Catholic musicians, need to reclaim the (pardon the phrase) power of the people and rekindle the fire of congregational singing. I think that the role of the cantor needs to be reevaluated.

Happy Advent!

Geoff said...

I served a parish where the standard practice was to use a setting of the Gloria where the people just sang the refrain. It was a great singing assembly, but soon after I arrived I noticed that people would sing the Gloria refrain with gusto and then just mouth the words to the verses. I asked around about it and I kept getting the same response..."we're not supposed to sing unless the cantor's hand is up."

So I asked all my cantors to try something for a month. Instead of holding their hand up for the refrain, hold it up for every verses. Problem solved! People started singing the verses because they now had "permission." Sadly, we have trained the people too well in some instances.

I am now serving in another denomination and I LOVE that I never have to announce a page number or coax the congregation into singing. They just do it. I think Catholics could do it too if we took away all the props and just provided a sturdy foundation at the keyboard. This is really crucial. If I had to choose between a strong leader at the keyboards and a strong cantor, I will take the keyboard person any day.

Anonymous said...

St. James catherral in Seattle

I am told has a great music program Of course Fr. ryan. the "Irsh " pastor has a great sense of Iturgy and the courage in these times to use it.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for keeping this before us. I couldn't agree more and am so glad that the authors of "Sing to the Lord" stated it so well. I have always trained cantors (and accompanists)on the "Less is more" principle. The greatest sound is truly the singing assembly.

Rob Glover

Anonymous said...

Pastoral support is also key in bringing a congregation to finding their voice.

Another technique is to program an extremely well-known song and indicate specific verses are to be sung by the congregation alone without the choir. This helps the congregation find its voice using familiar hymns.

Anonymous said...

I agree totally with this blog entry.
Unfortunately at our parish, the cantor looks like she is practically swallowing the microphone...her voice is good enough-but it is low and slow. Periodically she will enlist a girlfriend to sing a duet with her for the responsorial psalms. She is also the Director of Liturgical Music and basically uses the choir as a prop for her "performance". She is the main reason that my husband and I attend weekend mass every other week at another parish.
I think I am going to forward this article to her and the president of her fan club (the pastor). Dionysius 59