What do cantors need most?

More from Pray Tell Live, at the NPM National Convention! This conversation is with Joe Simmons, singer and cantor clinician. It was filmed on August 1, 2013.


  1. I agree that the Words are the most important issue for the cantor, but there is also the entire “presence” of the individual that sets the framework in which the Words will be received.

    Attire, posture, how one carries the music, sets the microphone, enunciates, etc., all combine to help the congregation approach the Psalm ready to receive it. Most of our congregation reads along as we sing, but Mr. Simmons is spot on – when we do our preparatory homework, many of them put down their books and truly listen.

  2. I am a bit surprised to hear a number of those doing the interview and those being interviewed at the NPM convention using the term “congregation”. The new USCCB document on music -Sing to the Lord-when speaking of the music makers of the liturgy uses the phrase “Gathered Assembly”.

      1. @Ben Yanke – comment #14:
        Uh, in the sense that nothing any bishop says, or anything in a priest’s homily, has any binding authority because it’s not establishing particular law?

        There are many kinds of authority, and I’m pretty sure that a document of US bishops has some kind of “actual authority” even if it’s not particular law.

        Just cuz you don’t like it, you don’t get to dismiss it that easily.


  3. I think cantors require, above all else, the ability to engage the texts in faith. Their role is not to sing so beautifully that they call attention to themselves, but rather to call attention to the Word they are proclaiming in song. I have always encouraged the assembly to fix their gaze on the cross and altar during the responsorial psalm. If the accompanist and cantor are doing their tasks well, there is no need for a visual gesture (upraised hand or arms) to bring the people in on the refrain. I never look towards the cantor during the psalm and always know when to sing the refrain.

    1. @Fr. Jack Feehily – comment #4:
      It’s a good point. I also think, from my experience, that some cantors treat the Gathered Assembly (ht – Mr. Burns) as if they were all members of a grade school chorus, and that includes hymns as well as Psalms. Granted, the goal is to encourage everyone to sing, but I think you are more successful being a bell cow they can follow, rather than a drover trying to herd them along. Some folks won’t sing no matter what you do, some will always sing, but the fairly large group in the middle mostly just needs a leader.

  4. Much of what I learned about being cantor — and, mutatis mutandis, about presiding at liturgy — I learned from another NPM Master Cantor Teacher, James Hansen. In an emailed conversation with him a few years ago, I offered ten points for cantors; FWIW:

    1) All authentic ministry starts with the minister’s internal spiritual life. One hopes that this life is a richly nurtured and fruitful reality, but there must at least be something there. As I remember Lucien Deiss saying, “How can we be women of prayer and men of praise on Sunday morning if nothing happens during the week?”

    2) Technique must be solid and dependable. This is true for vocal technique, of course, but also for communication (verbal and not). If I sing, “May Christ Jesus, Word made flesh, graciously smile upon us,” and my face and body are broadcasting on all wavelengths, “I’m thinking about something else” or “Get me out of here!”, the message is lost. I have to be able to rise above my imperfect voice, arthritic knees, or dysphoric affect, and at least appear that I want Jesus to smile upon us. I still remember in this regard your advice about gestures moving outward from the center, and being inviting rather than directing. I hope I’ve practiced that long enough that it’s in my spinal cord.

    3) In most situations, technique should be vernacular. I have encountered cantors who think they’re the next Bocelli, and affect these pear-shaped tones: “O Gahd, yeoo ah maee Gahd, for yeoo Ahee lahng…” as if English weren’t their native language. (Always reminds me of the quip: I have a British accent, so I’m smarter than you are.)

    4) The minister’s education, experience, and imaginative resources have to be broad-ranging enough to be able to have at least some referent for the situation being addressed. If I want to tell the story, “I called to the Lord, my cry was heard” and have no memory-event of God hearing me upon which I can draw, how can I tell that story? … (continues>>>)

  5. 4) …continued) There are things, to be sure, for which I do not (e.g., what does it feel like when your first child is born?) or cannot (what’s it like to feel an unborn child move in your abdomen?) have a referent; hopefully my imagination can extrapolate.

