Our church’s spiritual inheritance of liturgical singing depends on two things: a congregation willing and able to sing, and a cantor willing and able to lead. In this article, we will take a look at both parts of this equation. Our particular tradition of prayer is to take part in our liturgical services and the most basic way is by singing.
It is true that Americans sing much less than we used to. But almost anyone can sing, and sing well, as long as they:
- desire to do their best.
- listen to those they are singing with.
- pay attention to the words they are singing.
Some readers will probably object, saying singing is hard, and certain voices are less pleasing than others. This may be true, but if our pastors and parishes make room for good singing, provide opportunities for everyone — young and old — to learn good singing, and value and appreciate the sound of the entire congregational praying “with one voice,” the results will amaze even hardened skeptics. Of course, this also depends on good leadership and that means good cantors. Our chant has great beauty, as well as something I like to call “inevitability”: the melodies are made so that singing along is easy. But this assumes that each service has a cantor who:
- knows the service and the plain chant melodies.
- can start the singing at a good pitch and tempo, and indicate changes when necessary.
- lets the people sing without trying to drown them out.
Is it necessary to be able to read music? Not absolutely, though it helps (and the Metropolitan Cantor Institute teaches distance learning courses on learning to read music). But the cantor needs to know the music well enough to lead it convincingly, and start every hymn clearly, succinctly, and appropriately, then get out of the way and let the people sing. The cantor also has a role in teaching the congregation to sing well, but this is secondary to his or her primary role: to be a leader of the congregation at prayer.
A great deal also depends on the relationship between the cantor and congregation. We have to ask of our parishes not only “Does the cantor lead?” but also, “Does the congregation follow and sing?” If you have cantors who lead well, let them know they are appreciated by raising your voice in prayer with them. And in parishes where the singing is not what it could be, work with your pastors, cantors and congregation to improve it, using all the resources that God, our Church, and our plain chant tradition make available. If you have ideas or suggestions for this series, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-735-1676.
Next month: Singing together, and singing in harmony.
Deacon Jeffrey Mierzejewski is the director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute.