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Frequently Asked Questions
It is important to note that any questions regarding specifics of liturgical practicefor cantors are tricky to address in a general bookfor all cantors in every parish across the country. Your parish practice should always be the first concern, and no cantor should be unilaterally making any of these decisions on his or her own. Check with your music director/minister and, if necessary, the pastor, who will very likely have a good sense of the prevailing dynamic of the parish staffand ministers.
However, these are important questions asked by many cantors, and they deserve to be addressed with some perspective and clarity.
“The Liturgy of the Word is to be celebrated in such a way as to promote meditation, and so any sort of haste that hinders recollection must clearly be avoided. During the Liturgy of the Word, it is also appropriate to include brief periods of silence, accommodated to the gathered assembly, in which, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, the word of God may be grasped by the heart and a response through prayer may be prepared.”
—General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #56
1. How long should I wait to sing the psalm after the First Reading?
The Responsorial Psalm is part of the Liturgy of the Word and represents a proclamation of scripture all on its own and not simply as a “response” to the First Reading. There should be enough time between the First Reading and the Responsorial Psalm (as well as between the Responsorial Psalm and the Second Reading, and the Second Reading and the Gospel Acclamation) for the assembly to breathe a bit and take in what they have just heard.1 For some parishes, up to a full minute or more is a comfortable space for quiet contemplation; for others, more than a few moments becomes uncomfortable and unproductive.
Parishes with large complements of families with small children will have a level of ambient noise such that any kind of true silence in a Sunday liturgy will be all but impossible; others, with small gatherings of mostly adults, may find prayerful quiet to be a very life-giving part of their communal worship. Consult with your colleagues in ministry, gauge the energy of the room, and read the silence accordingly.
“After the first reading comes the responsorial Psalm, which is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God . . . the psalmist, or the cantor of the Psalm, sings the verses of the Psalm from the ambo or another suitable place.”
—General Instruction of the Roman Missal\ #61
2. Do I have to walk all the way to the ambo to sing the psalm? Wouldn’t it be easier to just sing it from the cantor stand?
Easier? Of course. However, as discussed earlier in this book, the Responsorial Psalm is more than just another “song” in the liturgy; it is a piece of the proclaimed word of God and thus holds a reverence and importance not equaled in the rest of the cantor’s singing. For many years the perception has held that the psalm is merely a “response” to the first reading; singing the psalm from the same place as the other cantor’s music only reinforces this misperception. (The psalm chosen for each Sunday in the liturgical year does indeed normally reflect on and respond to the content of the First Reading, but it is far more than that.) Of course, in some worship spaces concerns such as sightlines and sound delay make the ambo an impractical place to sing from; in these situations, the cantor’s regular song leader location may be the best place from which to lead the psalm.2
Here’s a good example of how to approach the ambo. Usually, the cantor will have to move from one side of the sanctuary to the other, thus crossing in front of the altar. As noted in question #1, a period of silence follows the First Reading, before the psalm is sung. The cantor should be a model of this prayerful silence. When it is time, the cantor stands, and walks in a reverent pace to the altar. The cantor faces the altar, and makes a profound bow and then moves to the ambo.
It is good practice for the cantor to either sing the psalm from the hymnal (the choir versions usually contain the musical notation for the verses); however, if the music is from another source (for example, a spi- ral-bound collection of psalms), it is best to put the music in a binder. This will be much more dignified for public worship.
The cantor should also be conscious of what kind of shoes to wear so not to create distractions when walking from one location to another. Avoid wearing shoes that might squeak when walking; that have smooth bottoms, so not to slip; or shoes with harder bottoms, thus creating a “clopping” sound on the floor. Soft flats or loafers are usually a safe choice. Clothing should also be modest. Some parishes require cantors (and choir members) to wear an alb or choir robe.
3. When should I receive Holy Communion ?
The logistics of music ministry during the Communion Rite often make it difficult to discern the most appropriate time for the cantor or other music ministers to receive Holy Communion. If the cantor receives first, before the Communion Song or Chant, there can be a long lag time between the priest’s reception of Holy Communion (during which, according to the GIRM, #86, the Communion Song or Chant should already have started) and the availability of a communion minister to distribute Holy Communion to the cantor. If the cantor receives at the end of the distribution of Holy Communion, it is important that those who distribute Holy Communion wait until the Communion Song or Chant has ended and make sure the music ministers have the opportunity for the reception of Holy Communion. Specific guidelines from the pastoral staff are important here! In any case, the music ministers are still members of the gathered assembly, albeit members called forth to serve a particular function, so it is important that they be offered the same opportunity to receive the Eucharist as everyone else.3
“A person who has already received the Most Holy Eucharist can receive it a second time on the same day only [outside the danger of death] within the Eucharistic Celebration in which he or she participates.”
