Suggestions for training psalmists
  • MarkB
    Posts: 1,028
    This summer I want to host training workshops for my parish psalmists. Any suggestions about what to do or cover in order to help amateur singers who love singing to sing better, especially concerning singing the psalms and the Gospel acclamation verses at Mass?

    Parish info: novus ordo parish, about a dozen psalmists, most do at least a passable and pleasant job but are in need of tips for refining the quality of their singing. Some should retire from the role, but they are grandfathered in, so to speak. Has been many years since any of my predecessors worked with cantors to train them. We use the Respond & Acclaim psalms.

    I want the workshops to be enjoyable, supportive and helpful, easygoing, not stressful nor prone to embarrassing anyone, with plenty of time for individual singing and receiving critiques and suggestions that will improve their singing at Mass. I'd host the workshops in groups so that the psalmists could hear others and learn what to do or not to do by listening and watching them, not just by singing themselves.

    Some things I want to cover:
    1. Church document citations about the roles of choir, psalmist and cantor.
    2. Experimenting with mics: experiencing how changing distance and voice projection and mic placement affect the sound; learning to adjust the mic or to step closer/away or increase/decrease your projection volume as you listen to how you sound singing. Don't just sing, listen to how you sound and adjust as needed.
    3. Experiencing singing a psalm with organ accompaniment (also with different registrations) versus piano accompaniment. Many of my psalmists prefer the piano, but I'd like to get them more comfortable singing with the organ.
    4. Practice singing a psalm or a chant solo a cappella.
    5. Tips for clarity in singing: diction, vowel quality, phrasing, breathing, projection.
    6. Tips for prayerfulness in the role as psalmist: approaching the ambo, disposition, muted gestures (if any), eye contact, don't look at the accompanist and nod as a signal to begin the psalm.
    7. What to do if something goes wrong? Cantor error? Accompanist error? Feedback? Mic not on?

    Any suggestions you have that would help are appreciated. Thanks.
  • You have an admirable outline that should enrich all your participants.
    I would lay great store on weaning cantors from the piano.
    In fact, I wouldn't use it at all in a presentation such as this.
    Also, some recordings of cantors from various Christian traditions, Orthodox eastern (Syriac) chant, early western chant (such as in Marcel Perez's recordings), Byzantine chant, and such would broaden their horizons and deepen their identities as psalmists and cantors who have a rich historical tradition to which they are heirs.
    I hope that this doesn't seem unfeasible or too pedantic to you, bu I do admire your outline and syllabus - and your goals. Godspeed!
    Thanked by 3Elmar MarkB CHGiffen
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,385
    I see this comment on the forum 10 years ago by Noel Jones, about Respond & Acclaim -
    My dislike of them is that music directors arrive at a parish charged by the pastor to improve things. The psalms are being sung, badly, by the cantors. Attempts to improve their singing of the OCP psalms ends up angering the cantors who have sung them forever and they really, really do not care what you think but are only interested in singing their psalms their way and that's the end of it. [It is rude, but it is a lot like trying to teach pigs to just angers the pigs]
    The question I would have is 'Are the psalmists psychologically and spiritually ready for this?' or are they mostly "amateur singers who love singing" without seeing this as a service (ministry) to the community? So maybe before hosting "training workshops" some prayer & coffee sessions on the psalter, its uses, and the ministry of psalmist. I would add to MJO's list of traditions Anglican Chant ;-)
    Thanked by 2Elmar MarkB
  • MarkB
    Posts: 1,028
    They are not only ready, they are eager and hungry for it. My predecessors didn't bother nor care to help cantors sing better; the attitude of past directors was apparently: "they're just volunteers, who cares how they sound?" I've improved the sound of the choir and the quality of music selections tremendously, which the members have noticed and are thrilled about. The only reason I haven't done something more formal or targeted for psalmists yet is because that has had to wait until summer, when learning repertoire is less demanding for the choir and I can offer the psalmist workshops on choir rehearsal night every other week for about two months.

    I don't have any divas, thank goodness. They do consider their singing to be a service to the Church, and I would mention humility when teaching about the role of psalmist.

