Notes from the Cantors’ Meeting of May 22, 2016

All serving cantors of the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh were invited to a meeting on Sunday May 22 at Saints Cyril and Methodius Seminary in Pittsburgh. The meeting was not recorded (to allow for frank discussions) but I did make the following notes to share with cantors who were not able to attend.

What is the singing like in your parish?

“We have two full-time cantors, each with a cantor in training, 2-3 assistant cantors and about 10 trained epistle readers. We have been singing the Our Father in the tone of the week, and the parishioners are now familiar with the samohlasen tones (tone 3 is still challenging).”

“In one of our priest’s parishes, only the A settings are used, and the people would like more variety.  We do have some homeschooling families and would like to offer classes for them.”

“Our priest now covers three parishes, one of which has been without a cantor for some time. But one of the other parishes has had a strong singing tradition, and old old professor always prepared books with music, so our transition to the new book was not hard.”

Is there a time you attended the Liturgy and the singing was the best?

  1. Last liturgy by our previous pastor; very heartfelt
  2. Easter Sunday

What do YOU need to do a better job as cantor in your parish?

  • We’re all awaiting release of new materials that match the green book (Holy Week, etc) – this year people were really happy with the new Holy Week / Annunciation books.
  • Help with pitch matching – especially with priests or deacons are not regulars.  (But  if the priest or deacon are ALL over the place, it may be better for the cantor to just pick a pitch and stick with it.)
  • Guidance setting a good tempo – sometimes our priest sings very fast.
  • Better instructional recordings: sometimes the recording is too fast to master initially. We may need to have set s of recordings, one slower and one at normal speed. Recordings in several different pitch ranges would also be good.
  • Books or instructions for when the bishop makes a visitation

Discussion of what the MCI offers and how the program has developed

Funeral books are not yet available; a class on the Parastas was recorded and put on the MCI website. Recent evening classes were held in Pittsburgh; we may also have regular weekend or evening classes in Youngstown or Johnstown if there is interest.

We need to assess this year’s Holy Week music, and review Christmas and Theophany books. Anyone who has specific suggestions based on this years’ Holy Week / Annunication books should send them to

The MCI online program, including ear training, will be free for the rest of the year.

Other observations from attendees:

  • Music on website should be recorded by a single voice as well as by a choir.
  • When a parish shrinks, the untrained voices are more noticeable. We need ways to counter this and help the people  sing together.
  • Cantors can use training in how to use a microphone when one is present.
  • People really like the paraliturgical hymns at the opening incensation, especially the ones based on the day’s readings. The Marian Hymnal is still widely used; we need a new. comprehensive hymnal.
  • Once music is learned, going to books with text only can help you focus on the words. But the settings need to be predictable; the cantor can’t keep changing how they are sung.
  • We need cantors who are leaders, and the people generally follow – we don’t need soloists.
  • We need cantors who are comfortable with what they are singing.
  • We should start having regular spiritual reflections at classes – perhaps a regular retreat? Discussion: retreat should not be right after Pascha – perhaps September or October. One day is the right length – seminary is a good location.
  • We need ways to get cantors together socially / professionally:including singing together, so we know who the other cantors in our area are.  Perhaps hold an annual moleben and panachida for cantors.
  • We should have a list of serving cantors (though privacy is an issue) and a group of cantors willing to lead singing at important events, priests’ funerals, etc – holding practices in advance.
  • Volunteerism is great, but should we encourage stipends for cantors in parishes that can afford it. Cantors’ work should be acknowledged better as important to parishes.
  •  If the people have words in front of them, those are the words that should be sung

“Ask me anything” (challenge from MCI director Jeffrey Mierzejewski)

  1. Liturgy in our parish is always an hour and a quarter; friends tell me theirs is done in 30 minutes. How is that possible?  (Explanation of “low liturgy” – fortunately this is rare in our church.)
  2. What is happening with parishes that are still not using the green book?  (Answer: some parishes, especially those with elderly or long-serving pastors, take longer to adopt anything new.)
  3. Will there be official Vespers books? (Answer: most of Vespers has already been released, between the green book and the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.  A proposed Vespers text from the Inter-Eparchial Liturgical Commission is with the bishops.
  4. Which way is the wind blowing on Slavonic these days?  (Discussion of combining English and Slavonic. Some cantors commented that they could use help learning correct pronunciation and meaning of words for those occasional circumstances when their pastor or parish wanted something sung in Slavonic.)
  5. Has the MCI given any thought to working with the Office of Religions Education on materials for ECF classes? (Answer: Yes.) In further discussion, it was noted that children can learn sections of the Liturgy, and lead the singing of them.  In one parish, children lead the antiphons and Communion hymns. We should consider teaching liturgy and singing at altar server camps.

