Paragraphs 28 through 47 of the US Bishops’ document Sing to the Lord reviews the various ministries within liturgical music. A few days ago, we looked at the role of the choir (SttL 28-33). Today, we consider the psalmist (34-36) as a person distinct from the cantor (37-40). We’ll get to the cantor later.
What is the distinction? SttL 36 reminds us the Psalmist sings the verses of the Psalm after the first reading. Maybe the Gospel Acclamation verse too. That’s all. The person designated as a cantor may serve as the psalmist. Two in one. In my situation, and many others, the choir or ensemble contributes the psalmist from among their number.
The bishops set a bar for the role:
As one who proclaims the Word, the psalmist should be able to proclaim the text of the Psalm with clarity, conviction, and sensitivity to the text, the musical setting, and those who are listening. (35)
Sometimes an otherwise fine singer is unable to deliver on the last two of these three standards of proclamation. It’s something to work on, mainly through prayer and study. But more on that later.
The USCCB is concerned about the place from which the psalm is proclaimed (ambo or “another suitable place“). And clothing (alb or choir robe, but always … clean, presentable, and modest clothing“). Clerical attire (cassock and surplice) not recommended. But not explicitly forbidden.
One thing missing from this legislation or these recommendations is the importance of remote non-musical preparation. A psalmist should take time to prepare the text of the psalm. How?
- A prayerful reading of the entire psalm, and perhaps also the Lectionary readings for the given Sunday.
- This preparation might commence about a week before.
- A bit of study on the text of the psalm, also: the literary genre, the aspects of Israelite culture, and even its use in other Christian settings, especially the Liturgy of the Hours and other Masses.
- I think the music itself may be part of the prayer. I wouldn’t expect every psalmist to memorize every setting every week, but I think a deep familiarity would be part of an effective ministry.