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Skills for Cantors: being a Psalmist

This is part of a series of posts summarising a workshop given at the Society of St Gregory Summer School 2014

The responsorial psalm is more than just a response to the first reading in the Mass, it is a meditation on the whole word of God [General Instruction of the Roman Missal 61]. When the Lectionary was revised in the 1960s, the authors chose Gospels, Old Testament readings and psalms that link together. Sometimes the Gospel directly quotes from the Old Testament, the themes are the same or the Gospel reinterprets the first reading in the light of Christ’s new promise. The psalm is our response to hearing God’s word – all of it, Old and New Testament alike. It directs our minds and prepares us to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The Journey of the Word

As a psalmist, read all of the readings first and try and find the links between them. Ask yourself who Christ is in the Gospel and what is he doing? Who are the other people in the story and what are they doing? In the first reading, what is God doing? Who are the other people in the story and what are they doing? Who are you? Do you empathise with Christ and what he is saying and feeling, the other people in the story (maybe they are the disciples, the people of Israel, the establishment, the evil people), or both? What’s the link between the psalm and these readings?

Does the music chosen for the psalm reflect these feelings? How can you convey this in your singing, and in the assembly’s response?

Psalms are often a conversation between the psalmist, God and “the others” – often the people of Israel or the wicked who oppose the psalmist. Is the psalm a song of praise or lamentation? Many lamentation psalms change towards the end into a song of praise for God who lifts the singer from despair to freedom.

The Liturgy of the Word is a journey, as we hear and ponder on the word of God and have it explained to us in the homily. Where were we at the start of the Liturgy of the Word – emotionally, spiritually, mentally – and where are we at the end? How do these readings focus us to move to the next part of the Mass, to celebrate the Eucharist?

Words are primary

Remember that the words are primary; music is there to support the words of the psalm. Speak the words of the psalm aloud first, even before you practice singing them. Notice which words and syllabes you stress naturally; check the pronunciation of any difficult words or names. You may identify different stressed syllables than another cantor would – that’s OK, if it helps to convey the emotions you identified. If chanting the verses of a psalm, sing just a little slower than you read to keep the poetic flow of the words. Keep the flow even and measured; don’t come to a halt just before a note changes. Watch out for commas. Instead of taking a breath, just lengthen slightly the syllable immediately before it.

Where to sing the psalm from

The psalm is usually sung from the ambo or lectern (GIRM 61) as it is the word of God, but you can also sing it from anywhere else that allows the assembly to participate effectively. Maybe there is a distance between the ambo and the musicians or organ in your church so it may help for the psalmist to stand next to the musicians to help them both keep time.

Don’t be afraid of silence

The Liturgy of the Word is a dialogue of proclamation and meditation, with silence allowing the word to settle in our minds and hearts. Give yourself time between the first reading finishing and the introduction of the psalm starting. Fifteen to twenty seconds may be ideal but you could start with a shorter pause and work upwards. To avoid distraction, you may want to move to the place you will sing the psalm when the reader moves for the first reading and return after the psalm, or after the Gospel if you are not also singing the Gospel Acclamation.

Make sure that your reader knows what you are doing, to prevent them saying the psalm just as you are about to start singing it. If you are unable to speak to them before Mass, you could put a sticky note on the ambo or in the lectionary book to advise that the psalm is to be sung.

Psalm styles

There are many styles of psalms, including chanted verses, Gelineau (pulsed tone) and psalms with melodic verses. Chanted verses use pointing – underlines or vertical bars – to show you where you change from the long reciting note to the next. If you have read through the psalm and identified the syllabes that you stress, you may disagree with the pointing in a published book if it doesn’t correspond to the syllables that you identified. Don’t be afraid to change the pointing to suit your interpretation.

Psalms with chanted verses allow you to grapple with the meaning and emotion of the text directly; a psalm with a verses in a regular metre may take that choice away from you. If you are thinking of using a psalm paraphrase, check that the words follow closely the text of the psalm in the Lectionary.

You can sing chanted psalms with a guitar accompaniment. The guitarist should strum once when the note or chord changes, not keep strumming in a pattern while you’re singing a series of syllables on one note.

Singing psalms for the first time

If you’re starting to sing the psalm in your community for the first time, there are several easy ways to start. You could sing the response and ask the reader to read out the verses. You could learn two psalm tones – one in a major key for praise psalms and one in a minor key for lamentations – and use them appropriately. The Lectionary also provides common psalms.

