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7 things you probably didn't know about being a cantor

cantors Angela Rocchio and Sarah Clements leading the Litany of the Saints at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis for an ordination Mass

Photo by Lisa Johnston: cantors Angela Rocchio and Sarah Clements leading the Litany of the Saints at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis for an ordination Mass

Being a modern-day cantor in the Roman Catholic Church is not for the faint of heart. According to statistics, public speaking ranks as man's #1 worst fear — even greater than the fear of death! I believe this phobia includes public singing.

I remember the very first time I was asked to sing as a cantor. I was home for Christmas break from college, and had only recently discovered my singing voice. My music director, Pam, said I had a beautiful voice, and invited me to sing a chant at the end of communion one Sunday. I was excited to introduce my home parish to some of the music I had learned in the college choir, and chose the Mode VI chant, "Ave verum corpus", which I already knew by heart.

I opened my mouth...and forgot what I was going to sing!

I was excited, but I'll be honest: I was also utterly terrified. I never had a voice lesson, and never sung alone in public. Our choir area was situated on a raised platform at the front righthand side of the church, clearly visible to the congregation. As the communicants finished receiving, I could feel my heart racing, my breath getting shallow, my mind frozen in anxiety. I shut my eyes, opened my mouth...and forgot what I was going to sing! Somehow (perhaps by divine intervention) I stumbled through by pure muscle memory. If it wasn't for the warm encouragement from Pam and the other choir members that day, that might have been my first and last solo.

After college, at the invitation of another music director, I started to volunteer as a cantor on a regular basis at a new parish. The only training I remember receiving was one short afternoon rehearsal with the organist after a Sunday Mass. I was sent down to the front of the church to practice the Responsorial Psalm, while he remained up in the choir loft (where the organ console was located). I was used to the organ leading, so when I noticed that it was actually dragging behind me, I dutifully slowed down to accomodate. No matter how slowly I sang, though, the organ continued to drag. The music became so intolerably slow that I stopped mid-verse to yell up to the loft, "WHAT is going on?!?!?" It was that day that I learned about sound delay in a large church.

Since then, I've been a guest cantor in well over 60 parishes, and a resident cantor at three different cathedrals. In each instance, the training has been more or less the same (if there is any training at all): one run-through to get a feeling for logistics, and then I'm on my own. My self confidence has developed a lot over the years, but to be honest, the terror never completely goes away. Especially when singing via live stream or live television at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, when the organist is located completely out of eyesight, on the opposite side of a freestanding wall behind the altar. (How does a cantor work as an organic musical unit with someone you can't see, you ask? By listening very, very intently to each other's musical cues!)

This story of my foray into the world of the cantor is pretty typical among cantors in the Roman Catholic Church. Most of us have been drafted (more or less willingly, some even tricked into it!) due to some degree of singing talent, given a tiny bit of training, and then thrust suddenly into the limelight of liturgical music. In fact, most cantors continue in the role for decades without any more training.

When I decided to develop The Exceptional Cantor last year, I spent weeks poring through Church documents, handbooks, online resources and recordings, and certification programs. Having already been a cantor for 20+ years, I was no stranger to the field, but still I thought I might learn some new things.

Limited resources, limited scope.

Most books about the modern-day cantor focus on 1) active participation and the cantor's relationship with the congregation (in one book, there is an entire chapter devoted to the spirituality of the "cantor gesture"!), or 2) assisting the cantor's personal entry into the spirituality of the songs and texts which we sing. There is, of course, the usual hodgepodge of YouTube videos with practice recordings for specific psalm settings and chants, some done well, others rendered with poor vocal technique and/or my personal pet peeve, heavy vibrato at the end of a phrase. A handful of parishes and dioceses have put together their own cantor handbooks, but these are only meant for use within their own jurisdiction, and vary significantly in content.

Side note: ultimately, I did learn some new things, but not from the avenues I had hoped would help me. The Exceptional Cantor is the product of this work. The courses include an extensive online resources page with articles, documents, apps, a section devoted entirely to repertoire, and worksheets and checklists designed by yours truly. Students do plenty of reading and observing during our time together, and every class includes dedicated discussion time, since every parish situation is unique.

And now, without further ado...

7 things you probably didn't know about being a cantor

1. Universal church documents reference the cantor sparingly, if at all. 

Every modern-day Catholic church has at least one cantor, even if it doesn't have a choir. Did you know that Vatican II documents indicate a reverse emphasis? They promote the development of the choir and the schola quite a bit, but do not use the word "cantor" once. In fact, the only Vatican II passage which refers to the role is a single paragraph in Musicam Sacram which suggests that "one or two trained singers" are basically the fallback option when there is no choir.

2. The greater context of sacred song within the Liturgy.

The role of the modern-day cantor is relatively new (conceived after the Second Vatican Council), but has roots in a tradition which existed well before the time before Christ. It is has been speculated that the song of Miriam in Exodus 15, "I will sing to the LORD, for he is gloriously triumphant; horse and chariot he has cast into the sea," was in fact an antiphon sung between verses, not unlike the modern day Responsorial Psalm.

The cantor is but one voice (albeit an important one) in the song of the Liturgy. A well sung liturgy contains a chemistry of many voices: priest, deacon, cantor, congregation, and choir. There is a deep theological truth expressed in liturgical song, of which the active participation of the faithful is but one facet. In singing, many voices come together in one song, a physical representation of the many members of Christ's one mystical body, the Church.

