Category Archives: Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum

Another Successful Summer Music Camp

Last week the Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum completed its second annual summer music camp. Forty-seven children in grades 3 through high school gathered through the week to experience the joy of music making with others their age and I would like to share with readers a few thoughts and insights gained from the experience.

  1. A choirmaster must always be recruiting and a summer camp is a great recruiting tool. At the end of each school year I give an informal audition to every child in the second grade, which I follow up with a call to parents inviting their children to the summer camp to “try the choir for a week” with no obligation to commit. This personal ask is essential for some parents and students.
  2. Undertake only what you are capable of handling. I have chosen to keep the summer camp on parish grounds with manageable camp hours. Other choirs take children away to youth camping grounds for an entire week. You must decide what you can effectively manage, although I would caution that smaller is better, especially in the beginning.
  3. Separate students into appropriate groups based on age and ability. I have a three hour long morning session for new and first year choristers and for any others who need extra reinforcement in the fundamentals, while more experienced choristers come in the afternoon for two hours. Younger singers are always excited to move into the more experienced group, although they often keep coming to the morning session as helpers. This year I had at least one older student helper for every 2 to 3 inexperienced students. Not only was this a great help to me and to the younger students, it also gave experienced singers the chance to learn by teaching younger children.
  4. Give students great music with an attainable goal. This year choristers gave a short concert for parents on the last day of the camp. I chose quality music I knew they would like and every piece was one the choristers would sing in the coming year. Although I didn’t tell the morning students, my goal for them was facility with solfege in the diatonic scale and an ability to clap simple rhythms composed of eighths, quarters, halves, dotted halves and whole notes.
  5. Make it an enjoyable experience. Three hours of uninterrupted choir rehearsals is a sure way to drive away possible choristers and make returning students think twice about repeating the experience. In order to make the choristers’ experience a positive one, the three hour long morning session was broken up into a number of smaller sessions with breaks in-between so that half of their time was spent learning and the other half outside playing games.  The afternoon session was less balanced, but nevertheless, students had plenty of time to run around outside or to re-connect with friends after the summer break.

If you should decide to host a summer camp I would strongly suggest you contact someone who has already done it. Find out what works instead of needlessly reinventing the wheel. Before my first camp I had a great conversation with David Hughes from St. Mary’s in Norwalk, CT. Mr. Hughes is a veteran chorister trainer and has run a summer camp for a number of years. Mary Anne Carr Wilson, who runs a summer chant camp for children, would be another great resource, or one might attend an RSCM course as a adult. Whichever route you decide to take, be sure to make the week a great experience for your choristers.

A Call to Educate Our Future Musicians

“My tastes are simple: I am easily satisfied with the best.” Winston Churchill

Many epithets can be applied to Winston Churchill, but mediocre isn’t one of them. When the going got rough, he got rougher. When the stakes were high, he upped the ante. When all seemed on the verge of collapse and surrender, he had already planned the victory. He never, never, never gave in.

Contrast this with Catholicism in the West, where the Church in Her human elements has not only surrendered to secularism, but seems eager to close the lid of Her own coffin. In the midst of such a fait accompli the cry of the church musician for better music is almost laughable. But… perhaps we need a better perspective.

We must remember that those who work for the Church’s destruction are not hacking away at Her trunk as they so often think, they are merely sit on what is already a dead branch in need of pruning. Quite comically, their spiritual, theological and historical eyes are so narrow and nearsighted that they can’t see they are pruning on the wrong side of where they sit. No doubt their rotten branch will crash with a resounding thud, with them on it, but only to the relief of the rest of the tree, which is already in new leaf.

The Sacred Liturgy, bruised and battered though she may be, is emerging from a long winter and the Face of Christ shines more brightly in it. Christ awaits the voice of His beloved to respond to His call once again and the Church needs the musician for this response.

If we expect church musicians worthy of the name to step forward, then we need to train them, which I am happy to say is taking place in more and more areas. We might not yet have reached critical mass, but the mass we have is critical and is growing. Now is the time to push forward rather than to despair.

Each summer I spend two separate weeks at Benedictine College in Atchison, KS, working with high school students who are interested in vocal music and I always spend some of our time together exploring the sublime world of sacred music. Most of these students, without ever having studied the Church’s documents on liturgical music, have an innate sense that our sacred mysteries require sacred music… and they WANT IT!

