Managing A Cantor

I found this thread on the CMAA site which included excellent advice from Liam. Opening the discussion:

I have a cantor I need to dismiss from cantoring. Her voice blends fine in a choir, and she is involved with an ensemble, a funeral choir, and the regular adult choir. I would hate to lose her in the choir, but after too many chances, I need her to step down. I attempted to bring my concerns to her months ago, but she broke down crying. It feels like breaking up! ha. Has anyone found a gentle way to dismiss a cantor who isn’t quite good enough?

People are indeed invested in singing at church. Emotionally connected. I’ve known people much like this. I find it useful to get at their underlying motivations. Church ministry attracts wounded people. They find a place where the wounds will not be reopened or bothered. Many church leaders are “nice.” Problems aren’t surfaced as often as in workplaces, schools, or even families.

The original music director offered some useful information:

It turns out that she was just beginning the process of learning to cantor- but did not actually cantor yet- when I arrived.

This sounds familiar. In a few parishes, I inherited a few singers who had been “partnered” with established cantors shortly before I arrived. I found a more … mixed bag … than the parish knew from the year before.

… many cantors still struggle with the unmetered chant verse, hers is very rigid and metered, almost accenting every (word).

Such singers seem intent on getting the notes right. Perhaps too intent. When singers have been drilled on 4-part harmony–chords stacked one after the other–I often hear a single singer struggle to fit in with accompaniment. What might help is to see a vocal line of psalm text as a narrative, a series of notes that moves forward in time. A musician experienced in group singing, maybe exclusively, will find this a new step.

I actually do believe some help could get her closer to where she needs to be, but I do not enjoy working individually with her. There is a lot of time spent, but I am starting to get the feeling that I should be putting the time in with her.

It’s the duty of a music director to work with individuals and groups. Being a good voice pedagogue is part of the job. Also a diplomat, a counsellor, and a spiritual director. A person can say, “I’m not spiritual; that’s the priest’s job.” But the priest isn’t going to coach psalmists in lectio divina or check in with their devotional life with the psalm of the week.

A person might dismiss a lot of work for the responsorial psalm, but be aware: it’s the most important changeable piece of music at Sunday Mass. More important than any proper, hymn, or song. I have to admit: I still struggle to impart the importance of proclaiming the Word of God. The music at other liturgical moments is more interesting. The clergy rarely preach on the Psalm. Parishioners see it as a musical interlude between two lectors.

In my experience, parish singers take a long time to absorb new ideas. They never do it if the list is long. I have to choose two, or usually one thing on which to focus for several months at a time. If I were counselling this music director, I’d probably focus on praying the psalm in advance and singing the line rather than the notes. Those two pieces are well worth spending a year to perfect.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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