Common psalms are a useful but little-known resource. There are some psalms given for various seasons of the year and a larger number that can be used during any Sunday of Ordinary Time, instead of the psalm appointed for the Sunday. By repeating a common psalm for a number of consecutive weeks, your assembly can get used to singing the psalm – and so can your cantor. Make sure your priest agrees first, though, because he may be referring to the lectionary psalm in his homily! (See our collection, The Psalms, for a complete set of common psalms)

Further reading

Living Eucharist – Fr Allen Morris’ reflections on readings.
At your Word, Lord – Liturgy of the Word document.


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Skills for Cantors: introducing new music

This is part of a series of posts summarising a workshop given at the Society of St Gregory Summer School 2014. Although this topic is specifically aimed at cantors, it is relevant to musical directors too.

Sing a new song to the Lord – literally! Music can move from being new, to familiar, to over-familiar, to stale. We can all think of a piece of music we sing in church that has lost its impact because of overuse. New words and melodies cause us to think about what we are singing, praying and doing in a new way.

Introducing new music is a secondary function of being a cantor, after being a psalmist, and is closely linked to being a song leader.

It does require some extra skills in engaging with your assembly, thinking how best to

New music criteria

Don’t introduce new music just for the sake of it. When choosing new music to use in liturgy, ask yourself whether it is a good fit:-

  • musically – technically suitable for the instruments / voices / skills / assembly you have, aesthetically pleasing, of suitable quality for the worship of God?
  • liturgically – meets the requirements of the rite it is accompanying? See Celebrating the Mass or the General Instruction of the Roman Missal
  • pastorally – relevant to this assembly and this celebration, enables it to express its faith in a way meaingful to it?

If it doesn’t meet all these criteria, consider a different piece of music.

For example, I once heard a Gloria set to the theme tune of the BBC soap EastEnders. Using well-known tunes can be advantageous if used sensitively – Vaughan Williams used English folk melodies for many of his hymns, such as Kingsfold for I heard the voice of Jesus say – but this particular idea clearly fails on at least one of these criteria.

Evaluation cycle

Introducing a new piece of music typically follows a cycle of actions similar to this:

Having checked that the music meets the criteria above, learn it! Identify any difficult sections or passages that might prove tricky to your assembly and think about how you might introduce it to them

It helps people to know why they are doing something new. Associate the music with the readings, prayers of the day, the liturgical season or liturgical purpose

Depending upon the piece of music, a “rehearsal” to introduce the music to the assembly may be required. There are several options for this (see below)

Use a piece of music for a period of time – maybe a liturgical season – to allow it to bed in. Repetition helps the assembly to learn.

If it worked, why? Can you use that knowledge in choosing other pieces of music?
If it failed, don’t give up at the first attempt, but allow it to run for one or two more times before dropping it. If it failed, why? What can you learn for next time?


First of all, do you actually need to rehearse a new piece of music? If it is responsorial in nature, like a Lamb of God, Penitential Act or Communion chant, simply indicating to the assembly when to repeat what they have heard is often sufficient. If they don’t get it the first time, they probably will the second time.

If introducing a new hymn tune, you may want the organist / keyboard player to play the melody through first (without accompaniment), you sing the first verse or two and invite the assembly to join in at verse three.

If you need to rehearse, don’t think of it as a “rehearsal” with your assembly; Mass isn’t school and treating it at such may reduce the assembly’s willingness to join in. Don’t say “we’re going to learn a new piece of music”, rather explain why we are using a new piece of music (see above). If you need to “teach” new music, make it short, positive, relevant and welcoming.

Rehearse what you are going to say. Beware of using humour, it can backfire.

Be sensitive at what time you chose to introduce new music. Often the best time is before Mass starts but people value their private prayer time and you may be intruding on that.

Choose between an “active” rehearsal and a “passive” rehearsal. In an active rehearsal, you stand up in front of your assembly and “teach” it. In a passive rehearsal, you play or sing the piece to the congregation while they listen. Different pieces lend themselves to different means.

You can teach something by splitting it into chunks and inviting the assembly to repeat after you, with a sing-through afterwards.

Don’t go through a piece more than twice in one rehearsal. If the assembly are making mistakes, move on and do a “reminder” before Mass next week. Never scold, always be positive. Say “thank you” after the rehearsal.

