Cantoring vs Singing Alone in Latin Rite Catholic Church
  • SponsaChristi
    Posts: 338
    Hi,

    I often see the label “cantor” used in the Latin Rite Catholic Church and I’m wondering if there’s a difference in “cantoring” vs singing alone? I’m referring to style of singing (ie: straight tone vs vibrato, emoting vs not emoting, etc). I’m just wondering if there’s a specific difference between being a cantor and singing alone because one has the ability to sing alone because one is trained in performing solo in front of an audience?

    This question stems from my experiences at my parish. We have a “cantor” who is a skilled vocal performer (based on information I’ve received), but her style for singing at Mass is so distracting to me and the vibrato is like nails on a chalkboard when I’m in Mass mode and trying to be recollected. I want to say something to the MD, but I don’t want to come across as an annoying parishioner who just complains about stuff, or is just being petty and jealous since I don’t have her skill level. It really is difficult to listen to at Mass. Also, when she and the DM sing together it sounds terrible because there’s zero blend. He sings in straight tone without emoting or coming across like it’s a performance. I don’t know what to do.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,601
    A couple of contextual questions the answers to which might help you get more fruitful feedback:

    Are you in the pews when this is happening?

    Is/are the singers amplified and, if so, how closely? (Vibrato can be less distracting when deployed in a large, resonant acoustic without amplification.)
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 1,754
    I think you're quibbling over terms, Sponsa. Cantor is just the term for a singer who intones the psalm and/or helps lead the congregation. Cantors can sing solo in addition to the typical function of leading (ie-not singing alone). It sounds like you just have a less-than-ideal cantor who is either taking a soloistic approach to cantoring (which, in my opinion, should not stick out at all, but just help people know when to come in and not lose their place in the music) or is just a poor singer.

    One caveat, is that there are some highly trained singers who are duped into thinking that operatic singing is the only way to sing, and thus cannot be divorced from their overwhelming vibrato. I know of one woman who teaches at a collegiate level and is renown, but whose vibrato is so large/wide/obnoxious, you genuinely don't know what note she is even attempting to actually sing. I know another woman who, whilst in music school could have soloed over a Wagner chorus (we thought she was going on to great things, to be honest) but who was not admitted to the 'elite' chamber choir because her voice could not be tamed in that context. She had so much power that during her lessons it was almost as if the door to the studio was open to the hall. It was amazing.

    All that to say, there are different types of singers, and some use way too much vibrato. That isn't inherent to cantoring, however. That is inherent to the singer.
  • Andrew_Malton
    Posts: 1,065
    I'd also ask, what part of the sung liturgy is taken by the “cantor” or soloist?

    There are sung dialogues, responsorial psalmody, responsorial hymnody, and possibly motets or art music. Although surely an “operatic”, bel canto, molto expressivo style is foreign to the sung Roman liturgy, even in its modern “form”, surely a cantor should sing more expressively the sacred text that's actually for solo singing, and more moderately the parts that are responsory or ensemble.

    We are two cantors where I regularly sing the Mass. During Lent, and especially last Sunday(!!) we treat the long Tracts as solo chants, alternating voices between verses. This allows for more musical and textual “interest”. But we wouldn't do this for the Mass parts, which we sing together, in a moderate voice and equalist rhythm, to encourage the assembly to sing: nor for the preface dialogue, where anything like an “operatic” voice would be utterly out of place.
  • Sponsa,

    Let me tackle your question from a different standpoint.

    Ad Orientem worship of God intends to make God the object of the worship.
    Versus Populum worship of God can't help but put the "personality" of the priest on display, for good or (more usually) for ill.


    In the same way, what you're calling straight tone is fitting for cantoring, because it does not seek its own glorification, but the soberly exuberant glorification of God. The operatic vibrato isn't a bad thing, but it's in the wrong context if it's deployed at Mass, since it simply can't help but draw attention to the singer, as singer, which is contrary to the nature of the role of music at Mass.