—Canon Law, #917
4. If lam cantorfor more than one liturgy on a Sunday, may I receive Holy Communion at both liturgies?
Liturgical ministers who have served during one Mass and have received Holy Communion may receive Holy Communion again, if they serve during a second Mass; however, the liturgical minister is only allowed to receive twice. If they happen to serve during a third Mass, they may not receive Holy Communion a third time.
“In the dioceses of the United States of America, [the faithful] should kneel beginning after the singing or recitation of the Sanctus until after the Amen of the Eucharistic Prayer, except when prevented on occasion by reasons of health, lack of space, the large number of people present, or some other good reason. Those who do not kneel ought to make a profound bow when the priest genuflects after the consecration. The faithful kneel after the Agnus Dei unless the Diocesan Bishop determines otherwise.”
—General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #43
5. If the assembly kneels during the Eucharistic Prayer, should I kneel or stand throughout the prayer?
It is probably best for the music director/minister to consult with the pastor and then communicate best practice to the cantors. However, the liturgical documents are very clear regarding proper postures for the faithful at various moments in the liturgy.
However, it may make pastoral sense for the cantor to remain standing during the entire Eucharistic Prayer in order to be less distracting to the assembly. Remember that in an ideal situation, wherein the assembly is familiar with and holds true ownership of the acclamations sung during the Eucharistic Prayer, you will not be needed to lead the singing at all and can simply stand or kneel with the assembly and sing from your (unamplified) place. When you are needed to bolster and support the singing, the important thing is that whatever you do be as unobtrusive as possible, so as not to draw focus away from the most important part of the rite. What this means specifically for you as a cantor will depend on many factors: the architecture of your worship space (is the place where you stand to sing far enough from the place you would kneel that youd need to do significant and visible walking to get there?) will have a lot to do with it, as will your own physical ability to kneel and stand easily and unobtrusively from your place.
6. What is the proper way to announce music during the liturgy ?
The primary concern with music announcements is that they are clear and audible. Most often a good and concise announcement of a song, chant, or hymn will go something like this: “Please join in singing num-ber 526 from your hymnal [or name of music resource], ‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name.’ Number five-two-six.”
If possible, use fewer words (or preferably none at all) to announce the psalm, so that it does not lose its identity within the Liturgy of the Word and the flow of the readings is not disrupted. Many psalm responses are brief and simple enough that assemblies can be formed over time to sing them completely from memory. Assemblies who use psalmody from weekly or periodical worship aids quickly discover that the words are there, immediately below the First Reading. If it is necessary to announce the printed location of the psalm, try to do so with as few words as possible (for example, “In the hymnal [or name of other music resource], number 35”).
It is best to avoid the following announcements:
“Welcome to our liturgy.” Most or all of those gathered are pre-sumably in their own home parish. A “welcome” such as this con-veys a sense that the parish is our space (meaning the ministers), and we graciously welcome them to join us there. On major holy days or other special occasions, a friendly “We welcome all who are visiting us today, or any college students returning for the sum-mer” better conveys a sense of welcome that is on behalf of the assembly, not directed toward them.
Similarly, “Please join me in singing our Entrance Song . . . This phrasing, however subtly, says that yaw are doing the singing, and they are invited to sing with you, rather than with one another. “Let us join together in singing” or some variant is more inclusive and inviting.
“Our Communion Song is number 55— MMMMrph.” Our voices have a natural tendency to drop in pitch—and volume—at the end of our sentences. In normal speech this is not a problem, but when announcing a three-digit number, the final digit is just as important as the first, and it must be heard clearly. Most of us must make a truly concerted effort to keep the end of the numbers as clear as the beginning. This is another reason it is helpful to state the number twice, both as a single number (557 seven) and again as three distinct digits (five, five, seven).
“On this glorious spring morning, with the daffodils blooming and the sun shining in the sky, let us join together in singing a joyful hymn to the God who loves us so much and has given us the gift of this beautiful day! Please turn in your hymnals to one of my personal favorite hymns, number . . . While it is tremen-dously important for you to be inviting and warm in your presen-tation to the assembly, you will convey most of this through presence and gesture, not through the speaking of more words. However, this example uses too many words and draws too much attention to the one doing the announcing (you, the cantor).
7. My parish has a hymn board/worship aid. Do I still need to announce hymns?
As with any procedural element you should discuss this with your music and pastoral staff. Some assemblies are accustomed enough to singing that they do not need a specific invitation to know it is time for them to sing and to participate accordingly; others require a more direct invita-tion. An announcement can be a helpful reminder and a nice gentle “nudge” in the direction of participation; after a few years of consistent formation, the assembly may no longer need even that much. Alternatively, part of the cantor’s opening greeting could include an invitation like “The numbers for all of today’s music can be found on the hymn board4 above the organ (or in the worship aid); please join in singing together.”
