Managing A Cantor II: Arm Gestures

One of the modest sins I’ve noticed over the years from various psalmists is a gesture taking place when they are finished singing the psalm verse. Not when the people are supposed to enter the music.

It’s a small thing. But it suggests that the dialogue between singer and assembly needs a little more trust and timing. The psalmist is part of a conversation. They have just sung, “the decree of the LORD is trustworthy,
giving wisdom to the simple,” and it’s about more than “I’m done. Now it’s your turn.”

When the people sing, “Your words, Lord, are Spirit and life,” they are affirming the words just sung by the leader. If a gesture is necessary, it belongs on the beat prior to the entry of the mass of singers present. If it’s forgotten, skip it. One measure later or even a beat late, it’s too late, baby, as Carole King said. Especially if the people have sung without the indication.

Notice I wrote “if a gesture is necessary.” The arm gesture is not always needed. It’s not rubrical, though it may be in some quarters a combination of political, habitual, dictatorial, or local custom well-embedded. Let’s begin when you don’t need it.

  • When the psalm is well-known to the worshiping community and they don’t need it. Especially if they are singing on the verses anyway. I remember one famous liturgical composer gesturing and waving after the verses of his song. I was thinking, “Dude! We’ve been singing these verses for years. We don’t follow how you recorded it.”
  • When the accompanist is very good and the community has learned their approach to cadences. Good organists accomplish this. One Protestant music friend once told me his congregation didn’t need a singer up front, or anybody to arm-gesture. A good keyboardist leads worship from the console. I believe this.
  • I do think this ability can be trained into pianists and fine-tuned ensembles. But these birds may be more rare than organists these days.
  • A small liturgy. Participants numbering in the low two-digits in a small space. A home Mass.

Maybe arm gestures are needed–just maybe–when …

  • the musicians are playing “by the book,” strictly. Or it’s getting too weird.
  • a wedding or funeral, but don’t count on obedience.
  • horrid acoustics or too few people in too huge a space
  • people seem timid about singing. For any reason from unfamiliar music to low spiritual self-esteem.

If a cantor is convinced gestures are needed, I would usually advise to tone it down one notch below expectations:

  • conducting becomes a two-arm gesture
  • two arms become one
  • one arm becomes an uplifted hand
  • a hand becomes a nod
  • a nod becomes a smile

The farther down that list you go, the more vital the skill.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to Managing A Cantor II: Arm Gestures

  1. Joyce Donahue says:

    As a cantor, I tend to gesture, palms up, slightly with both hands as I breathe (with a slightly exaggerated breath) so they know the entrance is coming. Even with familiar hymns, I find our people may not always recognize when an instrumental introduction is finished, or know what the first note will be. I am very careful to hit entrances just a split-second ahead of the beat… I find that helps make it easy for people to enter on time if I am already there. When I am in the pew, I find it most frustrating to try to follow someone who is even a little behind the beat on the entrances.

    In my experience, it truly depends on the song and if the people know it well. Eye contact and a slight head nod are enough for familiar service music. If a song is unfamiliar or if a chanted psalm has an irregular number of lines to the verse, a more-obvious guidance is needed.

    When I play guitar and sing, it’s more about eye contact and head nodding because obviously the hands are busy, though I do cue them with one hand on the first antiphon entrance of the psalm. We do the proper psalm of the day, so it is different each week.

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