    I used to hate R&A settings when I was in the pews because most parishes implement them poorly, but if the verses are phrased well by a psalmist and if the choir sings the SATB and descant on the response, the collection as a whole is an efficient and decent one to draw from each week. Also, if the psalmist has the confidence to improvise slightly around the psalm tone for the verses, that improves the proclamation; so I should add improvising around the tone as something to model and practice during the workshops.
  • As for singing around the psalm tone, this would be an improvement over the use of psalm tones for responsorial verses. As you are likely aware, psalm tones are not solo cantoral music. They exist only as a vehicle for communal singing of the psalter, not for a solo chant, which is or should be at least a mildly developed melody, if not a highly melismatic one. You might encourage any of your participants who might have a greater or lesser degree of such talent to improvise around a psalm tone, and to experiment with entirely improvised chant, which should resemble what is found in the GR. You yourself might demonstrate this technique. For my part, I have either improvised interesting chant on the spot, or written it out ahead of time. You could discuss such possibilities.

    One assumes that you don't or won't have any pirouettists and arm flailers in you midst. The best way to communicate when the congregation are to sing is to look at them. At any rate, it should be obvious to them by the way in which the verse comes to a close.
  • CCoozeCCooze
    Posts: 1,259
    Is this different that the online class you shared before?

    Re: "eye contact," with whom are the eyes supposed to be in contact?

    I understand the necessity of good speech and presentation-making (performance) to encourage staring at one's notes as little as possible, but I don't believe that he who delivers the readings and psalms needs to be treating the "Written Word" as such. I'd much prefer lectors and psalmists keep looking at the text, and not make any mistakes, at all. When there are hand missals, people are supposedly reading along, anyway, but would hopefully make no eye contact with someone in a liturgical role, regardless.
    Thanked by 1MarkB
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 2,746
    6. Tips for prayerfulness in the role as psalmist: approaching the ambo, disposition, muted gestures (if any),


    Please mute your gestures! lol. I am not a fan of waving arms. If you can't understand the basic concept of a refrain without watching someone raise their arm, you probably aren't doing much singing anyway.

    I'd also add appropriate dress to your list. We have one lector, for instance, who isn't the slenderest person on earth, who wears tights (no skirt or long blouse to lend any particular modest) every time she reads. I instinctually avert my eyes every time she approaches the altar as I find it an offense against modesty and certainly proper decorum. If you're going to stand in front of the entire congregation in an official role, you should dress the part (church robes or otherwise).

    (As an aside, I took the GIRM directive "or another appropriate place" rather literally at my current job and immediately moved the cantors from down front back up into the loft, from whence they now chant the psalm just fine. No showboating, no arm waiving, and we can better communicate and warmup.)
    Thanked by 2MarkB CCooze
  • MarkB
    Posts: 1,028
    Is this different that the online class you shared before?

    Yes, the online course would be something for the psalmists/cantors to do on their own at home as foundational preparation. The workshops I would offer would be experiential skills building opportunities in the church during which our psalmists would take turns singing and practicing techniques, receive immediate suggestions for improvement, and learn by watching their peers sing and improve.

    Eye contact in the sense of looking up (or out above) to acknowledge the congregation when you arrive at the ambo and face them just prior to singing, and perhaps looking at them to signal singing the response. Not eye contact in the sense of singing to them as in a concert. Acknowledge their presence as a worshipping assembly, then proclaim the Word of God in song for them.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,943
    I always kept the psalmists in the loft. That's a good place for them and it removes their ability to showboat. As for training some of them, maybe if I had a whip, a chair, and a revolver it might have helped.
    Thanked by 2ServiamScores CCooze
  • a_f_hawkins
    Posts: 3,385
    with whom are the eyes supposed to be in contact?
    I would say that the most important element of eye contact is not for the cantor to signal to the congregation but for the cantor to be aware of the congregation. If I direct my singing to somebody I know in the midst of the congregation it helps me to project correctly, and to sense whether my inflection has signalled the end of the antiphon. (I don't mean staring at them, just being aware of them). It is quite like talking in a gathering seated round a table, it comes naturally provided you are not just reading a prepared text or singing a song from a score.
    CCooze - There is here a fundamental difference between OF and EF Mass, much more (but not all) of the OF should involve communication with the congregation.
    Thanked by 1CharlesW
  • tandrews
    Posts: 160
    I did something similar for our area churches a couple years ago. I did bring in a guest speaker who was classically trained in voice. I thought this was a wise decision so that my cantors could hear from someone else, besides me, the goals and techniques I wanted at our church (diction, breath support, reciting tones). Most of my cantors have retained some of what they learned a couple years ago, while others (the older ones) have wandered back to their routine when I don't reinforce the good habits often. Having 10% improvement among the cantors here was enough of a win for me.