8. When we have a new song, should I teach it to the assembly before Mass? If so, how do I do this?
As with everything, this will depend on your parish and its style and makeup; it will also depend on where your assembly is on the singing/ not-singing continuum. When a parish is struggling with a mentality of “The cantor ‘does’ the music; I am not a singer, so I should just listen,” frequent and even weekly rehearsals with the congregation not only serve to increase their comfort with the music, but they also reinforce the concept that the song belongs to the people, and that it is important to the liturgy that they sing and sing with strength and confidence. On the other hand, strong singing parishes with solid repertoires and good musical leadership will find that they can often pick up a song within a verse or so simply by following the cantor or choir, or a psalm refrain on a single hearing.
As for the “how” of teaching music to an assembly, the best way is often simply the process of “lining out” a new piece of music, where the cantor sings one phrase of the music at a time and invites the assembly to sing it back.5 If a piece is simple enough, an entire refrain could be taught at once, but one must be careful to gauge both the assembly’s learning curve and attention span: too difficult, and they can get frustrated and stop trying; too much or too long, and they can lose interest in the pro-cess. As always, read your room well. Always remember to be welcoming, and encourage the assembly with positive words and facial expressions.
Remember that before a cantor can teach the assembly a new song, the cantor first must be confident themselves with new music. If they aren’t, it will be difficult for the assembly to follow, and become easily discouraged.
9. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to do. My gestures are nice and clear, I’m secure on my music, prayerfully engaged in what I’m singing, and genuinely trying to connect with the assembly, but sometimes (or all the time!) they just don’t seem to be participating. What am I doing wrong?
While we must never cease our process of self-examination or assume that there is nothing we could do to make our ministry more effective, the truth is that of course there are many factors involved in whether an assembly on a particular day is able to join fully in singing the liturgy. A parish where singing is lackadaisical and unenthusiastic may take upward of five years of consistent and unflagging encouragement at all liturgies before it can call itself a strong and singing parish, and it is almost inevitable that even with strong leadership the process will have its moments of ebb and flow. And even in parishes that already sing with strength, some days it just does not happen as well as we would like: the weather is bad, the parish school and religious education pro-grams have a three-day weekend, the pastor has a cold. Many things can have a negative effect on the singing on a particular day. Always remember that parish liturgy is not just an hour a week, it is an ongoing process, and that ultimately, it is about relationship—our relationships with each other as well as with the God we are there to serve.
10. What should I do differently at weddings and funerals?
In theory, except for any music required for rite-specific moments in these special liturgies, you should not need to do anything differently at all. In practice, however, these liturgies are all too often fraught with social and familial baggage and expectations that require us not only to be even more sensitive than usual but also to function in different roles. At weddings, the social expectation is often that the person who sings is there to be a soloist, providing beautiful and relevant music to enter-tain and enrich a particular life event. At funerals, families are often not emotionally and spiritually in a place where they can find a voice to sing with, especially if sung liturgy has not been a major part of their past experience of Church. Both events may often serve assemblies who may not be regular churchgoers, or who come from different parishes or parts of the country or world, and who may not be formed for “full, active, and conscious participation.”6 On the other hand, funerals and weddings are key moments in people s lives that bring even those who have been away from the Church back for at least this one emotionally charged moment. The opportunity to both welcome and catechize should not be missed! Never abandon your skills of song-leading on the premise that people never sing at weddings. Don’t be pushy, but con-tinue to be inviting. Some assemblies may surprise you!
In addition to weddings and funerals, you may also be asked to cantor for other sacramental rites (such as Baptism and Confirmation), the Liturgy of the Hours, Orders of Blessing, devotional services (espe-cially eucharistic worship outside Mass), and other prayer services. While the rites may seem similar to parts of the Mass (especially the Liturgy of the Word), there are different elements and expectations. Whenever doing something new or unfamiliar make sure you meet with your music director/minister to go over the ritual in detail—this way you know exactly what to expect and you aren’t “thrown for a loop” during the liturgy.
Psalm 71:3—4a, 5—6ab, 16-17
and till the present I proclaim your wondrous deeds.
R. My mouth shall befilled with your praise, and I will sing your glory!
1. GIRM, #56.
2. GIRM, #61: “After the first reading comes the responsorial Psalm, which is an inte-gral part of the Liturgy of the Word and holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God . . . the psalmist, or the cantor of the Psalm, sings the verses of the Psalm from the ambo or another suitable place.”
3. GIRM, #86.
4. Of course, it goes without saying that if your parish is dependent on hymn boards or other large visual resources for assembly participation, these resources must be large and placed so that the entire assembly can see it!
5. Diana Kodner, in her Handbook for Cantors, has an excellent section on this process.
6. CSL, #14.