The Cantor’s Tools of Communication

A cantor or lead singer must master more than simply the music of the liturgy. For as worship leader, the cantor has an important responsibility for making worshipers feel welcome and comfortable in their role in the service. Nonverbal communication by gestures is one important aspect of the cantor’s task.

Gestures come in many forms of nonverbal communication such as eye contact, decorum, posture, facial expression, and actual arm and hand gestures.

In the 187 Catholic dioceses of this country, hundreds of women and men enter into the eucharistic celebration of their parishes each Sunday and lead the gathered assembly in sung prayer. By right of their baptism, and because they have the gift of singing, cantors serve the people of God, motivating them to “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgies as expressed by the Second Vatican Council (Sacrosanctum Concilium #14.

As cantors, we are keepers of the Psalms, the song of the church. We lead, inspire, and serve as models by which the whole community can identify the Gospel, but we do not live in a vacuum. There are many other demands placed upon our daily lives. All of us at one time or another are overwhelmed, and we seem to be pulled in so many different directions. The desire to become more involved in this ministry (improving one’s cantoring skills, deepening our knowledge of Scripture, and taking stock of the quality of service given to the assembly) gets placed on a back burner, and we can begin to lose sight of our purpose. We tend to fall into ruts, or into repeated bad habits, and our cantoring becomes “second nature” to a fault. If we are not careful, our work may turn out to be musically haphazard and our ministry spiritually unfulfilling both for ourselves and for our assembly.

From the experience in my own parish of being a cantor and of training cantors, I am continually reminded that in order for one to be effective in the Sunday assembly it is absolutely necessary to examine his “cantor conscience” on a regular basis while asking some hard questions about attitudes and talents. Just what are the pitfalls and what are these bad habits that plague us, these habits that keep us from being truly effective leaders of prayer?

If given the chance, surely all of us could write a list! Here are three considerations: (1) the role of the cantor in relationship to the singing assembly, (2) gestures, and (3) the use of microphones. As each is discussed here, it is my hope that each of us would make an examination of our own cantor conscience, discover what skills need to be revised or revived (each of our styles has its own creative challenges), and allow ourselves to play and set goals, so that with renewed vision, we can be well on our way towards excellence in this ministry.

It goes without saying that the assembly exercises the primary ministry of music within the liturgical celebration and, as stated before, there are those of us who have proven musical talents and a specific call to use these gifts on behalf of the parish community. To assume this position of leadership, we need always to remember that we ourselves are first and foremost members of the assembly. We belong. We are musicians that are working with others, not doing something for others.

Our duty is to support and encourage the song of the people of God as far as needed. This is an issue of hospitality, trust, and great expectations. The Notre Dame Study on Catholic Parish Life (report #5, Mark Searle and David C. Leege) notes that “where the cantor sings less than 70 percent of the music, congregational participation rises sharply above that attained with any other kind of musical leadership.” I find in my experience that cantors are afraid to let go, they don’t trust the assembly to sing. Our role is neither to overpower the assembly nor do the work for them, and liturgy is certainly not a forum for our vocal performance. Yes, we intone melodies, lead responsorial singing, and sing psalm verses and litanies—that is our service to the people. During the hymns and acclamations, why not give the other instruments (organ, contemporary ensemble, and so on) the opportunity to lead the assembly? We might be surprised at what we hear if we step back and blend our voices with those we serve. Our leadership should always come out of the knowledge that this ministry is one which is life-giving to the assembly and reaches its fulfillment when we take the assembly beyond the music and into the prayer itself.

The second consideration is the use of gestures. Gestures take practice. They have become basic to the cantor’s craft when inviting people to sing. They come in many forms of nonverbal communication such as decorum, posture, facial expression, eye contact, and the actual arm and hand gestures. In order to be effective, cantors need to consider how comfortable they are in their own bodies.

We are highly visible in this ministry, and we must be at ease when standing in front of large crowds. Being at ease with one’s appearance, well-rehearsed with the other musicians, vocally warmed-up, and prepared (having all material in order beforehand) certainly minimizes any feeling of stage fright. People sense nervousness and are less likely to follow a leader who communicates a lack of confidence or experience. Our facial expressions and eye contact are also important as these help us to maintain our rapport with the people.

Hand and arm gestures are the physical communications that motivate the assembly to sing. These are not abstract movements. Rather, they are visual cues for the people, cues that are united to the rhythm and tempo of the music, cues which take into consideration the space in which we are singing and the size of the assembly. Cantors should always stand with good singing posture: erect and comfortable, stable head, shoulders relaxed, hand at sides, knees bent, feet slightly apart but planted firmly on the ground. Do all of this while presenting yourself to the assembly with dignity and confidence. When the people are ready to sing, cue them by rhythmically breathing with them, raising both arms just about to shoulder height, with palms facing upward. Once the assembly begins to sing, slowly return your arms to hang at your sides. Do not leave your arms in the air! Once the assembly is in, get the gesture out of the way!

Also, be willing to modify these movements according to the space and the size of the group. At times, eye contact and a nod of the head will be adequate gestures for the assembly’s participation. Perhaps there will be a time when it is necessary to hold the music. In this case, one would have to adjust or alter the gestures using only a hand position (with a slightly rounded hand, fingers together with the thumb separate, extend the arm and turn the hand upward), breathing with them, and inviting the assembly to sing. Personal practice and consistency is all that’s required!

The use of microphones is the next consideration. How we love to hear ourselves sing through these little electronic miracles! In listening to many cantors, it is my experience that this is exactly what is happening—cantors are hearing themselves sing, and they are loving every minute of it! But what has happened to the assembly—what about their song? In most cases, the voice of the people is being overpowered, drowned out, and reduced to nothingness! Should we wonder why they are not singing?

My first suggestion is to see if you can do your work without using the microphone. The natural sound of the human voice is most desirable. If you cannot do it without amplification, find an honest friend who will listen to you practice with the sound system of your church. Have your friend tell you whether or not you can be clearly understood and heard, if you are too loud or too soft. Know that the microphone will be used differently for speaking and for singing. Perhaps you will have to move closer to the microphone for singing; therefore, practice speaking into the microphone as you will be using verbal communication for teaching music to the assembly. Too often, we rely heavily on this electronic voice to carry our voice and become lazy, and this results in poor vocal production, poor diction, and poor breath control. This is disastrous for vocal soloists, for there may come a time when they really need good vocal techniques and will discover that a lot has been lost. Each of us is created differently, so when using a microphone it is important to discover what is most comfortable and what sounds good within the space.

Do we always need the microphone? I don’t think so. The use of good judgment prevails here. I repeat, be willing to let go, to modify those practices which are second nature. If the size of the gathered assembly is only thirty-five people, turn the microphone off! Also, move away from the ambo or lectern. It is not always necessary to stand behind or lean on a lectern when cantoring. Sing with the people to whom we belong, leading them when necessary while fulfilling our liturgical role as cantor.

Nevertheless, the microphone has become a part of our work as cantors, and most of us will use one at times during the liturgical celebration. How we work with these amplification systems is key to our musical leadership, the assembly’s participation, and the preservation of our vocal techniques.

As ministers of music, our commitment and responsibility are to lead the people of God into the prayer of the liturgy by seeking to help them learn both to sing prayer and to pray by singing. To achieve this, we need to let go of practices that hinder them from singing their song. Let’s inform ourselves about the practices of our field, start approaching our skills with new insight, and begin to make a difference with those we serve and to whom we belong!

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