How to Cantor at Mass

by Culture & Society Editor
Choir director assist choruses in preparing for a music performance.

Choir director assist choruses in preparing for a music performance.

The Catholic Church adopted the role of cantor, or chief singer, from Judaism in the early days of Christianity. In both faith traditions, the cantor leads the sung responses of the congregation, especially the psalms. An integral part of both Jewish and Catholic worship, the cantor either sings accompanied by an organ or full choir, or solos a capella.

Possess intermediate to advanced vocal skills before assuming this ministry role. Since cantors are soloists, they need to be able to not only read music and carry a tune, but also to lead the congregation musically, teach new songs and be confident of their own singing ability. Beginners usually start out in the choir first. (For other ways to get involved, see "How to Volunteer in Catholic Parishes" under Related eHows.)

Approach your parish priest, pastoral associate or music ministry or choir director to offer your services as a lead singer. Because most parishes have multiple masses each weekend and the choir can only sing at so many, competent cantors are in high demand.

Choose to cantor at the mass that both fits your schedule and has the most need of one. Be committed to the frequency and time you volunteer for and arrange for a substitute if you can't make it. Since this is a central worship role, it's very inconvenient for the priest, accompanist and congregation if you're a "no-call-no-show."

Obtain a weekly song schedule from the one who plans the music for your parish. If you're from a rural or small parish, the cantor may be expected to fulfill this role. Your pastor can give you advice on which songs to choose if you need help.

Arrange a time to practice in advance with your accompanist (or choir if applicable). Right before mass and weekday evenings are the most popular choices.

Receive formation and training at least once a year outside of your regular practice sessions. Cantor workshops and conferences are excellent ways to network with other lead singers, learn new music, improve your own vocal abilities or just "talk shop."

Tips

  • The "Respond & Acclaim" book from Oregon Catholic Press is the industry standard among cantors for psalm music.
  • Arrive at least 20 to 30 minutes before mass to put up song numbers, make sure your microphone and songs are in order and to confer with your accompanist, pastor or visiting priest if necessary.

Warnings

  • If you have the additional duty of selecting music for mass (usually done by the pastor, pastoral associate or music director), the songs must be liturgically correct.
  • When your pastor is out of town, review the song list with the visiting priest before mass.
  • Don't expect payment as a cantor. Unlike an organist or music ministry director, a lead singer isn't a paid role, but a volunteer one.

Items you will need

  • Catholic hymnal and sheet music
  • Psalm music book
  • Music stand
  • Microphone

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