What should you know as a cantor?
  • Here's one of my practical questions that I hope ends up being found when people search Google.

    It's not strictly speaking a CMAA kind of question, and I will put it up on other boards.

    Suppose you are a well-trained singer who is able to read music and can handle most anything within a normal range of repertoire.

    What should you be able to say that you can do when you go looking for cantor work? Should you have a set of solos prepared so that you can do them if they ask you to do the offertory or something similar? I assume you should be smart enough to prepare the Gelineau psalms a month or so in advance, just in case, but what else?

    I guess you should be confident enough of your own skills to just walk in and start singing what you are told. But what would suggest to a person trying to prepare so that the person hiring them can feel confident about hiring them a second time?

  • donr
    Posts: 969
    I have never been paid as a cantor except for weddings and funerals. I have never advertised my services, I simply cantor at our local church on Sundays for free (its a volunteer only parish). People approach me for Weddings and Funerals, and out of church works such as memorial services, city functions, etc.

    But to answer your question, If you are as you say a well-trained singer able to read music, you should be fine as long as you have a good attitude and people actually like to work with you. Churches with budgets may actually have an audition process someone else will have to comment on that.
  • TCJ
    Posts: 787
    Enough not to stand up front and wave your arms like you're directing traffic.
    Thanked by 1ryand
  • Actually, I did that once and people said it fit in perfectly. And hasn't EVERYBODY done the one where they say, "Oh, you can sing. Bill's sick"??

    I like Prof. Mahrt's suggestion of a more welcoming gesture than they hand upraised. He suggested drawing your hand up toward your chest in an inviting gesture.

    But now that we have gotten the ha-has out, anything else?

  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    "What should you be able to say that you can do when you go looking for cantor work?"

    That you can sight read pitch, rhythm, and phrasing reasonably well, which will translate to the music director as "low maintenance." Sight reading ability is a good indicator of experience and raw talent, and any diligent preparation on top of that is gravy. Prove that you can read well, and the rest will fall into place.

    (How to improve sight reading? Add it to the practice routine on top of honing technique and polishing known repertoire. This approach has the added benefit of enhancing your repertoire base.)
  • 1) Excruciatingly clear and flawless diction which makes of every last syllable a priceless gem.
    2) A voice which can be heard distinctly on the back pew without a microphone.
    3) Projection which fills the entire 'room', but is yet unforced. (A variant of no. 2.)
    4) Memorise the eight Gregorian psalm tones and the St Meinrad tones, and be able to sing psalms to them while doing the pointing in one's head. (Thus, one will never have to sing the silly tunes and artless arrangements that appear in such as R&A, etc.)
    5) Be able to improvise (or write out, if necessary) simple, chant-like, responds that compliment the psalm tone one is using. (Thus, one will never have to sing the silly tunes and artless arrangements that appear in such as R&A, etc.)
    6) Realise that one is a cantor, period; and that this is not the same thing as song leader.
    7) Ditto all the above comments about bodily movements and gestures. Real cantors don't gesture. The voice communicates everything.
    8) Last but far from least: if, when singing psalm vv. one doesn't feel that one's delivery is 'taking forever', one is going much too fast. (An eternity for you 'under fire' is but a twinkling of the listeners' eyes.)
  • Oh! And one more.... from a piece of 4th century legislation regarding cantors -
    Cantors should not use curling irons in their hair.
    Thanked by 2Adam Wood CHGiffen
  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,436
    If I understand the question, yes, of course a complete singer should have prepared audition pieces: perfect sightreading is only one of the twin sources of all cantorial/section-leaderlike virtues, the main one being command of beautiful instrument. Make a neat ringbound folder with 2-6 arias on double sided sheets, and take some account of the keyboardist: if they gulp at the prospect of playing at sight Ich will dir zu Ehren leben from the Weihnachtsoratorium (as someone with my limitations might), have Comfort ye as a backup. And think about page turning: as a rule odd page numbers will go on the right, but break the rule when it will make things easier.
  • A prospective cantor's best assets are, IMO,
    1) a trained, strong, clear, beautiful voice that can serve as both soloist and leader (not dominator) and can lead with or without amplification.
    2) ready musicianship skills (incl sightreading) and developed musicality
    3) a basic understanding of and passion for the sacred liturgy, incl rubrics and norms
    4) social skills and general approach that make oneself an enjoyable colleauge.

