Job Description for a Cantor
  • I am helping a parish fill out a job description for a cantor. However, when I did a google search, the main listings were for Jewish cantors. Other listings included cantor/music director. I was trying to explain to the parochial vicar that sometimes, the cantor and music director can be one in the same.

    He wants someone to lead the faithful in singing. The caveat is that the parish is stuck like glue to the OCP rhetoric and it would not leave much room for someone who actually knows sacred music to come in and work. I am afraid that if we were to get a really good candidate, the repertoire, which includes Spirit and Song and Rise Up and Sing would be a huge turn-off. By the way, the faithful do not even sing any of this stuff. He asked me if I wouldn't mind being a cantor because he said that I had a good, clear voice. However, I told him that I would not want to do this because I do not like the music used.

    How would you word this job description? Thank you, in advance, for your help.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,281
    (With as much modesty as I can muster...) The best candidate would be someone like me: Someone youngish, comfortable with the folk/pop genre but with some interest/aspirations for traditional music, especially chant.

    Strong, clear, welcoming voice; experience leading congregational song; familiarity with a wide range of Catholic music. Keyboard skills a plus.

    The main thing is figuring out what this person will be doing once you hire them, not figuring out the attributes/(type of person) that you want. Will the new hire be selecting music each week? Running rehearsals for other people? Play piano and/or organ? Working under a MusDir/LitCor or be totally independent? Hours? Number of Masses? Will they have to come to staff meetings?
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    Good sight-reading ability is a must and mitigates the need for knowledge of a wide range of repertories. Surely this is just a per Mass job, right?
  • You both raise some good points that I need to bring up with the parochial vicar. Adam, I wish you were in Laredo.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,281
    Thank you, that's very kind.
  • I would like to suggest that the best audition for the new Cantor (once you find one) is to have them actually prepare and sing a Mass. We recently hired two new organists and the difference between the e-mails and resumes, etc. was quickly revealed by saying, 'There are the books. Here's the hymn/music list. Here's your Mass date.' I personally cantored with organ shoes on, just in case, but no one really failed. It was the revelation of attitudes and abilities to prepare that was exposed.

    Good sight-reading is great - if it isn't a substitute for actually practicing. It's hard to find people who can do all kinds of literature, and I find there are too many (at least in our neck of the woods) who are zooming by on their way to the next gig, sight-reading and crashing through the Mass with no reverence.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    If I were looking for one:

    Cantor needed for (time requirements). Responsibilities are to sing the psalm, alleluia with verse, and solo settings of the Mass proper. Opportunities available for solo selections. Must be a team player, able to independently prepare simple chant selections, and have a strong familiarity with Roman Catholic liturgy. Ability to join the parish choir and familiarity with Gregorian psalm tones are pluses. (I wouldn't offer compensation for a cantor - heck, I wouldn't look outside the parish for one ever)

    Obviously this would have to be modified for your typical St. Mary of the Easy Way Catholic Community, but I think this is a firm foundation to build upon.
    Thanked by 1Mairi
  • OlbashOlbash
    Posts: 310
    Here's what I would write:

