Monday, July 25, 2016

Why Do Cantors Raise Their Arm/s at Mass?

Monday greetings from Chicago, where the worst thunderstorm I have ever experienced rolled through last evening. Some damage to assess up on the roof of my home.

This is just one of those "musings" posts.

After having experienced liturgy in various places (and countries) over the past month, I have a question that has been bugging me.

Why do cantors at Mass extend their arm/s or hand/s when it is time for the assembly to sing?

I've noticed in some places, for instance, that a cantor can keep a hand raised for the entire length of the refrain for a responsorial psalm, even one with a very long refrain. My question: Don't we already know that we are supposed to repeat the psalm refrain after the cantor sings it once and after each verse?

Also, when there is a nice, strong introduction to a hymn or song and the organist, or keyboard player, or ensemble musicians actually breathe at the end of the introduction, signalling all of us to breathe and begin the hymn or song, why does a cantor need to lift up a hand to signal that we are to begin singing?

I have shied away from the hand-lifting in the past several years when I am a cantor which, admittedly, is a rare occasion. I simply memorize the first few lines of whatever it is that the assembly is supposed to sing, I look out at the assembly, I breathe, and I think by my body language and eyes, that I am giving them the signal to begin.

Also, if there is a strong introduction, and the hymn or song is well known, does a cantor really need to be anywhere near a microphone? Does the cantor even need to be alone "up front?" Does a cantor need to sing into the microphone at all?

I'll be interested in hearing your take on all of this.

Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Anonymous said...

I agree. Why do we need the cantor all alone gesturing? I am a music director and also a cantor, and I would love to not have cantors at all. Let the music belong to the people. Sometimes I think we just do all these things because everyone else does them. Although our new priest, recently ordained, thinks we should return to all Latin responses and music. He says the full active conscious participation of the people means what they offer in their hearts and minds. I think it may be time for me to retire.

Katherine said...

First let's distinguish among psalmists, cantors and song leaders. They are actually three different offices (though often held by the same person due to a lack of available competent personnel.) The psalmist is responsible for the psalm alone. That is their office. The cantor is responsible for any other chants and litanies- but may also be responsible for the psalm. The song leader- should there be one -does just that.

The reason we us our arms to invite the assembly into the dialogue, is that even though almost all of the people there know its their turn, there's always someone who doesn't know- someone who's been invited for the first time from another faith tradition, someone returning after years and years away, someone exploring, someone with no faith tradition of their own. I consider it a matter of hospitality to help visitors and occasional attenders know that its their turn to participate. It is also helpful if the psalm has a tricky rhythm or comes in on an off beat, to have some direction.

I do however, (and I teach this to psalmists and cantors) agree that once the invitation to sing has been accepted by the assembly, the psalmist and/or cantor should gracefully bring their arms down. There is no need for them to be hanging up there for the entire refrain. Also, I believe that the gesture need not be HUGE to be effective. As to leading songs (the usual four)- I teach my song leaders to announce the song number and then back off the mike (unless its a brand new song). They can usually tell if the assembly needs any help with what we're doing.

Terri said...

I think a simple, inviting gesture is useful, just because, for some reason, typical American congregations don't seem to think they're supposed to sing unless some tells them to. Don't know why--I don't experience this in Protestant worship, so I suspect (with little real evidence) that it's what we learned back in the 60s when we were introduced to the liturgical changes at the time.

But I completely agree with Katherine that a song leader, especially when there's a choir or ensemble, should not be necessary except maybe for new songs. When I was Director of Liturgy (not music) at a parish, I tried for years to phase out the song leader role of the cantor, but could never get the Music ministry on my side. One of the joys I have at the parish I now attend (as an observant retiree) is that there is no song leader for songs and hymns. And the people manage to sing just great.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. It is not necessary for a cantor to raise their arm/s to tell the assembly it is time for their part. The Priest/Deacon don't do this at dialogues - so it makes the cantors look odd - like they somehow know more about assembly participation than the Priest/Deacon OR that the cantor doesn't trust the assembly to do their part. On a similar note is when the cantor sings the refrain into the microphone drowning out the assembly.

I have long advocated for no arm raising - but encounter the long-time music directors who say "This is how I was taught. This is the only way."

What is needed is some good reflection on the role of the cantor as a minister within the assembly and a willingness for those who've "always done it this way" to be open to some exploration of the lex orandi/credendi.

Mary said...

I think when many cantors were trained, they were taught to raise their arms. I know that I was, 20 years ago, and like that occasional "and also with you" that slips out after a chanted "The Lord be with you" it is a conditioned response. I am curious as to what they teach in the cantor sessions at the NPM convention.

In my church, except for singing the psalm at the ambo, the cantor is at the same level as the congregation, so the majority of people in the church can't even see the cantor. I think that a really good cantor needs to know what the congregation needs and should adjust accordingly. When I hear the people singing out, that is my cue to back off. I do not like to be at Mass when a cantor is blaring over the congregation -- especially on Mass parts.

Brian Michael Page said...

I fully agree. This has been a pet peeve of mine for years. You really don't need to have a cantor up front in the first place, based on the fact that the people in the pew SHOULD already know when to sing, given that they're regular Mass-goers and have been properly trained (whether in Catholic school or in CCD or even in an adult "formation"), let alone raise their arms. The raising of the arms tends to change the focal point from the hymn that the people are trying to sing to the cantor himself/herself, even if such is not the intention.

Kpodd said...

Some assemblies need encouragement when it is there time to sing. Note I wrote "encouragement."
Some years back I was at a parish in the diocese of Rochester. An elderly priest was in residence and assisted on weekends. I loved watching him during the Psalm. When the verses were sung, either by cantor or choir, he took a posture of prayerful listening. His head was slightly bowed and his arms were crossed across his chest. At the refrain he lifted his head, looked up, and extended his arms in a prayerful gesture. I noticed that people were watching him, not the cantor, and joining in the refrain. It was as if he embraced the assembly at the respnse.

Greg said...

I am currently the Director of Sacred Music at our Cathedral and for our Diocesan Office of Divine Worship. This blog article and all the comments are great! So interesting to me to see the different perspectives on this topic. Normally I try and do reading, research, etc. to help keep me sharp and fill in the gaps, but sometimes it is the most enlightening and refreshing to simply keep you eyes and ears open and see what the people and your colleagues are doing.

Edie Pearson said...

Having been an organist and cantor (right about the time that congregational singing became the norm) it has been my experience that if you don't lead the congregation by gesturing THEY DON'T PARTICIPATE!

Even now when praying the Rosary before Mass, the leader sometimes has to raise their arms so those in the pews respond.

Edie P, Pekin, IL

July 27, 2016

Paul Inwood said...

The problem is that the gestures of US cantors frequenty have NOTHING to do with the music being sung. Spend a little while watching how European (especially French) cantors do it, and then have this debate again.