    Other thoughts-
    Demonstrate that you can sing beautifully with clear and correct diction in Latin, Spanish, English, and any other language(s) that are utilized by the parish.

    Offer accompanied and acapella selections from various genres.

    Know your accompanied selections well enough that an organist with rhthym issues or whatever other deficits will not be able to derail you. Best to choose standard rep or arias with more simple accompaniment unless you know the organist is a very competent sightreader, as Richard mentions above.

    Remember your place in the overall music program. I have had to smile and nod more than a few times when working under another musician who didn't know a lot about vocal production, etc. Rise above this, try to fulfill reasonable requests without risking damage to your voice, and focus on making beautiful music. Your voice is at the service of the sacred liturgy.
  • DougS
    Posts: 793
    Personally I would sacrifice some vocal quality in favor of someone who has actual musical literacy or knowledge of the repertoire, both of which are increasingly rare, even among trained voices.
  • Steve QSteve Q
    Posts: 102
    Let me throw in something apart from the musical stuff...I need my cantors to be RELIABLE. As church musicians, I am sure we have all dealt with all types of drama kings/queens, people who just don't show up, people who always seem to be sick or have some other excuse. Give me someone I can count on to be there!!
  • redsox1
    Posts: 202
    Marry one like I did!

  • Reliability is key. It should be part of basic courtesy and professionalism. In a committment allergic society like mine in SoCal, expectations need to be clearly defined. Otherwise, many people are flaky.

    otoh, programs that routinely pay cantors (or organists, guitarists, etc) pittance or have volunteers get what they pay for.
    Cantors should be paid commesurate with their skill level, educational background, and responsibilities, like any other person in a music program.
  • Great advice. Keep it coming. I want people to find this thread. Mr. Osborne, you answered a question for me as to HOW to avoid inane melodies even if the congregation has to sing one. Impish, I guess, but I that is one skill I have to develop. A lot of the others are helpful in clarifying for others what it means to be a well-trained singer, which seems to me to be key.

    Drama monsters--those are a pain, I have to admit.
  • TCJ
    Posts: 787
    Steve Q said...

    "Let me throw in something apart from the musical stuff...I need my cantors to be RELIABLE. As church musicians, I am sure we have all dealt with all types of drama kings/queens, people who just don't show up, people who always seem to be sick or have some other excuse. Give me someone I can count on to be there!!"

    Seconded! I've encountered far too many cantors who are unreliable. If a person is sick a lot (and I had one that was) it doesn't bother me too much as long as that person informs me of it (she did) and is reliable other than that (she was). What really irritates me is the cantor who can't show up until three minutes before Mass begins, the cantor who doesn't bother looking at the schedule that was given to him eight week before (and thus doesn't know the hymns), or a cantor who pretends not to have a good enough voice range for a specific hymn just because he doesn't like it.
  • Affirm on all the above! Reliability is important along with leaving the prima dona attitude at home.

    A good cure for that is, "you are fired". Next!
  • hartleymartin
    Posts: 1,447
    Cantors should be hired and fired by a Director of Music. The trouble with volunteers is that our modern society has the attitude that since you're not paid to be there then it doesn't matter if you don't show up.

    Parish churches need to wake up to the reality that they cannot forever rely on volunteer labour for everything. You get what you pay for. Even if they paid say $40 to the Cantor and $60 to the organist per mass, they would be able to demand a high standard. Most Parishes have 4 masses over a weekend and this would cost them $400. If you have a good resident organist then you can usually make some sort of arrangement that they must be given first preference for weddings and funerals (the Cathedral Church I go to has such an arrangement), and if they want to hire other musicians that they have to pay a fee to the Church (think of it like the corking fee for wine at a restaurant, or contract it as a hire-fee for the instrument and then this could be paid to the resident organist).

    The youth group that I tried to teach to sing for mass all had diva attitudes and they were impossible to deal with. I'm in a much happier situation now where I recieve pay for working with professionals rather than flogging myself for nothing, singing and playing rubbish music and dealing with a dozen teenaged divas who had little talent or ability.