    5) Ministry is presence, and more. There are things that I do (e.g., visiting folks in the hospital) that are mostly about showing up. But I think the reason I find presiding well so taxing is that I have to not just be there, but pay attention – watch, listen, consider, respond. My exhaustion may have much to do with my wonted introversion, but I think the best ministers pay careful and thoughtful attention to the assembly gathered.

    6) Ministry has a performative dimension. Like it or not, ready or not, in the mood or not, come Sunday morning, I’m on. This is not all that ministry is about, but as my presiding teacher responded to a student who complained about the artificiality of presiding, “If you can’t stand being on stage, take off the costume!”

    7) Ministry should have a certain transparency. If the assembly’s experience-trajectory ends on me, then I’ve failed – it must point beyond me, to God.

    8 ) Ministry should be enjoyable. One memorable comment I received from an elderly woman as she exited after mass: “Oh, Father, it’s wonderful watching you preside; you always look like you’re having such a good time up there!”

    9) Ministry makes you open, and that can mean being vulnerable. I still get nervous when I stand at the ambo after the Gospel; is this the time I completely screw it up?

    10) Ministry is not about the minister. My ministry attempts, however haltingly, to name the grace of God present in this particular assembly. It’s about God’s people, and about God.

  6. I agree with Paul that we have had an interesting history of cantor training in the USA. Way…. back in the 70’s I had my first cantor training session with a real Cantor (Jewish). I have never had anything to compare since. He (Cantor Michael Loring) gave me a wonderful insight into the blend of text (first) and music (servant of the text) then color and texture. Tell the story. Be joyful. He also insisted on something I see very few Catholic cantors do, look at the “gathered assembly”. Make eye contact. I have found that when I look at them during the verses of the psalm, it has the effect of pulling them into the text. I can only accomplish that if I spend time with the text I’m proclaiming. When I prayerfully consider the psalm, I find the music seems easier because I actually “know” what I’m singing about. That confidence is transmitted to my fellow worshipers so that the text makes sense with (and unfortunately, sometimes in spite of) the music. I also think the composition of psalms has improved greatly in the last 5 – 10 years. We seem to have moved away from arias and mini-musicals to well crafted prayer-song.

    1. @Ron Jones – comment #9:
      The cantor in a parish I belonged to couldn’t carry a note in a bucket, but he sure wore a beautiful cope. Our lay cantors wore a silk cope for sundays and feasts. Often they stood out more prominently than the celebrant, deacon,and subdeacon.

      1. @Dunstan Harding – comment #10:
        You had cantors who actually wore copes???
        How Sarum!!!
        How Medieaval!!!
        Keep it up, and may it spread… like wild fire.
        Did you also have a choir boy in a cope intoning the Alleluya from the rood screen???

        Cantors SHOULD were copes (and there should be two or four of them on solemnities
        ‘Song leaders’ (which are not to be confused with cantors and should not even exist,) should not were anything of a liturgical nature. His (or hers) is a bogus, a totally bogus ‘ministry’.

  7. I would like to see cantors ‘ordained’ into a formal minor order just like acolytes, etc., are. This would imply a degree of training and expertise, as well a ministry. The same, while we’re at it, should be bestowed upon choirmasters, organists, and choristers. Not only would this affirm unequivocally the organic nature of their roles with respect to the liturgy and worship of the church, but would reveal all these as formal and canonical ministries within the church. Too, their work would then be taken both by themselves and the parish with the utmost seriousness and respect. There was a time in the Church’s history when cantors were ordained. It would perhaps be beneficial to the xxi. century Church if we revisited some of the early Church’s values of these ministries.

  8. I am sitting here in Baltimore with my family watching the funeral of Artie Donovan, a player on the then Baltimore Colts. It is at the Cathedral of Mary, Our Queen. The cantor is singing the 23rd psalm, “Shepherd Me, O God” , a beautiful psalm of trust. She has a lovely voice, but she looks like she is in pain and could care less about the text…….same for the Celtic Alleluia!!
    I thought of this thread and the truth of what is being spoken here. An effective cantor is an engaging cantor, not one who sings louder and better than everyone else.

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