Within the last few weeks we saw the hiring of James Kennerley at St. Paul’s, Harvard Square, while our very own Richard Clark posted on other wonderful things going on for children in the archdiocese of Boston. Kevin Allen was recently named the music director of St. John Cantius in Chicago, which boasts thriving choirs for children, and Charles Cole and the Schola Cantorum of the London Oratory are currently on tour through a number of western states. This is just a smattering of the good things going on in the realm of sacred music in our larger cities and metropolitan areas, but what about smaller towns and the midwest?

Right here in Kansas, the geographical center of the contiguous states, I know of several parishes in my own archdiocese (here, here and here) where chorister programs are growing and great musicians are developing liturgical training programs for children. These things might seem slight to others, but even the greatest of forest fires begins very small and so will the advent of better music.

If it is true, as Chesterton put it, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly,” then let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. If you are a music director and haven’t begun some sort of music training for the children in your parish for fear of it going badly, I tell you that whatever you do couldn’t be any worse than what children have been made to endure these last 55 years. Just begin!

Remember that Churchill was more often wrong than he was right, but when he was right, he was really right. Don’t be afraid of failure as long as you are willing to learn from the mistakes you make in front of your present or future choristers. If you model Christian discipleship alongside good musical leadership you will move your choristers and your program forward, just remember to keep your focus on real sacred music. Your choristers tastes are simple: [they are] easily satisfied with the best!

In Defense of the Choir School

Last week it was announced that James Kennerley would take over as the new Director of Music for St. Paul’s Catholic Church, Harvard Square, placing him at the head of the parish’s famous choir of men and boys, founded by Theodore Marier in 1963.

St. Paul’s Choir School, where the boy choristers are educated, is one of only three Catholic choir schools in the United States and provides a truly unique approach to the fostering of Catholic sacred music, an approach we might call the apprenticeship method. Following his audition and acceptance, a boy enters the school in the 3rd grade and embarks on a six year journey of professional music making that culminates in the graduation of a chorister consummate in the choral arts (as well as extremely proficient at the keyboard) who has sung through vast portions of the greatest repertoire of the western world, and therefore knows it as a friend, and for whom the Graduale Romanum is more than a footnote in a college music appreciation course. Mr. Kennerley is no stranger to such a choral education, as he himself is a product of Chelmsford Cathedral Choral Foundation.

It goes without saying that Mr. Kennerley possessed more than the average amount of latent musical talent as a child, nevertheless, his gifts and talents were honed in the professional atmosphere of the English choral tradition, after which he moved on to Harrow School. I can’t say for sure, but wouldn’t be surprised if he took part in the chapel choir program at Harrow, which, according to the school’s website, regularly sings works “by Poulenc, Chilcott, Saleeb, Piccolo, Byrd, Gombert, Faure, Berkeley, Howells, Faure, Haydn, Dyson, Bach, Jackson, Walton, Britten, Duruflé, Poulenc, Adelman, Mozart, Handel and Purcell.” From Harrow School he matriculated to Cambridge University and spent his time there as the organ scholar for Jesus College before being named the organ scholar for St. Paul’s in London–all before the age of 25.

Contrast this with the general experience of a Catholic child in the United States. The unfortunate child spends eight to twelve years in Catholic education shouting banal ditties at an beleaguered congregation, all the while being conditioned to believe in a boringly nice god who saves said child from nothing, and is therefore not worth his time, much less effort. Even Catholic schools with good music programs tend to give the Church’s treasury of sacred music a wide berth because of the undying canard that Vatican II got rid of it.

It might be forgiven students if they can’t improvise like Mr. Kennerley on the Victimae Paschali laudes. It is unforgivable, however, that they have never heard the Victimae.

The same applies to the sublime melody of the Veni Creator.

If we in the United States ever hope to produce liturgical musicians of the calibre of James Kennerley then the choir school is an absolutely essential ingredient toward that goal. I’m not saying we don’t have native musicians of his calibre, but we certainly aren’t producing them in the quantity that the English cathedral choir system is capable of.

Every Catholic cathedral in the United States should be committed to such an ideal. Our cathedrals should either run choir schools or run to establish them. Every parish with a parochial school should focus its music program toward the same goal, albeit to a smaller degree. It is the only way to rebuilt (or perhaps build for the first time ever) a culture of genuine sacred music in these United States.