    As to what questions you can ask, I think you've put your finger on it when you note that the cantrix and the DM don't blend. Ask if this effect is intentional or accidental.
    Thanked by 1ServiamScores
  • SponsaChristi
    Posts: 338
    Yes, she is mic’d. One of our masses is live-streamed, so I think she has to be. I’m sure it could be adjusted. We don’t have sung dialogue Masses. She sings everything except the Responsorial psalm, which the DM sings from the ambo in regular normal straight tone with no emoting. The original purpose of singing in the Latin Rite was to make the Mass more amplified. It’s not supposed to be an emotional experience.

    I sing in the EF chant schola, but am sitting in the pews when this is happening because it’s happening in the OF. I’ve been attending both Masses on Sunday lately because I’m at a liturgical crossroads (EF congregation just too negative for me, but liturgically, I prefer the EF’s flow and communion rails).
  • Andrew_Malton
    Posts: 1,065
    No sung dialogues: so the preface dialogue and the mystery of faith and the amens and the Lord's prayer are all said without note?

    But I suppose the Gloria and the Alleluia were sung (until Ash Wednesday)? And hymns are sung for the Introit and Offertory and Communion?

    I think there is no difference between “solo cantoring" and “singing alone”. I think there is a difference in liturgical purpose between the various singings, and that the “art of celebrating” is required of the musicians qua musicians, just as it is of the clergy.

    Surely there is more to the sources of sacred singing than mere amplification?
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 1,754
    It’s not supposed to be an emotional experience.

    I'm not sure I can make that jump. There are physics involved, yes, but I think both reasons were part and parcel. Are the improperia to be chanted without any emotion? Is the gloria on Easter morning to be chanted with a pulse no higher than 60bpm? I doubt it. It is true that the emotion is not the goal in se, but I don't think it is in any way foreign to the liturgy either. It is, after all, an inherent feature of music, so if you have music at mass, you inevitably get some degree of emotion, whether planned or not.
  • From Matins this morning, excerpted from the Venerable Bede, and relevant to the unwelcome and unfit warbling...

    If, therefore, the Lord would not have to be sold in the temple, even such things as He willed should be offered therein, (On account, that is, of the greed or dishonesty which is often the stain of such transactions,) with what anger, suppose ye, would He visit such as He might find laughing or gossiping there, or yielding to any other sin. If the Lord suffer not to be carried on in His house such worldly business as may be freely done elsewhere, how much more shall such things as ought never to be done anywhere, draw down the anger of God if they be done in His own holy house Lastly the Holy Ghost came down upon the Lord in the shape of a dove, and by doves therefore may be signified the gifts of that Holy Spirit. They, then, to this day sell doves in the temple of God, who take money in the Church for the laying on of their hands, whereby the Holy Ghost is given from heaven.
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 458
    Yes, she is mic’d. One of our masses is live-streamed, so I think she has to be.


    The signal from any microphone can be routed so that it only goes into the speakers in the house, or only to the livestream, or both, and at different levels.

    In my church the cantors/soloists are the staff singers, who also sing with the choirs. When there is a solo to be sung (psalm verse or otherwise), they just put on their big-kid pants and fill up the room without a mic. They are perfectly present on the stream, from the hanging mics in the room, which of course are never fed into the speakers.

    Given that all of them have at least an undergrad degree in music and many have more, they are able to be cognizant of the vocal technique appropriate to a given piece and sing straight-tone in chant and renaissance music, or bel canto when it’s a solo in a Mozart Mass. To me that seems to be pretty basic musicianship and kind of a low bar for anyone who wants to collect a paycheck for singing, in the same way that a guitarist knows to bring along a nice Martin and not a Strat and Marshall half-stack to a bluegrass jam.
  • davido
    Posts: 631
    A few point that most singers and pew sitters both don’t understand:

    - Bel canto (operatic) vocal technique is for singing unamplified in a large church or theater, usually over an accompanying instrument(s). It is about projecting the voice so that a pleasing sound can be heard in a large room.
    - mics don’t capture the best aspects of bel canto singing. They pick up only a narrow spectrum of the overtones being produced.
    - today’s taste prefers amplified crooning to amplified bel canto

    Bel canto also trains to achieve unified timbre throughout a singer’s range, precise diction, and a formality of tone that is both bright and warm. These are all goods which is why classical training is still worth pursuing.