“One song to the tune of another”

Most traditional hymn tunes have a metre, a measure of the number of syllables in each line. This is often printed in hymnbooks and indexed at the back. You can swap the tune to another with the same metre (most of the time) in order to sing a hymn to a tune that the congregation know. This allows words to be used that are particularly relevant to the readings or theme of the day that otherwise might not be used. Make sure that the mood of the tune matches the mood of the music.

For example, the hymn “Thou/God, whose almighty word” has metre 664 6644, meaning that the first line has six syllables, the second line has six, the third has four and so on. The usual tune is called Moscow. You an also sing this tune to the UK national anthem because it has the same metre! When comparing this tune to the three criteria above, it would probably fail on the pastoral measure because of that association. The hymn tune Austria is a very strong tune but has similar connotations as the German national anthem.

If changing the tune, make sure that it also fits the stresses of the music. Try singing “The king of love my shepherd is” (metre 87 87) to the hymn tune Stuttgart. You’ll soon come unstuck. They both have the same metre but the stresses are on different beats of the bar.


Don’t be too ambitious. Play to the strengths of your assembly – and your musicians – both in terms of the music they like to sing and their range of musical skill.

Do simple things well! If the assembly finds its voice in singing something relatively simple, that is better than attempting something complicated and leaving your congregation foundering.

If you’re doing something new, also do something familiar in the same service as an anchor for people who struggle to join in the new music.

Think about the ways you can prepare people for new music. If you have overheads or projectors in use at your church, make sure the words are available and the operator knows when to change between slides. You might have space in the parish weekly newsletter to print the words of a new song. Song words are typically under copyright – always make sure you have obtained permission or a licence to reproduce them.

If you are using languages other than English, explain what the text means (paraphrase it if necessary). Think about Taize pieces that you sing; if you didn’t know what the Latin meant, could you sing the song as meaningfully?

Give music a rest. Have a cycle of Mass settings you can move through over the course of a year. As a minimum, you might want to have one for Ordinary Time, Advent and Lent, and one for feast days and festival seasons like the period between Christmastide and Lent, and during Easter.

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Skills for Cantors: being a Song Leader

This is part of a series of posts summarising a workshop given at the Society of St Gregory Summer School 2014

As a cantor, your primary role is to sing the psalm but you may also have a role as a song leader, or animator, encouraging the assembly to sing. You could be a song leader when your voice is the right one for the piece, you know the music, or you are the only one available!

It’s tempting for the song leader to sing at the front of church all the time but does that really help your congregation to find its voice or could you be discouraging them from singing?

You may be a song leader because the rite suggests one, the style of music requires one or the assembly needs the assistance of one.

The rite suggest a song leader

Penitential Act
The Penitential Act is not just a call for forgiveness (“for the times we have sinned by…”) but a recognition of Christ’s goodness that he frees us from our sins (“You were sent to heal the contrite…”). The tone of the Act changes depending on the season of the year. During Advent, it is a joyful, hopeful litany as we wait for the coming of Christ. During Lent, it reflects the penitential tone as we are called to turn away from sin and back to Christ.

If the form of the Act includes “tropes” (“You were sent…”), these can be sung by a cantor instead of a priest. The absolution (“May almight God have mercy on us…”) is always reseved for the priest but the cantor may lead a sung Amen.

Gospel Acclamation
The Acclamation welcomes and points us towards Christ, who is truly present in his Word in the Gospel.

The Acclamation starts while the priest is making his silent prayers or the deacon receives the blessing to proclaim the Gospel. Don’t hurry from the second reading straight into to the Acclamation. Allow silence to take hold so that people can ponder the word they have just heard proclaimed. Let the reader leave the sanctuary before starting the Acclamation.

Instead of singing the verse of the Acclamation, you could ask the reader to speak it and sing only the alleluia refrain.

If you have a procession of the Gospel book to the ambo, you might need extra verses to accompany this, and if the book is moved from the ambo to a separate stand after the reading of the Gospel, you could repeat the alleluia refrain then.

General Intercessions
Sometimes, singing the response to the intercessions can lift people’s prayers, especially during particular seasons of the Church’s year. Liaise with your intercession writer before attempting this. You may ask the priest to end his introductory prayer with a prompt, such as “…as we sing” so you can sing the response first, ask the assembly to repeat it and then sing once after each intercession. Gentle background chords on guitars or keyboard could be used while the intercession is spoken.