    These workshops are great, and I hope it goes well for you! If you're part of an AFC or know other Catholic churches in the area it might be good to spread the word there too.
  • As for Cooze's observation that the congregation have the readings in their missalettes, I would strenuously suggest that they shouldn't. It is the cantors duty with audible and clear enunciation and projection to deliver his/her readings or psalms into the ears of each person, no matter how distant. A cantor or psalmist who can't do this shouldn't even think about being a cantor or psalmist - because he/she isn't one and never will be. And the people have no business reading along with their noses in the missal. They are supposed to be sitting upright, hearing and receiving from a well trained cantor or lector proclaim the word. If I were a pastor I would see to it that the lectionary was not in the people's hands to follow along. I would insist that they hear and listen to the word of God, which is what they are supposed to be doing. Of course, there will always be those who noisily insist they can't hear. They should learn to listen. St Basil's Chapel at UST here has the finest acoustic of any sacred space in Houston. One can all but hear a pin drop throughout the place, and can overhear people whispering from one corner to the other. It originally had no PA system, nor was one needed. But a few cranks groaned that they, poor souls, couldn't hear, so a totally unnecessary PA system was put in and it made no difference what ever. Microphones should not be allowed in any churches except those (too many) who have the acoustics of a padded cell - which is where those who designed them belong.
    Breath support, diction, projection - these are the foundation. The rest will fall into place.
    Thanked by 1a_f_hawkins
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,967
    A sincere question: Do they need microphones in fact? Or is that just legacy practice - that is, what people are accustomed to?

    If the space is a dry acoustic (carpeted/poor or odd modern design of the space), I can see the reason for amplification.

    The advantage of avoiding unnecessary amplification is that singers can (1) be invited to sing properly*, and (2) not have to worry about mic issues.

    * It's more obvious in the context of recited/spoken text how amplification invites a conversational pace/elocution more appropriate for an intimate table, as it were; in the context of singing, amplification offers a variety of temptations that may be less obvious.
  • Schönbergian
    Posts: 1,063
    And the people have no business reading along with their noses in the missal. They are supposed to be sitting upright, hearing and receiving from a well trained cantor. If I were a pastor I would see to it that the lectionary was not in the people's hands to follow along. I would insist that they hear and listen to the word of God, which is what they are supposed to be doing.

    I would have to disagree.

    I tend to not "process" the readings mentally when I am only listening to them. When I both listen to the spoken words and read them off a page, I remember the readings much better and am able to process, and reflect on, the Liturgy of the Word more fully. This is just how my mind operates; I similarly prefer to read along with a score, even if the musical work is performed with the utmost clarity. I suspect many of us who prefer to have a printed aid are in the same boat.

    Of course, this does not diminish the need for properly trained cantors and lectors.
    Thanked by 4Liam WGS CHGiffen Elmar
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 1,152
    Please, if you are training lectors, have a professional do it! I've been to many lector 'training' sessions that were basically worthless. Being able to read in front of a group and be heard and understood is an art.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,943
    I tend to not "process" the readings mentally when I am only listening to them. When I both listen to the spoken words and read them off a page,

    When I taught school, it was impressed on us that we had both auditory and visual learners. We were told we need to appeal to both, which is true.
  • CCoozeCCooze
    Posts: 1,259
    It is the cantors duty with audible and clear enunciation and projection to deliver his/her readings or psalms into the ears of each person, no matter how distant.

    While this is true, I still believe that making actual eye contact with anyone in the congregation is a bad idea.
    Just as the priest isn't supposed to be making eye contact or actually even looking at the people.