    Wanted: Faithful Roman Catholic to serve as cantor, with the goal of eventually making the position obsolete. The ideal candidate will train a gesticulation-dependent assembly to sing without seeing his/her arms -- any movement must be economical and informed by legitimate conducting theory. Must be willing to wean congregation off constant eye contact, and draw the attention of the faithful to the sacred actions taking place in the sanctuary. Must whittle down commentaries to virtually nothing, to the point where you hardly speak to the congregation during the Mass. Familiarity with microphone extinction desired. Ability to gradually make onesself invisible a plus.
    Thanked by 1Mairi
  • Olbash, I love it.
  • Linda, if organists were paid properly there would be no need for drive-by musicians.
  • Cantor must be versed in the psalms (unintentional pun), able and expected to offer classes in understanding the psalms periodically during the church year.
  • I vote for Olbash --- one small correction: '...hardly speak to the congregation...' should read '...never speaks to the congregation...'.
    (A cantor is a cantor, nothing less.)
  • Wow...I must be very out-of-touch with the way cantors are expected to be these days. I used to cantor at different parishes a few years ago and using arms at the right time to welcome the congregation to sing was a must. Also, I think that getting paid is important. Very often people spend money on training their voices (instrumentalists as well). They take time out of each day to practice their craft. Getting a stipend in no way says that a cantor is less faithful than anyone else.
  • I'm curious as well as to why cantors should not be paid. If we expect more than mediocrity (and we should), then why shouldn't true singers with training and practice be used? And, this begs the question of why they shouldn't be compensated for their training and practice?
    Thanked by 1SingerLady
  • Cantors should most certainly be paid.
    Just like at least a quartet of section leaders in the choir.
    Just like the choirmaster-organist.
    Expertise is expected in all these musical roles and each should be paid as handsomely as is appropriate to their particular role.

    But, if they are gowing to be paid, then cantors, in particular, have some scholarly growing up to do. At least most whom I am forced to experience. 1. Liturgical bearing, 2. skillful use of the voice to lead with fine diction and tone, eschewing arm, hand, and body motions to cue and direct the congregation. (These postures are the antithesis of expert cantoring and make of the cantor something of a spectacle, something she should never ever be!). 3. While it is the voice by which the cantor leads, it is not overly loud, but skillfully projected some distance from the mike (if there is one!), so that it is a sound which invites others to blend in with it. 4. A Genuine Cantor knows the repertory of psalms and hymns which he is to lead, he knows how to sing the psalms to all the eight Gregorian psalm tones, and is certainly not dependent on such as Respond & Acclaim, et allii, for the best music for mass texts. 5. A cantor is a highly skilled singer who intones chants, and leads with his voice those sung parts of the liturgy which do not belong to the choir or schola. It goes without saying that those who wave their hands and arms around, or lift thim up on high whilst doing what could only be defined as a pirouette, and who are constantly telling people what to do, Are Not Cantors. But yes, to go full circle: real cantors should be paid, and paid well.
    Thanked by 1SingerLady
  • I've never understood the over reactive aversion to simple hand gestures, always appearing with the sense that to oppose such gestures is to be more faithful to the Church, more conservative, more respectable, etc.

    Of course I've seen cantors who look like they are bringing in 747's to a tarmac. And to overuse anything leads it to be ignored.

    But on an unfamiliar psalm or response, I see nothing wrong with a SIMPLE and SMALL gesture to cue the congregation to respond.

    You know, although "active participation" means listening attentively, sometimes it DOES mean verbalizing and singing.
  • Maureen
    Posts: 628
    PaixGioiaAmor -- I'm going to speak a bit harshly. It's not against you; I'm sure you do a good honest job. And I cantor myself, so I feel for you.

    It's really the organist's job (or whoever is playing accompaniment on the psalm) to cue the congregation with obvious cue notes; or if that isn't being done, sometimes it's the cantor's job to stop singing the verse in an obvious way, so that it's obvious that the responsorial is coming in a minute. If it's a psalm setting written so badly that nobody can tell when verses end, or if they just don't like it or aren't in the mood to sing, calling the people in with your hands is not going to improve matters. (Maybe little kids might go for it.)

    Mostly, it's just not right. Being psalmist is a liturgical position. "Gesture with your hands" is not written in red above the R. in the book. So it's not right, any more than it would be right for the deacon to decide that he should jump up and down three times before reading the Gospel, even if he meant to do it in honor of the Holy Trinity. It's not right. (This is the most important reason.)

    You have a lot more liturgical freedom on hymns, because they don't have rubrics per se. But I don't really see the need. From the earliest times I can remember in the 1970's, nobody needed to "bring in" the congregation with gestures. Nobody needed them in the 1980's, until we started singing selections that were either: A) stupidly written to have separate text, non-harmony "choir parts", "cantor parts," and/or "congregation parts"; or B) disliked by everybody.

