Cantors And Their Arms

cantor at STA MassJerry Galipeau asked “Why do cantors at Mass extend their arm/s or hand/s when it is time for the assembly to sing?

From the blogger:

I simply memorize the first few lines of whatever it is that the assembly is supposed to sing, I look out at the assembly, I breathe, and I think by my body language and eyes, that I am giving them the signal to begin.

A good amount of agreement in his combox questioning the practice. I tend to come down on 90% of arm gestures are not needed.

I like Jerry’s emphasis on breathing. As I’ve gotten more comfortable conducting this past year, I’ve come to realize the power of example (even when singers don’t always look for it). My singers and I have spent this past year breathing. And I’ve been amazed that they respond to this. I’ve striven to minimize my conducting gestures. Maybe ninety percent of these are not needed.

All that said, many cantors are comfortable with gestures. And being “up front.” A few parishes ago, there was a choir in the loft, and many cantors complained about “missing” the music with the rest. I asked, “Why do you go down?” I don’t think they thought I was serious that, except for the Psalm, I wouldn’t mind if all “performances” and announcements were from the loft. There was too much of a “tradition” in place, and I wasn’t expending energy to buck it.

I observe many cantors feel awkward about their gestures. If there’s one thing worse than too much arm waving it is unnatural gestures from self-conscious or nervous singers. I told one nervous songleader earlier this year to focus on the music and the eye contact and forget the wave.

I might gently move people in my new parish, however. They’ve already gotten the lingo of “psalmist.” Since we have at least a small choir at every Sunday Mass, at some point that role might devolve a bit further to two or more people.

Any thoughts from the church musicians in the audience?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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One Response to Cantors And Their Arms

  1. Liam says:

    Raised arms tend to be less necessary if there is less antiphonal singing by the congregation in response to a psalmist/cantor/choir where there can be uncertainty about when the congregation is supposed to enter. The greater the variety in this regard, the greater the potential uncertainty.

    The organ offers an additional reinforcement for aural cueing by reserving the use of the pedal ranks for times when the congregation is supposed to sing, and having a gathering note cue on the pedal rank for that moment of intake of breath before singing.

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