    Yes, there is a difference between the OF and EF.
    But the OF is supposed to be guided by the EF.

    As Charles mentioned, keep the cantors in the loft, if possible. There is no need for them to be seen.
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Carol
    Posts: 852
    As a longtime amateur NO cantor I have a few suggestions:

    First, Respond and Acclaim occasionally has strange accompaniments with unnecessarily exotic chords. These can throw off the cantor if they have an ear for music. I pick out the psalm's melody line at home and practice, but I usually do not have a chance to go over the psalm with the organist/music director before Mass. One time I "heard" the accompaniment (in my head) in major though it was in a minor key in reality. The melody had included none of the notes that would make it obviously minor. Melodies accompanied by a weird minor 9ish thing or diminished chords that don't include the melody note can also be vexing to an amateur cantor, because they may think they are not singing the correct note. I don't have any music theory training, but I do have a good ear for music so these kind of things can trip me up. I am sure I am not the only one who has experienced this. I believe OCP even offers a CD of the Psalms for practicing.

    Second, I used to sing from the ambo and now I am in the choir loft. I am thankful to be closer to the accompanist and I no longer have to traipse down and back trying to be inconspicuous.

    Third, phrasing the verses properly comes with practice and with thinking about the meaning of the words. Achieving the correct balance of conveying meaning without calling attention to oneself comes with practice and humility. I can't stand the machine gun, robotic style I have sometimes heard for chanting repeated notes!

    Hope I was clear and hope it helps! You are lucky to be able to sing with a choir as we are only allowed one singer in the choir loft at a time.
  • Hi Mark. I've been to and given workshops. I consider them a starting point for education, not truly the actual education. They are merely a step within the larger and longer learning process. Here are some principles and practices that I have found to be useful with my choirs and cantors/psalmists over time.

    1. A psalmist is a singer, so they need to be able to sing well. If your psalmists have no vocal training, you need to train them. If you as their director have no vocal training, that's a problem you need to remedy. If you yourself cannot do what you are asking them to do, you'll have little credibility regardless of degrees.
    2. A psalmist should not improvise, so they should know the melody of whatever psalm. If they can't read, you need to teach them. Remember "life finds a way"? But if the situation is such that it's absolutely impossible, they should at least have recorded material that they can listen to and practice with in combination with the printed music. Don't give them only lyrics.
    3. A psalmist is a minister, so if they intentionally draw attention to themselves or think that is the prime objective, please instruct them otherwise. They are not their to impress people with their voice, neither are they their to "animate" people by waving their arms, but to transmit the psalm clearly according to the music. That's not to say they should not be intentional in their delivery, just not showboating. Call out that appoggiatura!
    4. A psalmist is a communicator, so if they have any strong accent, you must work with them on their pronunciation.
    5. A psalmist is a leader, so that in case any sound equipment goes out, or the accompanist doesn't show up, they should still be capable of leading the psalm correctly and confidently. Model this yourself and also give them ample opportunities to sing unaccompanied.
    6. A psalmist is a person, so if you work with adults, talk to them like adults, not high school teens or little kids. Explain to them the musical vision of your pastor and yourself. Explain to them what obstacles need to be overcome (pitch, tone, breathing, reading, confidence, inflection, tempo, etc.). Talk to them without drama and make your expectations clear.
    7. A psalmist may be a volunteer, so be careful how you go about making corrections. Pitch and rhythm are a must. If they can't hold a tune, they need to be grandfathered OUT, and you need to tell that to your pastor. For all other deficiencies, you should be pastoral and professional. Compliment honestly. NEVER insult or gossip.

    The thing is, of course, if you are the music director, then all of this is on YOU. YOU are responsible for making it happen, YOU establish the norms, YOU put the practices in place, YOU put in the time, YOU prepare the resources, YOU give the good and professional example, and when THEY succeed, then you give them the credit and everyone is happy. And they may learn something in the process. Take small but permanent steps, accomplish one little thing at a time, and expect to see a little progress in a year or so. Good luck.
  • Carol
    Posts: 852
    Gustavo, you are spot on!