It is amazing what has been accomplished at St. Paul’s over the last 50 years and what could be accomplished in so many other places in a much shorter time span.

We wish Mr. Kennerley and the boys and men of St. Paul’s Choir all the best!

In Search of the Deeper Meaning

Lay a garland on her hearse…Upon her buried body lie lightly, thou gentle earth.

Pearsall’s setting of these mournful lyrics came to a gentle close, but no one spoke… no one could speak. Never before had I experienced a work so beautifully sung and the experience will remain with me as long as my mind endures. Everyone that day knew he had taken part in something incredible, something otherworldly that might never be repeated. Such was and is the power of music.

I have heard it said that magic shows up at every concert but usually goes home disappointed and George Guest, the legendary conductor of the Choir of St. John’s College, Cambridge, noted that those otherworldly moments in music were rare indeed. Nevertheless, in striving for those moments I believe we raise our choirs to an unbelievably high standard and create music  worthy for the temple (if ever we could do such a thing), music that possesses the power to move minds and hearts. Of course this begs the question, How does one do that?

Fr. William Finn, whom I wrote about last week, noted that most conductors who came to him for advice usually wanted nothing more than a few tricks they could take home to their choirs. They rarely desired to learn those things necessary to breathe life into the music. Yes, choirs need to sing on key, to come in together and to cut off together. They should blend their vowels and produce their consonants rhythmically, but a choir might do all of this and still never reach the outer bounds of beauty’s realm. In short, such a choir would utterly fail to communicate. It isn’t enough to merely understand the words, one must needs enter into the words and ultimately into THE WORD. Quite frankly, this is a herculean task that requires a lifetime of education. For those of you who have read David Clayton’s The Way of Beauty (which I highly recommend), you will understand when I say that it also requires the gift of grace. Regardless, I do believe it possible to point the budding musician into the Way of Beauty.

First of all, it must be said that the mechanics of beautiful music must be present. The right notes matter, as do a host of other things. Beyond the mechanics, however, especially if I were pressed to give one piece of advice, I would point to the text. The text is paramount. Unfortunately, though, we inhabit a very un-poetic world unable to cope with anything deeper than the merely technical in language, which has crippled our ability to understand and finally to communicate.

I would like to delve more into this topic next week, but I will leave the reader with this very simple example. Below is a video of the Regensburger Domspatzen singing two verses of Adeste fideles, the first verse in Latin and the second in German. Listen specifically to the way in which the words and phrases are shaped as well as the way in which the rhythm moves the text. Is there a deeper understanding we gain of the carol’s meaning through the way in which this choir sings it? How does the way in which it is sung convey that deeper meaning? This is where the true are of the choir master begins.

Fr. William Finn and the Catholic Choral Tradition in America

It is perhaps easy to dismiss the Catholic choral tradition in America as being an inferior art to its elder European counterpart. We certainly don’t have as great a quantity of English choir schools or French monasteries.  Nevertheless, we have had, and quite frankly still have, a number of fine choirs, conductors and organists that I would place on par and even above our European brethren. One such name that behooves mentions is that of Fr. William Joseph Finn of the Paulist Fathers.

Fr. Finn, a Bostonian native, founded the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s in Chicago, and later the Paulist Choristers at St. Paul the Apostle, NYC. His choirs were considered legendary in their time, and under his direction the Chicago choir won first prize in a Paris competition from among almost 100 choirs, for which Finn was awarded the Palms of the French Academy by the French government. His choirs often sang on radio and toured the country and western world at a time when this was almost unheard of.

Sometime after Fr. Finn left Chicago for New York, one of his former choristers and by then brother priests, Fr. O’Malley, took over the reigns of the Paulist Choristers at Old St. Mary’s and conducted them masterfully until 1967. Some have wondered if this formed the story line of the film The Bells of St. Mary’s.

Hearing loss forced Finn to give up the Paulist Choristers in the 1940s, but his influence continued through the numerous books he wrote on music through the years. Quite possibly his great work, The Art of the Choral Conductor is worth a doctoral education on the art of choral training, and the amount of ink he gives to the blending of individual lines and to blending of the choir as a whole is eye (and ear) opening. His later chapter on sight-singing is perhaps the most succinct explanation I have ever read on the process of teaching this art to choristers.

