Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Gift of Song: A Cantor's Story

A pastor once asked me what I considered  my primary vocation from God. What did I feel I did best? I think he expected something different than what immediately came to my lips. I did not mention my work as a liturgist, or as a writer or educator. "When I am a cantor," I said, without hesitation. When he looked at me in surprise, I told him that when I am at Mass leading song and proclaiming the psalm, it feels completely right, as if I am doing what God always meant for me to do. Never any question for me.

For those of you who have not heard me, I have to say that if I had a nickel for every time someone told me I had the "voice of an angel" I would be a rich woman. I say this in humility - I try not to take any undue pride in my ability. It is the gift of the Spirit - and the fruit of intentional work and a particular set of circumstances that have allowed me to tap my full vocal potential. I am conscious that when one has such a gift, it comes with a heavy responsibility to give back to God. I have done so in every parish in which I have been a member as well as at diocesan liturgies in two dioceses.

Born appropriately on St. Cecila's day, from early childhood I have been blessed with the gift of music. I had a number of years of formal voice training and experience in church and community choirs since the age of nine. By the time I joined the Catholic Church at age 34, I knew I wanted to be part of the parish choir. Becoming a cantor was a next step. I was lucky to belong to a parish with an experienced music director, among cantors who were well-trained. In the years that followed, I attended the Archdiocese of Chicago cantor school and the NPM cantor school several times. I learned, from listening to and watching the late Michael Hays, a truly extraordinary cantor, to pray the psalm deeply, with dignity, feeling and sensitivity to the prayer of the assembly.

I thought perhaps I would help those who are not part of this ministry to understand what goes into my service as a cantor. Here is my story.

When learning a new song or psalm, I practice not only at church with the other cantors, but at home as well. I try to learn the words and music well enough that by the time I am in front of people I am at ease enough with the technical aspects that I can concentrate on what is important - the song or psalm as the prayer of the people. I also study the meaning of the text and make connections to moments in my life when I knew what i am singing to be true on a deep level. As a cantor, I know the psalms well. They are an important part of my prayer life and the familiarity means I always know what the text offers to me and to the assembly.

As every Mass begins, I take my place at the music stand, greet the assembly and invite them to join the entrance song. I smile, make lots of eye contact and try never to bury my face in the book. This is about making it easy for people to participate, so I pronounce words clearly, make obvious breaths before entrances, start consonants a little early and keep a firm speed and emphatic rhythm. Having occasionally been the victim of song-leaders who stop between lines of music, I try always to make it obvious when the people are to come in on the next line.

The Glory to God is an occasion for energy and joy. Smiling as I intone the introduction, I use my arms in an inviting gesture, and encourage everyone in the room to sing by making deliberate eye contact. My current music minister and I both prefer to keep this great hymn moving at a good steady pace, to accentuate that it is a song of joyful praise.

Before the psalm, I intentionally create a short silence after the first reader sits before taking my place. At the stand, I breathe deeply, center myself, putting myself into the "mood" of the psalm - joy if it is a psalm of praise, penitence if it is a penitential psalm, gratitude for God's mercy, remembering the times when I was the beneficiary of God's help, etc.  I make eye contact with the entire room during the instrumental intonation of the refrain and then intone the refrain with particular attention to making the text a prayer, using my best enunciation, (because there is nothing more frustrating when I am in the assembly as being unable to understand all the words of the refrain.) I then turn the refrain over to the assembly, letting them own it, as I back away from the microphone a bit.

During the verses, I pay particular attention to musical tools that emphasize the meaning of the text - getting softer or louder or adjusting the tempo as the prayer seems to require, empahsizing certain words or phrases. This is largely spontaneous, according to what is in my heart at that moment. The amount of adrenaline and deep involvement in the psalm always leaves me drained for a moment as I sit down. I have poured myself and my faith into leading the prayer of the assembly. It takes a deep breath and a moment to refocus to listen to the second reading.

I watch carefully for the first signs that the presider intends to stand, then walk briskly to the music stand for the Gospel Acclamation. My intonation is meant to set the mood of  expectation for the all-important proclamation of the Gospel. I attempt to launch the people into joyful song, smiling and encouraging them to sing as the Book of the Gospels is brought to the ambo. As I sit for the homily, I often realize that I am very tired. If I have not broken a sweat during the Liturgy of the Word, I have not done my job!

During the Eucharistic Prayer, I focus on the altar and the prayer, eliminating unnecessary movement, so as not to distract, providing firm leadership for the people's acclamations. The communion song is an opportunity to help people respond in gratitude for what they have received. Normally this is a slower, more lyrical song which invites me to slow down and express sincere thanks and a sense of the beauty of the blessing of the Eucharist. The expectation is that the people sing... and many do.

At the end of Mass, I lead the Assembly to go forth singing in joy to proclaim the Gospel in the world - keeping the tempo firm and using lots of eye contact to encourage people to stay and sing.

Normally, by the time I get home after serving as cantor/song-leader, I am pretty exhausted. I have poured my entire self and all my ability into my role without holding anything back. If I do not spend myself for Christ and for the sake of his people, what good is it to have a beautiful voice? The gift is given for a purpose. I find joy in that purpose - and an anchor for the very meaning of my life. When I am too old to do this well, I pray for the patience and wisdom to know how to step down gracefully and to accept that someday, this ministry will no longer be my call. Until then,

“How can I keep from singing Your praise?
How can I ever say enough, how amazing is Your love?
How can I keep from shouting Your name?
I know I am loved by the King and it makes my heart want to sing.”
(Chris Tomlin)

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