    A and B were essentially the same thing. If people wanted to join choir, they'd be in the choir already. "Jazzing up" the ordinary of the Mass but expecting the congregation to join in, or dividing the congregation into sections to sing rounds, or any of the other torments congregations have gotten put through over the years -- that's an insult to the congregation and the choir, making each do something they're not made to do. People resented it then, and mostly still do. There are a few parishes that have managed to make their people forget, or the young ones never learn the right way to do things, of course, but they're few and far between.

    Anyway, it boils down to this: if you have to move your arms about, and you're not up in the loft directing the choir, a good chunk of a Catholic congregation probably already hates the song, hates you, and wishes they were dead or that the church would collapse and free them. Even if it's a little, tasteful gesture, bad feelings from the past will probably be stirred up. And that's my feeling on hymns.

    But the psalmist job (and it used to be a job only for ordained clergy, so it's plenty sacred and a fearful duty for us) is about proclaiming the psalm, not about worrying what other people are doing. You'll be a lot happier if you do your job and let the people look after theirs. Congregations step up better if you trust them.
  • jpal
    Posts: 365

    Outside of ordained ministers, it seems that the GIRM refers only to "lay Christian faithful" as being able to carry out liturgical duties and ministries (see 91ff).

    STTL 48ff also has advice on that (

    It seems that since the Mass is an action of the Body of Christ, it would be curious to have leaders who are not able to participate, trying to draw others deeper into the mystery.

  • It's really the organist's job (or whoever is playing accompaniment on the psalm) to cue the congregation with obvious cue notes

    He does that.
  • canadashcanadash
    Posts: 1,334
    This has nothing to do with the musicianship part of the position, but I would want someone punctual, pleasant to work with, well prepared on a weekly basis and willing to be flexible and eager to learn. You don't want to end up with someone who is moody, bossy and generally unpleasant.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,279
    About Clement VII's question:
    For a psalmist, it would be reasonable to follow the norms regarding the reading of Scripture at Mass.

    These are spelled out in the official "Principles and Norms for Ecumenism":

    The general principle is this:
    The reading of Scripture during a Eucharistic celebration in the Catholic Church is to be done by members of that Church. (para. 133)

    But there are exceptions:
    * Eastern Orthodox may be invited to read the non-Gospel readings at Mass (para. 126).
    * With the bishop's permission, a baptized Christian from an ecclesial community (i.e., a Protestant denomination) may be invited to read Scripture (para.133) as an exceptional matter;
    * A non-Catholic Christian minister may read Scripture at a mixed-marriage wedding (para. 158).

    If your pastor wants to include a non-Catholic psalmist who doesn't fit in these patterns, he can always ask the bishop to dispense from the usual limitations.

    For other musicians (organists, choir members), there's a lot of history of welcoming such participation by non-Catholics.
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 1,561
    I had dinner with a friend who has to set her alarm for 5:15 AM to rehearse an hour with the cantor tomorrow morning. I hope this indicates an extraordinary dedicated cantor, but to stifle my own conscience I entertain the possibility that the exact opposite could be the case as well!
  • "Rehearsing an hour" suggests to me that dedication is in excess of skill or training.
  • MairiMairi
    Posts: 19
    Regarding cantor gestures during the psalm- I think that especially when the psalm is sung from the ambo, that the cantor needs to help bring the congregation in. A lot of 'average joe's' who come to mass won't necessarily be paying enough attention to notice a cue note, or even an obvious stop in the verse. I think that a small, conservative gesture on the part of the cantor is perfectly alright. But it also depends, of course, on the preferences of the pastor and/or music director, and the tradition of the parish, etc., etc., etc.
  • I agree that cantors need to gesture in the congregation during the psalm, but not to the point of being obnoxious. We had one cantor (former DM) who was almost dancing at the ambo she gestured so much! I also don't have a problem with hiring cantors or musicians outside of the faith, as long as they are willing to educate themselves (either through formal classes, or individual study) on the precepts of the Church and be understanding of its congregants. I would also want my cantors to have a firm foundation in basic music theory and be able to easily read music and have the time during the week to review the psalm and hymns for that week. Cantors should also work closely with the DM and/or organist for anything special, i.e., weddings, funerals, special masses, etc., and be willing to sing with the choir during choral music.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,279
    I'm trying to avoid any hand gestures during the psalm. A slow nod before the start of the refrain seems enough, together with the organist's musical cue.
  • "Song Leader" isn't the same as a "Cantor".
    Cantors who chant the Psalm are "Psalmists". They aren't 'singers' or leaders.
    No congregation with a trained organist needs a "Song Leader"--the non-Catholic congregations who sing to rock the rafters [read Isaiah] don't have song leaders. A trained organist leads the congregational singing by the registration [the stops] used, the phrasing which allows the congregation space to breathe, and an introduction played at the same tempo the hymn will be sung.In most Catholic congregations that would mean playing one verse of the whole hymn since so many are unfamiliar with real hymns.