As you can see from this summary, the discussion was wide-ranging, and many of the detailed suggestions will be incorporated into Cantor Institute initiatives in the remainder of the year.

Three-day Cantor Workshop in Pittsburgh

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute will hold a 3-day workshop for new cantors at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary in Pittsburgh from July 5-7. This intensive course will introduce beginning cantors to the fundamentals of church singing and chant leadership. The course is also open to bi-ritual clergy who wish to improve their knowledge of our plain chant.

A limited amount of lodging is available at the seminary for those coming from outside the Pittsburgh area. Cost for the course  will be $100, and an additional $125 for those staying overnight. Watch this website for more details, or contact MCI director Jeffrey Mierzejewski at (412) 735-1676 or

Cantor education update

The first two courses in our online cantor education program are up and running, with most of the kinks worked out. The next course will be Introduction to Liturgy sometime this month, followed by Introduction to Church Singing. I think even experienced cantors will find something of value in the latter course, which will cover a lot of ground.

I also hope to integrate the Moodle distance learning software with this website, so that the Courses page will show which courses you have completed.

Other material that should appear within the next week or two:

  • Guidelines for finding (or being) a mentor
  • Using  the Theta Music ear training software

We will be providing music for the Great Fast and Pascha through the home page and blog on this website, so please check in regularly.

First two courses available!

The first two MCI online courses are now available; both can be taken for free:

I hope to have the next course, Introduction to Liturgy, available by the end of the month.

If you look at the Courses page, you will see that most courses are greyed out, meaning they are not yet available. See the roadmap for an idea of what will be in them.

If you have questions, please post them here!

Why a new Cantor Education Program?

In the course of this month, you will be seeing several new articles on this website describing our  new cantor formation program. But first I’d like to take some time to explain why we are creating a new program in the first place.

In brief: we need new cantors (Metropolitan William estimates we could use fifty new cantors right now). We need cantors who are comfortable leading all our services. And we need cantors who don’t just sing the music in front of them, but who show the faithful how to turn it into real prayer.

Traditional Cantor Education

In Europe up until World War II, cantors typically served as village schoolteachers, and studied formally in cantor/teacher schools for several years before receiving certification. Many of these trained cantors came to the United States, and taught cantors to succeed them. Unfortunately, in the years that followed, our liturgical life became narrower, and volunteer cantors (some of whom could not read music) succeeded those with formal training. The singing of services like Vespers and Matins became a lost art.

On the other hand, attempts to start cantor schools in the New World were not always effective; the schools did not have a set curriculum, and were out of reach of many potential cantors due to the distances involved. Even when they had the support of our bishops, cantors might “finish the program” without a firm grasp of the liturgical, musical, and leadership tools required to lead the singing at all the services of the church year.

Enter the Cantor Institute

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute was founded in Pittsburgh in 1997. It taught quite a few new cantors, and equipped more experienced cantors for new challenges and greater responsibilities. But it still faced problems of geography (how many students can get to Pittsburgh every month?) and pedagogy (what do you when the material is too advanced for some students, and too easy for others?).

In 2013, we decided to write a formal set of cantor certification standards, describing the knowledge and skills a cantor must have in order to lead church singing throughout the year. We met with several groups of long-time cantors and made some additions based on their input – but there was general agreement that what was on the list was essential.  A cantor who cannot lead the funeral services, for example, or the hymns of Holy Week, needs to learn them. Put another way: the standards should be such that the material could be taught in 3-4 years, and any cantor who met the standards could practically be parachuted into a parish and land on his or her feet, needing only to learn the particular traditions of that parish.

A Metropolitan Cantor Institute

In January 2014, I was appointed director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute and asked to orient it toward serving all four eparchies of the Byzantine Catholic Church (Pittsburgh, Passaic, Parma, and Phoenix).  It had become clear that much of what we were teaching in Pittsburgh could be taught online; in fact, for several years the MCI sessions were designed with that in mind.  But for the rest, how do you teach someone to sing? and how to do certify that a student can not only sing our chant, but lead the services?

The answer is to use both technology and our collective experience wisely. We will be holding vocal classes throughout all four eparchies, making these classes available in video format, and encouraging cantors to obtain some formal voice training in their own area. (We will provide voice teachers with information about exactly what it is that cantors need to do!) Internet-based tools will allow students to learn pitch matching and accurate singing of intervals. In many cases, we will match up students with more experienced cantors and clergy in their area, who can help them and assist the MCI with assessing their progress. When this is not possible, students will upload recordings of their own singing and receive feedback from MCI instructors.

But no cantor will be certified without an in-person assessment by at least two experienced cantors at an actual parish service, at which the cantor to be be certified shows that he or she knows the liturgy, can sing the chant, and can properly lead the sung prayer of their parish.