Chant Leadership for Cantors

Leading the singing of a congregation is an art and a skill. Preparation is not enough; you need to know how to effectively lead the plain chant. This article will show you how.

Your congregation already knows the plain chant

Consider this quote from the Orthodox musicologist Ivan Gardner, who visited our churches in Europe between the two World Wars:

The cantors – the more experienced chanters among the parishioners – who stood on the kleros, 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.

Our plain chant has about eighty melodies that are adapted in stylized, traditional ways to all the different texts we sing in church. Every parishioner who has spent time singing plain chant has learned a good deal about how the chant "works" - if they are singing THIS note, then the next note will be either THAT one or THIS OTHER ONE, and so on. The job of the cantor is to start the singing, lead the people through melodies they have already (generally) learned, and adjust the singing to the needs of the service.

To sing well, the faithful need a confident guide at each point in the service where there is a choice about how to sing. The rest they can do themselves.

(It is true that sometimes you will work with a congregation that does NOT know the chant, or is learning a new melody. In that case, the cantor's job is to demonstrate how the chant ought to be sung, so they can learn to sing it themselves.)

Your singing should sound "inevitable"

Everyone in church who knows the chant has an internalized idea of how the music should sound, and where it will go next.

Example: When chanting a psalm to the usual psalm tone, the faithful know that the pitch will go up from do to re at the start of a line; so at the beginning of every new line, they will wait an instant to see if this is the place to go upwards. Then they will sing on re until near the end; since there may be several different ways to sing the cadence, they will (perhaps unconsciously) be WAITING for you to sing the drop down to ti that signals the return to do.

As a cantor, you guide the chant by using your voice to show where the melody goes next, whether the singing should speed up or slow down, and when they should pay special attention to what you are asking them to do. The people in your parish are listening for two things:

Everything else in church singing is done by the congregation. Your task is to sing in such a way that they immediately know how to keep the music of prayer going, based on where they are in the chant and the note they just sang.

To do this, you must learn the melodies precisely, including their variations, and practice them until your internal "model" of the music is good: in other words, so you can sing each one expressively and well, passing easily from one phrase to the next, and knowing instinctively how the chant changes for a longer or shorter text.

Your singing should sound confident

A nervous or uncertain cantor will force the congregation to make their own decisions about how to sing - which usually results in a poorer, more disorganized sound. You need to sing confidently even if you don't feel entirely sure of yourself - as long as you know the music and can sing it properly, the people will follow.

Learn as much repertoire as you can, even music your parish does not use (yet). Many of the prostopinije melodies are related, and build on one another; the more chant you know, the more you can lead well. If you don't know a particular melody, either practice it until you can sing it clearly and confidently, or work with your pastor or other cantors to select an alternative.

Choosing a pitch

In much of the service, your pitch will be set by the priest or deacon: see Pitch matching. But when it comes to starting a new hymn or portion of the service, you have the option of selecting a new pitch, one that works well for both you and the congregation. Always listen for signs that the faithful may be singing too high or low in their range; over time, you will develop a good sense of what pitches to use.

(Some hymns go very much above or below the note on which they start; as cantor, part of your job is to remember this and choose a starting pitch accordingly. Make notes in your books if that helps!)

Doing the singing

The basics of singing are covered in this article. Remember to sing THROUGH each phrase, preferably on one breath. Watch your breathing and articulation. Pay special attention to the passage from one phrase to the next. When concluding a hymn, or a group of hymns using the same melody, slow down very slightly, hold the last note, and let the sound die out.

It is NOT always necessary or appropriate to sing louder than the congregation! If the people are singing confidently, let them carry the music. Your voice only needs to be heard when:

Some congregations will not sing unless they hear the cantor; this sometimes indicates that the people don't trust their own knowledge of the chant, or are unsure where the cantor will lead them this time. Your goal as a cantor ought to be to lead as little as possible while still achieving a glorious congregational sound.

Change key as little as possible

Ideally, the entire service should be sung on a single, well-chosen tonic pitch.

If this is not possible, avoid frequent key changes, and any change to the tonic pitch in the middle of a hymn, even if it has several verses. If you find you must make such a change, start singing a second early on the new pitch, in a slightly louder (and perhaps more strident) voice; this "command tone" doesn't have to be overbearing, but will cue the congregation that a change is coming.

Adjust tempo as needed

The singing in church should take the amount of time it requires – no more, no less. The chant should be:

Use your knowledge of the service, your sense of the prayer of the liturgy, and your eyes and ears to tell you if the tempo is correct. In general, our church singing tends to be too slow rather than too quick. Pay special attention during processions, or other parts of the service where the singing is supposed to "cover" a liturgical action; it may be necessary to change tempo on the last verse or repetition of a hymn to exactly match what is happening in the sanctuary or nave.

