Improving your skills as a cantor

If you are already a cantor, you have accepted a vital office in our church's worship. At one time, cantors were formed in a three- or four-year school, after a long apprenticeship, and led the church's singing at a full cycle of liturgical services (including Vespers and Matins); they taught catechism to children, and could explain liturgy and plain chant to adults.

Changes in our church have made it harder to develop a complete set of skills as a cantor. Even many cantors who have served for decades do not know how to lead the singing at important services such as Vespers; thorough knowledge of our services is rare, and musical education in general is not what is was forty years ago. Often, individuals who were asked to serve as cantors on an emergency basis stepped into this role with little formal training. So virtually any cantor nowadays can do something to improve his or her skills as a cantor. This article presents some ideas to help current cantors better embrace and carry out the task of leading the prayerful singing of our services.

Re-commit yourself to your vocation as a cantor

If you haven't already done so, review this article on the role of the cantor. God has put you in a position of trust and service in His Church. Embrace that role, and make a conscious decision to do whatever is necessary to perform it well.

If you aren't currently praying every day, start. We hope to published some recommendations on fostering a personal prayer life; in the meantime, listen to the recordings of the Father John Petro's 2015 retreat (Liturgy, Spirituality, and Chant) on the Archived courses page. Get a prayer book and use it. Make time for God. Prayer in particular for your pastor and your parish.

Attend the Liturgy at a different parish for a change of pace, and use that time to thank God for his gifts. Get to know other cantors, and include them in your prayers.

Pay attention

Make sure that you are always PRAYING our services, not just singing notes or syllables. Do all that you can to ensure that our worship is organized, spiritual, beautiful, and has that "flow" or "spirit" that makes it a special joy for Christians to pray together. Take the time to prepare properly for services, and be sure to thank God afterward - as well as thanking your fellow cantors. Practicing good cantor etiquette makes life easier for everyone at the cantor stand.

Be open to learning

Take advantage of the resources that are available to learn about our Church's liturgy and chant. After the pastor, the cantor should be one of the most knowledgeable people in the parish on these subjects - not for his or her own vanity, but to make sure that our Church's traditions lead to prayer and commitment to the Gospel of Christ. Follow your diocesan newspaper, parish bulleitin, and other helps to learning about and understanding our traditions.

If you need a mentor, find an experienced cantor to learn from. If there are other cantors who are interested in learning from you, make the time to help them learn what you know, and realize that they may have knowledge to share with you. You can also investigate the Resources page of the Cantor Institute website.

Find a voice teacher

Vocal skill and musicianship is particularly important; the cantor may not be a soloist, but most cantors can use some voice training to lend power, clarity, and precision to their singing. Most cities and towns have options for inexpensive vocal instruction; see this article for cantors, and this letter that you can give to a prospective voice teacher.

Make use of the MCI Online program

Cantor Institute courses (online and in-person) are not just for new cantors; you can use them to enhance your understanding of liturgy, solidify your knowledge of plain chant, and practice leadership techniques. Take a look at the classes in the Cantor education roadmap; most are intended for both new and current cantors. (Where possible, we will also provide options for cantors to "test" out of a class - if they can demonstrate the same mastery of material we expect from new cantor students!)

Most of the instructional material from these classes will also be posted on the Metrolitan Cantor Institute website. By taking the actual online courses, you will gain access to:

For more information, see The Metropolitan Cantor Institute Program.

Consider cantor certification

A century ago, chant schools in Europe trained some of our finest cantors. But even where chant education programs were held in this country, it was the rare cantor who could lead all the parish services of the Byzantine Rite using the complete cycle of plain chant. In 2012-2013, cantors of the the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh met to agree on a basic set of knowledge, repertoire and skills that a cantor ought to possess in order to be considered fully qualified. These make up our cantor certification standard.

In the process of completing the full cycle of Cantor Institute classes, you will acquire this set of knowledge and skills, and demonstrate your mastery of it. Then, by leading a full celebration of the Divine Liturgy in the presence of two experienced cantors, you will have the opportunity to demonstrate that you really can properly lead the liturgical singing in our church.

Cantor certification is a means to an end: it is an aknowledgement by Church's cantor school and your bishop that you have what is takes to lead the liturgical singing in any parish in our church.

If you have more ideas:

Please send them to Deacon Jeffrey Mierzejewski (mci@archpitt.org, or (412) 735-1676).