    If the cantor in question were taught that she could sing mezza voce (i.e. softly) nearly all the time, and would sound much better over the PA system, I think the problems the OP presents would be solved.


    Then again, there are people who just sing badly…
    Thanked by 2Liam hilluminar
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 1,754
    In my church the cantors/soloists are the staff singers, who also sing with the choirs. When there is a solo to be sung (psalm verse or otherwise), they just put on their big-kid pants and fill up the room without a mic.

    Must be nice to have such singers. The only person at our parish who can reasonably carry a line from the loft is me. Neither teenagers (whose voices are still developing) nor retirees can fill a room with any authority.
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • SponsaChristi
    Posts: 338
    Must be nice to have such singers. The only person at our parish who can reasonably carry a line from the loft is me. Neither teenagers (whose voices are still developing) nor retirees can fill a room with any authority


    How are your church’s acoustics? We have high ceilings, but they put in thick carpeting and sound absorption panels. Then there’s all the people in the pews sucking up the sound.
  • MarkB
    Posts: 837
    As to what a cantor is, from "Sing to the Lord":

    The Cantor
    37. The cantor is both a singer and a leader of congregational song. Especially when no
    choir is present, the cantor may sing in alternation or dialogue with the assembly. For example, the cantor may sing the invocations of the Kyrie, intone the Gloria, lead the short acclamations at the end of the Scripture readings, intone and sing the verse of the Gospel Acclamation, sing the invocations of the Prayer of the Faithful, and lead the singing of the Agnus Dei. The cantor may also sing the verses of the psalm or song that accompany the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, and Communion. Finally, the cantor may serve as psalmist, leading and proclaiming the verses of the Responsorial Psalm.

    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.

    39. Cantors should lead the assembly from a place where they can be seen by all without drawing attention from the liturgical action. When, however, a congregation is singing very familiar responses, acclamations, or songs that do not include verses for the cantor alone, the cantor need not be visible.

    40. The cantor exercises his or her ministry from a conveniently located stand, but not
    from the ambo. The cantor may dress in an alb or choir robe, but always in clean, presentable, and modest clothing. Cassock and surplice, being clerical attire, are not recommended as vesture for the cantor.


    From what I've gathered when I parish-hopped to survey the musical landscape and what I observe on streamed Masses, cantors are frequently horrible singers, and the combination of poor music selections and bad singing from the cantor results in very little congregational participation, so the cantor ends up being a soloist who sings songs during Mass. It's even worse now, post-Covid, as many parish music programs have been decimated.

    But near-exclusive solo singing by the cantor is not what the Church envisions for music at Mass. And operatic performances are likewise not what the Church envisions. Cantors should be able to sing well and should be trained to sing in a manner that will invite congregational participation, including BACKING AWAY FROM THE MICROPHONE in order not to dominate the sound of the congregation singing.

    I have frequently thought that a Mass with no music would be better than having my ears assaulted by the cantor's attempt to sing.

    I tell my psalmists to suppress vibrato when they proclaim the psalm. I would not tolerate operatic vibrato from a psalmist or a cantor.
    Thanked by 1a_f_hawkins
  • GambaGamba
    Posts: 458
    @Serviam

    How are your church’s acoustics? We have high ceilings, but they put in thick carpeting and sound absorption panels. Then there’s all the people in the pews sucking up the sound.


    Similarly wretched.
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,934
    Some cantors chant, and some chanters can't.
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 1,754
    We actually have nice acoustics, all things considered, because our walls and ceiling are actually plaster and our pews aren't padded. We do have short-pile industrial carpet, but it is old and trodden down, so it doesn't do as much damage as it could do. It is only a medium-to-small church however, and the ceiling isn't particularly high. I feel comfortable chanting from the center of the loft, (during communion, for instance) but I could never ask one of my choir members to do so, especially if the organ was playing. A cappella is one thing, but with any other voices or instrumentation? No way. It's just not realistic, especially with an aging congregation that is sitting with their backs to you.
  • Charles,

    The sheer quantity of cant which some cantors "chant" is such that it can't be believed!
    Thanked by 2tomjaw Carol
  • Carol
    Posts: 755
    We are also overlooking the possibility that the cantor is getting on in years when vibrato is harder to tame, at least for the untrained singer. I think my parish is typical. The organist is paid and no singers are paid for Masses, other than funerals or weddings. I am over 65 now and find I must really pay attention to my vibrato to keep it in check. I think the most important thing is the mindset of the singer. If your motivation is to call attention to how great a singer you are then you are not going to recede into the background and have the psalm verses or text of a hymn capture the attention of the PIPs. I sing in other places to "perform." I sing at church to worship the Lord and help others to do the same.

