Our Chant, Episode 3: The Role of the Cantor

Our chant – like our liturgy – is at once insanely complicated and gloriously simple.  It is easy to learn the basics of chant, and even the harder melodies can be sung by anyone in the congregation, IF they have someone to follow who knows the chant and how to apply it in practice.

Time and again, I come back to the following observation of the Russian Orthodox musicologist Ivan Garner about the singing in the churches of the prostopinije tradition in Europe:

In all village churches, both Orthodox and Uniate, congregational singing of all the services in their entirety has been practiced exclusively, including the hymns of the “proper,”  utilizing the full range of tones and melodies…  The cantors – the more experienced chanters among the parishioners – who stood on the kliros, began the chanting.  As soon as those present recognized the melody, the whole church sang: they sang all the stichera, all the troparia, all the irmoi – in a word, everything that the typikon indicated was to be sung.  They sang in unison, and whoever was able added a parallel melody line or improvised a bass line.  The impression produced was one of extraordinary power.  But the main thing was that those present were not passive listeners, they were not “the public,” but were aware that they themselves assisted at the performance of the divine services.

This is an excellent place to start, and you can read more in the article What is a cantor?  on the MCI website.  But for purposes of this article, I would like to talk more specifically about what our Church and our chant need today from its cantors: I believe it needs cantors who are learned, perceptive, and willing to share what they have.

The learned cantor

Our chant – like our liturgy – is at once insanely complicated and gloriously simple.  It is easy to learn the basics of chant, and even the harder melodies can be sung by anyone in the congregation, IF they have someone to follow who knows the chant and how to apply it in practice. And therein lies the complexity.

We live in a time and place where few people sing naturally, and where our divine services are held a few times a week. So it takes conscious, conscientious study to master our patterns of worship and singing. 

If you want to become a learned cantor:

  • Really listen to the singing of experienced cantors and clergy, both in your home parish and everywhere you go.
  • Find out more about the history of our chant and liturgy.
  • Learn all our chant melodies and how to sing them; listen and practice until you know them by heart – and can sing them in church.

The real test of mastery will be the ability, when given a book for one of our services by anyone who comes to you, to be able to explain what the service is, and why we celebrate it; to demonstrate the singing, in a way that can touch the heart of your hearer; and to teach anyone by example how to sing it well.

The watchful cantor

As we will see in later episodes, our plain chant is structured in a way that makes it easy for a congregation to sing, if they have good leadership.  And one of the essential characteristics of a good leader is that he or she pays attention to what is going on:

  • Before the service: is everything prepared and practiced? Does the congregation have what they need for worship? Do I know what I need to do to start the singing at each point?
  • During the service: does the music match what we are doing, in tempo and style? Are people singing well, or do they need more guidance? Are we in step with the clergy? Am I actually praying, or just going through the motions? What can I do right now to make sure all is done in good order, to the glory of God?
  • After the service: is there something I need to review orpractice? Is there something I need to teach the members of the congregation, or someone I can invite to the cantor stand – perhaps as my eventual replacement?

Some of this “situational awareness” comes from practice, but I can also recommend an ancient Christian practice particularly to cantors: keeping vigil. Spend time, starting with a few minutes, every day, in quiet before God. Learn to calm your passionate mind and listen for the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Glorify God and ask him to show you what you need to see, when you need to see it.

The generous cantor

Finally, an entire army of learned, perceptive cantors will not do what Christ asks of us unless these cantors are also willing to share what God has given them in study and prayer:

  • sharing your time: being truly faithful to your commitments, in church and out – being reliable and on task.
  • sharing your vocation: being open to forming new cantors who will one day take their turn leading the singing (perhaps so you can harmonize!)
  • sharing your heart: showing kindness and compassion, even in difficult circumstances, or toward people you might otherwise dismiss.  It is often in those people we most need to see the face of Christ.

As many of the saints have said, none of us really knows the struggles of those around us. And yet the times when people come to church – especially for baptisms, weddings or funerals, or when they return after a long absence – may be absolutely crucial in determining whether they see the beauty of the kingdom of God in the people and worship they encounter, or if they experience disorder, contempt, and thoughtlessness. We need to love all those God puts in our path, because our aim is for all of us to one day feast together in the Kingdom of heaven.

In future episodes, I will be looking at much more concrete examples of how our chant “works” in serving our worship. But I would invite you to comment here about your view of the cantor’s vocation, and how we can make it a more effective sign of the truth, goodness, and beauty with which God desires to bless the world.




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