Then again, if you prefer something rather more light hearted, his autobiography, The Flats and Sharps of Five Decades, is a delightful read. My one disappointment after having digested it is that I found very few extant recordings of his choirs. In the book he took such pot shots at world famous ensembles, going so far as to accuse the Westminster Cathedral Choir of always singing flat, that his own choral institutions must have been, or at least should have been, almost other worldly.

Another early work is his Manual of Church Music, which he co-authored while still a seminarian. This book is every bit as foundational and even more in depth than Sir Richard Terry’s Church Music, but has largely been forgotten. It contains a wonderful apologia for the use of men and boys voices within the liturgy, linking it back to levitical priesthood. Of course, this would largely fall on deaf ears today, but one can sense the excitement at the time and the feeling that following Pius X’s motu proprio Church Music had at long last been pointed in the right direction and that days of glory were ahead. In many ways the early liturgical movement was a beautiful time in the life of the Church.

As a final gift, I thought I would leave the listener with a recording of the Paulist Choristers of Chicago performing the Gloria from R. R. Terry’s Mass of St. Gregory at Midnight Mass at Old St. Mary’s in 1964. The choir is under the direction of Fr. O’Malley, but since he was a disciple of Finn, perhaps it will offer us something similar to what one might have heard under the later’s baton.  Enjoy!

St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney Australia

I recently experienced the thrill of the hunt when I stumbled upon the Facebook page of St. Mary’s Cathedral Choir, Sydney, Australia, last Lent. To be fair to myself, I had known about and listened to recordings of this fine choir numerous times over the past and had always considered them to be an exceptional group of singers, but it was a a Facebook recording of the choir singing Bruckner’s Christus factus est as the Gradual on Good Friday that struck deeply into my soul.

I’ve heard and sung the piece on many occasions, but never at that precise moment, the proper moment, in the Good Friday Liturgy. Put there, immediately before the reading of the Passion, it beautifully encapsulated the emptying out of Christ on the Cross, yet because of this contained the seeds of glory that would be Christ’s Name, that Name above all other names. I must admit I watched the video a number of times and never tired of it. I even shared it with some of my choristers. It also led to a deeper search of the choir’s website where I discovered another gem–the choir’s podcast, Staved Off.

If you are interested in the great English Cathedral music tradition (I know, the choir is not from England, but I doubt if most listeners could tell that) and want to know more about its inner workings, please consider listening in. There are about a dozen podcasts in all and topics include things such as music for the holy seasons throughout the year and other events such as weddings, information about the choir’s 200 year history, choral festivals, Gregorian chant, English and Latin hymnody and much more. You will hear great recordings of great music sung by the choir and links are provided to numerous other related items. Thomas Wilson, the director of music, is one of the hosts, so you get the information straight from the horse’s mouth so to speak (no disrespect meant to Mr. Wilson). I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

 

To the Headmaster of Westminster Cathedral Choir School

As many of you are no doubt aware, Westminster Cathedral Choir School (London) recently made the decision to fundamentally alter the boarding status of its choristers, thus jeopardizing the choir’s sole reason for being, to sing the daily praises of God. What follows is a letter I am posting today to the school’s headmaster, Mr. Neil McLaughlan. I would encourage you to do the same, or to email him via office@choirschool.com.

May 7, 2019

Dear Mr. McLaughlan,

On the afternoon of April 15, Catholics the world over learned of the devastating news of a monstrous fire ravaging through the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, seemingly destroying everything in its path. We watched through flames and embers as the roof and spire crumbled, fearing that all (literally) would be lost. The stained glass, the organ, the Crown of Thorns, the bell towers, even the Blessed Sacrament, Himself—we wondered if the fire would take it all and all that it stood for. Only on the following morning did we learn that miraculously Our Lady’s cathedral still stood, her great rose windows still captured the morning sun, her Cavaillé-Coll organ would once again chant the unending praises of God, and that due to the bravering of so many firemen and their chaplain, and undoubtedly due to the prayers of so many offered around the world, the Crown of Thorns and most importantly, the Blessed Sacrament had been saved.