You change tempo the same way you change the tonic pitch: by getting out in front of the congregation's singing, if only by half a second, and using a "command voice" (slightly louder and more intense) to get the people's attention as you demonstrate the new tempo.

Working with other cantors

If you are blessed with other cantors, you should use them to improve the overall sound of your parish's singing. This is one of the most important aspects of cantorial etiquette.

If you are the cantor

If you are leading the singing at a particular service, confer in advance with any cantors who will join you at the cantor stand. If you want any of them to lead a particular part of the service, or serve as a reader, make this clear well before the service starts. If possible, encourage them to sing along, or even harmonize if they are able. But know your own limitations: if, for example, you have problems ignoring other singers' pitch, do not let someone else stand so close or in a location that will distract you.

Sometimes it may he helpful to coordinate with the other cantor(s) during the service as well. You can make eye contact, or raise a hand or a few fingers to gain the attention of other cantors, signal a change to volume or tempo, or beat time to show how the chant is to move.

Avoid the temptation, however, to select cantors to sing "on the fly"; this sort of passing the chant around during a service can raise problems for the congregation who is trying to follow a particular voice. And if you are the cantor, do not try to harmonize; your job is to sing the melody at all times.

If you are an assisting cantor

If you are at the cantor stand but not leading the service, defer in all things to the cantor who is. Avoid doing anything to distract him or her; for example, do not stand immediately behind the cantor or sing into his or her ear. Check with the cantor before harmonizing.

In some circumstances, it may be appropriate for assisting cantors to sing from within the congregation (for example, if new music is being presented), or lead one side of the church in antiphonal singing. Make it clear from the sound of your voice whether you are singing melody (and expect to be followed) or harmony, and if the congregation can sing without your direction, consider backing off until they need you.

Make the chant a prayer

Our liturgical singing is a prayer, and should not only sound like one, but be one. Avoid anything that would distract the congregation from attention to God; pay attention to the texts you are presenting, and sing their meaning from the heart.

One way to leave more space for prayer is to sing antiphonally - that is, with the congregation divided into two groups (left and right side, or men and women). This is especially effective when hymns like feast-day stichera at Vespers will be repeated. In antiphonal singing, half of the congregation listens while the other half sings; both are part of the prayer.

Good antiphonal singing usually requires an appropriate leader for each group; if the singing is divided by sides of the church, then one cantor should be heard on each side, and if between men and women, then one man's voice and one woman's voice should be leading. The traditional church layout with two cantor stands at the front of the church, one at each side, makes this relatively easy. When there are two cantor stands, the one on the right (from the congregation's point of view) sings first.

Review each service afterward

After the service is concluded, spend a few minutes reviewing it mentally; make a note of any changes you should make next time. You can occasionally record the singing to get a better sense of what works well and what needs improvement.

No book is perfect, but they are necessary

Our church has a tradition of singing plain chant from books without music, just the words of the liturgical hymns, but this requires a profound level of knowledge and skill with the chant. So books with printed music are a practical necessity.

But whether books have music or not, they are (like anything) imperfect. Unless there is an obvious error, sing the music and text that is before the congregation; never try to "wing it" or update texts or music "on the fly." Use whatever is in front of the people when you lead them in singing.

Dealing with mistakes

Learning to deal with our own mistakes is a part of cantoring. If you falter in the middle of a hymn, pick yourself up as quickly as possible and continue singing as well as you are able. It is hardly ever appropriate to start over from the beginning, unless you make a major mistake at the very start of a chant. Don't interrupt your leading with an apology; simply continue with the service.

If anyone singing under your direction makes a mistake, never criticize them during or immediately after a service (though you might get their attention and either gesture for them to simply listen, or pay attention to how you are singing). If there is a need to deal with a problem, do it with charity, thoughtfulness - and outside of the sacred space.

Choice of melodies: repetition and growth

One of your jobs as a cantor (perhaps in coordination with others or with your pastor) is to choose the melody to be used for chants such as the Cherubic Hymn. Here, repetition is valuable in making the congregation feel "at home;" furthermore, you should strive to sing a particular version the same way each time, to foster familiarity.

But it is also important to help your parish grow in their knowledge of and facility with plain chant, by occasionally teaching new melodies. This should be done deliberately, and announced before the service, at a parish meeting or in the parish bulletin. A new melody should be sung for several weeks (perhaps as many as six or eight) until it is well known to the people, including those who attend irregularly. If there are several cantors in the parish, practice new music with them before using it in church, so that a single unified reading of the melody is taught and learned.

Become a teacher

No cantor serves forever, and every cantor should look for a worthy successor (perhaps more than one) to whom he or she can teach our traditional chant, how to sing it and how to lead it. Make a conscious effort to seek out those in the congregation who might have the skill and perseverance to make a good cantor.

In turn, cantors should honor those who taught them the chant, and show high regard for the vocation of the cantor. This is a vital responsibility in our church, and often a thankless one. Find ways to support other cantors, and our church singing and traditions.