    The Psalmist's job is to enunciate the verses of the psalm so that the congr. can hear and understand them, they congregation's not supposed to be reading the verses, they're supposed to be listening to the word of God and responding to it. For the Psalmist this means practicing the unusual names beforehand, and knowing where the accents fall in English on the chant tones used! [Melchizidek trips lots of people up.]
    This also means chanting the words at a speaking speed--in too many churches the untrained people 'singing' the Psalm see the 'white' notes above the words and equate that with "SLOW" singing. Chanting the Psalm verses isn't singing.
    The Psalmist should just raise his/her arms to indicate when the cong. should sing the refrain [and pull back from the microphone]; the organist should then switch from the quieter stops used to accompany the Psalmist to another manual with the louder registration for the congregation. I personally emphasize this switch with a downbeat or leading beat on the pedal keyboard. Then everyone knows when it's their turn to sing. That particular priest should study up on liturgical and musical roles, sounds a little confused. Watch the Psalmist at Papal Masses or at your Cathedral's ceremonies.
  • Liturgical Organist---I think perhaps you have a congregation that has singers in the congregation that can act as leaders, therefore, not needing an actual "song leader". In my parish, if I don't sing from the bench, nobody is going to utter a sound. Even in playing an entire first verse, nobody will sing unless they have a singer, and at some masses, even having me sing from the bench doesn't engage the people. They need somebody in front of them.
  • paddy
    Posts: 1
    Can anyone point me to a guide or instruction for cantors?
  • Paddy,

    Do you mean one which authentically understands what the position is, or one which presents the modern situation as normal?
  • bhcordovabhcordova
    Posts: 631
    Try Liturgy Training Publications
  • BHCordova,

    Surely, you jest!
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 7,279
    Hi, Paddy --

    LTP (based in Chicago) does offer a guide for cantors:

    However, based on the cover photo, I can't recommend trusting it outright: it gives the impression that cantors need to give the congregation bold gestures to urge them to sing at certain times. But that's really poor form. The US bishops' most recent document on music said, about cantors: "gestures should be used sparingly and only when genuinely needed."

    The congregation should know when to sing based on musical cues, not visual ones. If the musical cues aren't clear enough, the organist, cantor, and/or music director should work to make them clearer. A problem in this area may also be due to a mistake on the composer's part.

    The book probably has some legitimate advice, though, along with some not so great advice. Google has a sample from this book online.


    Liturgical Press in Minnesota also has a cantor book:

    Looking at the sample pages on LP's website, I was pleased by the way the book opened, with a story about a cantor who waved her arms too much. So I'm glad to see that the author is mindful of that possibility!


    Some dioceses post guidelines for cantors on the net. I just found a rather thorough and well-written set from my neighbors up in New Hampshire, in the Manchester diocese.

    I hope this helps you find some useful material for teaching your cantors (or for your own learning, if that's what you're looking for).

    Welcome to the forum!

    (forum admin)

    Thanked by 2irishtenor eft94530