Imagine my sorrow then when I recently learned that Westminster Cathedral Choir School would fundamentally alter its choristers’ boarding arrangements and decrease the choir’s intimate connection to the Cathedral’s life of sacred worship. It seemed that a second tragedy, on par with the fire at Notre Dame, had struck the Church in Europe. No doubt the choir’s standard will remain high, but that is not the choir’s ultimate purpose. Just as Notre Dame was not built to be a tourist attraction, but as a worthy tabernacle for the Divine on earth, so Cardinal Vaughn and Sir Richard Terry founded the Westminster Cathedral Choir to sing the praises of God daily, not merely when convenient. Just as Parisians in the 12th century felt compelled to give the best they had to God, so should the folks of Westminster Cathedral in the 21st century.

As I am sure you are aware, the Westminster Cathedral Choir is every bit as important, beautiful and sublime a gift as Notre Dame Cathedral, only much more fragile. Fires and revolutions have not been able to sweep away such a great edifice. Even in the quiet of the night, she stands as a testament to the glory of God. The cathedral’s choir, on the other hand, must be renewed, rebuilt and restored through an unending round of rehearsals, lessons, Masses and Offices, which simply are not possible without the full boarding of its choristers.

Several years ago, in an email exchange with Colin Mawby, Westminster’s former Master of Music described to me the precarious circumstances of the choir school during the turbulent 1960s. He told me he never knew from day to day if the choir school would survive another year, and at one point even announced that its doors would close. Yet he fought and prayed, much like the firemen at Notre Dame, and by the grace of God saved the institution.

It is true that changing the boarding arrangements of your choristers is not nearly as drastic as closing the choir school entirely, but it would signal the death knell of the choir’s sole raison d’être, the daily singing of the Church’s Opus Dei. Like the great Cathedral of Notre Dame, this daily musical offering belongs not only to the Church in London and the British Isles, but to the universal Church. It is an inspiration to Catholics and many others around the world and it is THE standard of Sacred Music in an increasingly secular world, but most of all, it is an offering of love we owe to the Creator of All. Please be assured of my prayers in this difficult time.

In Jesus and Mary,

Dr. Lucas M. Tappan

Most Pure Heart of Mary Schola Cantorum, founder and director

A Reason to Hope

On Friday last my family and I had the happy pleasure of attending the wedding of the eldest son of some close friends of ours who are part of our local Catholic home school community, and today I thought I would share with readers a few of the impressions I had throughout the evening. I do this simply to offer hope to those who struggle so valiantly each day in their own families and places of work to build up the Church, and who, as a result, are sometimes tempted to despair at a culture that seems hell-bent (I use that phrase purposely) on destroying itself and everyone in it. We need to remember how small the amount of yeast is that is needed to leaven the dough.

Besides the fact that the weather proved a beautiful and sunny 70-something degree day and the trees had just finished coming into leaf, the first thing I noticed was the vast number of children—there were children everywhere. Half the guests at this fairly large wedding had to have been children. I was struck by their numbers. There was a large meadow behind the reception hall and throughout the evening there was forever a group of at least 30 to 40 children running around playing games, and there were no parents hovering around telling them to be careful or to watch out. They were simply having fun and their vitality was palpable.

The second thing I noticed was that all of these children came from their original two parent homes and had fathers and mothers who were actively involved in their lives. They were beautiful (and often large) Catholic families. At the reception I noticed a number of mothers (with babies) talking, often with other high school daughters nearby. The same could be said of the fathers, with their high school sons close at hand. Best of all, I don’t really remember anyone sitting around hooked into technology or constantly checking their social media accounts.

I felt (and continue to feel) blessed to be part of such a group, a group that will undoubtedly provide our next generation of priests, religious and Catholic families, and possibly even spouses for my children.

Lest anyone think the evening was a walk through the daffodils, I should tell you that there was a “Smore’s Bar” complete with open flames and wooden roasting skewers, which any resourceful two-year-old could have gotten, and did get, hold of. Parents, you haven’t lived until you have tried to navigate a crowded room with young children in possession of what looked like wooden knitting needles (only much sharper), melting chocolate (which by this time was all over their hand and my clothes) and fiery marshmallows! It would be better to describe the evening as organized chaos.

The wedding itself was beautifully and reverently celebrated and I hope I can say the music added to the solemnity of the day.

From what I read and hear, this situation is currently being played out in many other small communities throughout our corner of the world—a new springtime of Faith. I don’t pretend that there won’t be difficulties or even persecutions (our Lord promised us both) but I do have reason to hope, and this hope leads to joy, which should be the mark of every Christian.