The Church elevates the human voice above all other musical instruments — higher even than that of the pipe organ — as the most suited to the Liturgy. The voice is the only divinely created musical instrument, and the only instrument capable of communicating words, an essential part of the Liturgy.

The Church takes this train of thought even further, and in fact elevates sacred song above all other arts — above architecture, mosaics, statues, embroidery, and stained glass windows.

Just think about that for a minute. Wow.

3. Half the challenge of being a cantor is knowing when to sing.

Benjamin Franklin said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” When a cantor doesn't know what to expect, anxiety builds. When anxiety builds, it's harder to keep one's voice under control.

A working knowledge of the liturgical calendar and of the various elements of the Liturgy are one of the cantor's best antidotes when it comes to nerves. Just consider the unique cues and music associated with the Easter Vigil. Or the lack of the second reading at a weekday Mass or funeral, meaning the cantor must immediately follow the Responsorial Psalm with the Gospel Acclamation. Or the Gloria on a solemnity during Lent.

I could continue to offer examples, but I think you get the idea...

4. Architecture, acoustics, and sound systems make a big difference...and not always in the way you would expect.

Images L to R: microphone in a dead acoustic / old church with lively acoustic / sound absorbent tile

Acoustics actually play a huge role in the congregation's willingness (or lack thereof) to sing. A lively acoustic builds a safety net in which the faithful feel they can lend their voices without sticking out, whereas a dead acoustic leads to a more isolated experience. Microphones don't always help much in a dead acoustic, since the congregation may feel overpowered by the cantor's voice and give up altogether. Taking time to discern the basics of a given sound setup (e.g. where are the speakers, and how close am I to the organ pipes?) will help achieve a quality sound balance with the congregation. If a parish live streams its liturgies, the cantor's relationship with the microphone might be further affected, since the cantor is in effect singing for two different acoustics (in the church, and online) at the same time.

5. The word cantor may actually refer to several different roles in a single liturgy!

Images L to R: psalmist, soloist, and song leader

This is frequently a source of confusion, as each role entails its own skill set.

  • psalmist: the solo cantor sings the Responsorial Psalm, an integral part of the readings of the Liturgy of the Word

  • song leader: the cantor provides vocal (and perhaps visual) guidance to the congregation about when/what to sing, and leads certain a cappella passages (see note below)

  • soloist: singing a specialized piece not meant for the congregation, e.g. Ave Maria or Panis Angelicus (usually for a special liturgy, in the absence of a choir)

  • leader of chants: in Gregorian chant, there are specific parts marked for the singing of the cantor

It is worth mentioning here that the song leader is treated as its own role in the U.S. Bishops' 2007 document Sing to the Lord. There is a passage in the document which really deserves much more attention than it has received:

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."

There are other roles which can belong to the cantor which I didn't include here. What items do you think might belong on this list?

6. Who's really in charge?

The different roles mentioned in the previous item breeds a lot of confusion about the relationship of the organist and the cantor during a liturgy. The pipe organ is the instrument which best fills the space and supports congregational singing. Thus, when the assembly is singing, it is the organist who should do the leading.

However, when the cantor is acting as psalmist or soloist (i.e. singing without the congregation), or there is something being sung a cappella by the congregation, then it is the cantor who leads.

Further, the cantor may need to guide the organist from time to time with regard to tempo and phrasing, particularly if the organist is not accustomed to thinking about a singer's capacity for diction and breath. This is especially important when considering the needs of the untrained voices of the congregation. Which leads to my next point...

7. Most organists are not trained singers.

Now, before you respond with, "Well, duh, Angela!", keep in mind that keyboard skills tend to be prioritized over singing expertise when hiring a new music or choir director. In essence, this puts someone in charge of the singing who usually knows little to nothing about its mechanics. And when one untrained singer is put in charge of developing other untrained singers, chances are pretty high that the vocal instruction at best won't be very good, and at worst will be downright damaging to your voice. (If you think I'm kidding about this, just think about how many famous pop singers have had to undergo vocal surgery due to strain and overuse.)

This doesn't mean that a music director can't teach you a lot about sight reading, theory, communication, artistry, and presence. It does mean that most parish music directors are not equipped for dealing with the vocal challenges associated with being a cantor. Investing in lessons with a quality voice teacher will go a long way in maintaining your vocal health and improving your musical skills.

In conclusion, I want thank you for inviting me into your reading space. One thing is sure about life as a musician in a Catholic church: the learning never stops! Perhaps we'll meet in person someday and get to swap stories. Or if you'd like, send me a message. I'd love to hear some of the things that you have learned along the way.

Angela Rocchio

"Having served as a cantor and soloist in the Catholic church for over 4 decades, I decided to enroll in the ICA Level II for cantors online 5 week class. I was a bit skeptical that I would learn anything new, as my tenured work as a cantor in the church had exposed me to seemingly every possible scenario as a music minister. Boy was I wrong!
Angela is super knowledgeable in all things liturgical, and led many discussions on best current practices for cantors. Angela’s knowledge of the Catholic liturgy is second to none, and more importantly, her ability to explain complex things in a easy to understand way is very valuable. In addition, the wealth of knowledge on the ICA website is mind boggling! I have read a plethora of articles from her easy to use and organized online library, which has helped me grow both musically and spiritually!
I cannot recommend the Level II cantor program highly enough!"
~ Dave Borovicka, music minister at St. John Neumann, Strongsville Ohio

The mission of the International Chant Academy is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.

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