    Once in a while, I can sense when I am letting pride get the best of me and then I dial it back.
    Thanked by 2Liam ServiamScores
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,601
    People who could support congregational singing from an acoustically optimal place from within the congregation (often/typically in the center about 1/2-2/3 back from sanctuary) should not feel that the gift of singing has to be limited to solo/choral opportunities. Anchor voices in what I have long called the retrochoir (to borrow inversely from architecture) can be more vital for Catholic congregations that are not packed with eager singers (Catholics in the USA typically not being like Lutherans, Methodists and Episcopalians (at least of yore) in that regard, but instead being somewhat timid when they feel their own voices are too exposed for lack of nearby vocal cover).
    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Carol
    Posts: 755
    I agree! I used to think it was a big mistake to put all the children who like to sing in the choir at First Friday Masses and then the other students would barely make a peep. Also to paraphrase from a recent post somewhere here, "If the father of the family sings at Mass his kids will sing too."

    Liam, is that a gentle way to say I should move out of the choir loft and into the congregation if I can't keep my vibrato in check? How does one know when it is time to step down?
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,601
    Carol

    I didn't mean it as a suggestion to *you* but as something that an MD should always remind all singers who are congregants (realizing that some singers are ringers/hired help only), because so many people who have spent so many years in choir/cantor service forget how important it is to have a strong foundation of singing from *within* the congregation itself.

    I discovered this decades ago when I was in a music ministry that was divided into three choirs to cover liturgies in weekly rotation. We had a weak-singing congregation. When I and a friend suggested that singers NOT assigned to duty in a given week sit along the front of the back third of the congregational seating, that practice made a very considerable difference in the confidence and participation of the congregation in singing.

    It's been a decade since I was last in choir, after decades in it. The very esteemed music director of our cathedral, upon its reopening after a multi-year renovation, encouraged me to join the choir, but I told him I thought my voice would do more good being parked and barked in the middle of the vast nave. (A different idea about being "put out to pasture", perhaps.) And he has not disagreed in retrospect. (Besides, I could never deal with going down the stairs to the gallery; it's one thing to go up stairs, one can always fall into them, but it's going down stairs that's more treacherous for me.)

    PS: It was my late father who modeled singing for us. He grew up in a German national parish in Bridgeport (CT) - it's now a Catholic Worker soup kitchen - that had a tradition of strong congregational singing (his paternal grandfather was one of the founding trustees of the parish). There was none of this real-men-don't-sing crap in that culture.

    Thanked by 1Carol
  • Carol
    Posts: 755
    The choir loft steps as a sign for when to retire! Why didn't I think of that? LOL

    We used to have a man who belted out the hymns which was great, but he dragged the tempo a smidgeon which was very challenging!
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,926
    i eventually wore earplugs to solve the same conundrum.
    Thanked by 2StimsonInRehab Carol
  • SponsaChristi
    Posts: 338
    i eventually wore earplugs to solve the same conundrum


    There’s a parishioner who I noticed plugs his ears while trying to pray every time the COVID Announcements start. Also, why do I need to know the name of the “lector”?
    Thanked by 1CCooze
  • ServiamScores
    Posts: 1,754
    Also, why do I need to know the name of the “lector”?
    You don’t. Dont need to know the priest’s name either.
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 9,926
    Also, why do I need to know the name of the “lector”?

    You don’t. Dont need to know the priest’s name either.
    nor his, the lector's or anyone else's opinion/exegesis on the readings, the day celebrated or the name of the person sitting next to you. The representation of the Sacrifice of the Cross is commencing. Everyone needs to put their attention on that fact, and that fact alone.

    Attached you will find the most important points on which to focus during the liturgy.
    Thanked by 1StimsonInRehab