Strive for Greatness!

I offer the following as a healthy antidote to so much drivel we hear today in the Church coming from people who should know better. Stop trying to remove the cross from Christianity and from our every day lives. Stop trying to make everything easy, and therefore unimportant. Instead, help us and those around us to pick up our cross and follow Christ.

Consequently, if you are church musician, strive for greatness, both for yourself and for your music program. Don’t stoop to the lowest common denominator. Again I say strive for greatness!

  1. Strive for greatness yourself. Do you strive to become a better musician, singer, organist? Do you strive to better manage your tasks? (and I don’t mean trying to get more done).
  2. Ask those around you to strive for greatness. Do you expect greatness from those around you? Do you always push them to greater heights, without pushing them too far? Do you strive to understand them and what you can do to help them achieve greatness? Do you accept constructive criticism from those same people when they push you toward greatness?
  3. Give your musicians quality music to sing and play and ask them to sing and play it well. Each parish will have a different dynamic, but even if you find yourself in a less than ideal situation, insist upon quality in the music. You won’t find yourself striving for greatness if the best you can hope for is mediocre music done well.
  4. Communicate through the music. I assume you work to get the notes right, but do you work to communicate the text? Yes, what we do is ultimately for God and this should always be first and foremost in our minds. Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with edifying our parishioners at the same time.
  5. Ask for feedback from sources you can trust. Not everything you do will be great. Make sure you have some trusted sources who think with the mind of the Church, but who nevertheless will tell you when things aren’t going well or could even be better.
  6. Work to build healthy friendships and to know your musicians outside of your music program. Holiness and love for good music is more caught than taught.
  7. Strive for holiness and real communion. This is the most important of all, but don’t think it is holiness versus excellence. Rather, excellence is part of your holiness. Above all else, spend time with our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament and do all that you do with Him and for Him.

Regarding the last point, I am reminded of the following passage from the book In sinu Jesu: “This is what I want of you: time “wasted,” spend in My presence. Time given to Me for My sake…Do you think that I was always meeting with My disciples to plan events, to organize and strategize and plot our course of action? All of this is the world’s way of achieving what it sees as results. When I walked with My disciples, when I rested with them, our delight was in being together. They remained with Me for Me alone, and I remained with them out of My love for them, just as I remain in the Sacrament of the Altar out of the love I bear My whole Church…” (102)

 

 

The Cantor and Congregational Singing

The sight of the liturgical cantor is a familiar one… some man or woman, usually planted in the sanctuary with raised hand, beckoning us to song. In all fairness to these much maligned people, the vast majority do offer their gifts back to God and others in a spirit of generosity. They simply wish to serve and I am eternally grateful for that. At the same time, I wonder if we haven’t lost sight of the cantor’s original purpose of fostering congregational singing. Is it possible that the cantor is actually at odds with the goal of congregational singing? I wonder.

Regarding the Cantor, we find in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal the following: (104) It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part. Thus, the role of cantor is succinctly summed up in two words, leading and sustaining, but does the cantor succeed in these two roles?

It goes without saying that someone or something must establish the pitch and rhythm of the congregation’s sung prayer, otherwise cacophony would ensue, and the cantor is certainly capable. It is also true that someone or something needs to sustain the congregation’s sung prayer. Again, the cantor is suitable. But is the cantor the best candidate? Here we need to remember that this honor belongs first and foremost to the choir, and cultivating excellent choirs we must. The choir represents all of Heaven (and earth) present at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and a single cantor fails, at least symbolically, to convey this reality. You might well agree, but what about in the absence of a choir? Even in those rare parishes where the highest ideals of liturgical prayer are sought after and practiced, it is unlikely that the choirmaster possesses the ability to convince his choir to sing for multiple Masses 52 Sundays of the year, not to mention Holy Days and ferial days. Not even Westminster Cathedral, the London Oratory or St. John Cantius are capable of producing such a rara avis. There must be an alternative to the choir, and so we are given the cantor.

A well trained cantor is undoubtedly able to communicate pitch and rhythm, at least to a small group of parishioners, and should be able to sustain their singing, but this becomes extremely difficult in all but the smallest churches without the aid of the microphone and here is where I believe the role of the cantor fails. The cantor as we know it within the Ordinary Form wouldn’t be possible without the aid of amplified sound and I am convinced that electronic amplification kills congregational singing. First, it creates the impression that the church is filled with singing, which is rarely the case (if you doubt me, try turning off your sound system in the middle of any hymn and LISTEN). More often than not, the cantor masks the fact that many have stopped singing. Second, which is probably the reason for the first, cantors regularly lead music unsuitable for congregational use, music that is pitched too high, requires too wide a range and demands what is rhythmically impossible (this is apart from questions regarding theological soundness and principles of beauty). Third, even when suitable music has been chosen, the nature of amplified sound overpowers even the greatest amount of congregational participation. No matter how gustily the congregation sings, the cantor can and usually will sing louder. Lastly, amplification rids us of the necessity to build acoustically live and resonant churches.

This last point reminds me of a certain stairwell in my college’s library that amplified even the smallest whisper into a force of nature. One day at lunch it came out around the table that all of us seated there (I believe I was the only music student at the table) loved to sing in that space when we found ourselves alone in it because the sound seemed to come alive. Resonant churches provide that same impetus to many faithful who otherwise feel exposed and vulnerable singing in dry spaces where their individual voices and mistakes are readily noticed, especially by themselves. A live acoustic is somewhat like grace, it takes the earnest, but often modest, vocal offering of the Christian and transforms it into something beautiful.

Resonant acoustics aside, this leaves us with two main questions. 1) Does the cantor fulfill its role in the Ordinary Form? and 2) If not, then who, or what, can? For the moment, I want suspend judgment on the first question and tackle the second.

If not, then who, or what? First, we need to remember that congregational singing pre-dates the Second Vatican Council and even the advent of amplified sound. Congregational singing in the Germanic and Slavic nations runs deep and certainly wasn’t predicated on the presence of the cantor.

The pipe organ is the only other living thing that could possibly fill the void left in the absence of a choir. No other instrument on earth can sing as high or low, as loud or soft, or with as much gentleness, passion or majesty as the Sacred Liturgy demands (and all without amplification). If we look at the history of the pipe organ, long before it ever accompanied the congregation it was used to establish pitch and sometimes tempo for the singers. A good organist today can easily end his introduction in such a way that the congregation knows it has come to an end and that the hymn or chant will begin NOW, on THIS pitch, at THIS tempo. As a matter of fact, I have done it many times. The organist should be able to adjust his registration, timbre, tempo and key to fit the congregation’s needs without the unnatural aide of the microphone. To lead and sustain via the organ, coupled with good, singable music, is to place the responsibility for congregational singing in the hands of the congregation. As with anything else in life, if you want someone to succeed, you have to first give him the tools and then step back and let him do it.

Now I can tackle the question of the cantor’s necessity. If the organ/organist is able to lead and sustain congregational singing in a purely natural way (without amplification), is the cantor no longer necessary? In a perfect world every parish would have an organist capable of leading from the organ and all the music used would be known and loved, but that simply isn’t the case. Nevertheless, there are ways we can place the responsibility for congregation singing back in the hands of the congregation while making concessions for a cantor when necessary.

  1. Move your cantor out of the sanctuary and into the organ loft if possible. Before anyone objects that in the older form of the Roman Rite the liturgical cantor would have been both vested AND in the choir/sanctuary, we must remember that the cantor as envisioned by the GIRM is very different from the traditional cantor in the Roman Rite. It is simply too easy for the modern cantor to become the star of the show as opposed to the servant of the liturgy and liturgical song.
  2. Ask your cantor to begin well-known music and then step away from the microphone.
  3. Ask your cantor to lead all new music, but only until the congregation is capable of sustaining it themselves. If the congregation isn’t able to do so after a reasonable amount of time, perhaps the music you’ve chosen is simply not suitable.
  4. Ask your cantor to sing the proper antiphons. Since these change weekly, it can be difficult for your congregation to learn all but the simplest settings of them.
  5. Do NOT, I repeat do NOT!!! ask a cantor to sing at the same time as the choir.
  6. Find smaller groups of musicians, perhaps two strong singers, to lead the music, without microphones, in the absence of your choir.

We need to be honest and ask if what we are doing supports or hinders our sung prayer. Such honesty can be brutal, but ultimately life giving.