Lamb of God
A litany to Christ that accompanies the fraction rite, so it can be extended beyond the customary three repetitions if the breaking of the bread takes longer. Who is being broken and poured out here? Christ for us, certainly, but we are also broken and poured out here for others.

You may choose to extend the Lamb of God into the start of the communion chant by incorporating extra verses (Jesus, redeemer of the world; Jesus, living word…) after the priest has raised the consecreated bread and wine and the assembly responded. If you are using Marty Haugen’s Mass of Creation, the Lamb of God can be merged into his Communion song, Come and Eat this Bread (both available in Laudate).

The style of music suggests a song leader

Call-response (“repeat after me”), verse-refrain (communion psalms) or Taize chants suggest the need for a song leader to help the assembly to join in.

The assembly needs a song leader

The introduction and bedding-in of new music requires a cantor experienced in introducing new music.

If you are singing unaccompanied, a song leader is needed. You may need to sing throughout the song, or maybe your assembly just needs you to start the piece, or to start each verse. If you are not confident to pitch the starting note, use a tuning fork, keyboard, strum of a guitar chord, a piano app on your smartphone. If you have no other means of starting off, you can avoid starting too high or too low by humming the highest and lowest notes of the piece to yourself to find the best fit.

If there are insufficient “lead” instruments, you may need to provide a strong lead. If guitars are the only instruments accompanying the song, an introduction made up of a few chords may not help the assembly start singing.

No song leader needed

Don’t cantor just because you are “the” cantor. Let the assembly’s need for leadership drive your involvement, not your need to lead. If they don’t need you, take a step back and let their voice be the lead.

The cantor is not a dominant figure in the liturgy. Everything you do must enable the assembly to participate and find their own voice. Never be a “distraction from the action” that is taking place on the altar or elsewhere. Less is more, so your primary role, as a psalmist, becomes more pronounced.


You can indicate to the assembly when to join in and what to sing in a number of ways.

Pitch conducting – raising and lowering your hand in steps to indicate changes in pitch – is useful for indicating new tunes. The steps don’t need to be linear as if you were playing a piano; if you need to accentuate a jump in pitch, move your hand further.

Once the assembly has picked up the tune, a simple raised hand to indicate “your turn” is usually sufficient, or an expectant gaze and raised eyebrows. Practice your gestures in front of a mirror. Are they too distracting? Are people looking at you instead of where the ritual action is happening?


Apart from the psalm, the cantor ideally shouldn’t use the ambo, which is reserved for the proclamation of the word. If the layout of your church permits, you should stand somewhere towards the front of the church, where you can be seen by the assembly but are not a distraction, and where you have clear sight lines to your musicians.

If the organ in your church is at the back and you are at the front, there may be a noticable time delay between the two. Agree with your organist how to handle this. It may be best for the organist to set the speed and for you to follow. If you both try to accommodate each other, the tempo will slow.


Organise your books, maybe with sticky tabs for easy access to the songs you are using. Put papers in a binder and don’t shuffle them while singing – if you are singing at a microphone, your page turning may be picked up.

Stand straight, feet apart and in line with your shoulders. If nervous, put your hands on the music stand. Smile! Your voice will sound brighter and people respond more to somebody who looks welcoming – even if you feel nervous inside. Breathe deeply, from the diaphragm.

View from the ambo at Farm Street church, London

Try to look out at the assembly wherever possible, rather than down at your music. You will produce a clearer sound. If you’re afraid of catching somebody’s eye and being distracted, fix your gaze just over the heads of the assembly to a point on the back wall of the building.

You typically won’t wear an alb or clerical dress when cantoring, so dress appropriately for the type of service you are singing at. Wear shoes that are not noisy, especially if you have to move about during the service.

The acoustics of a full building are different to an empty one. You may need to overpronounce your consontants so that they sound clear. Diphthongs – two sounded vowels together – can be a problem in singing (e.g. the “iy” sound in life, or Christ; the “oy” sound in voice). Try holding the first vowel right until the end of the note – “Christ be our liiiiight”.

Make sure you have clear line of sight to your organist / keyboard player / instrumentalists and have agreed introductions in advance. As cantor, you may need to decide to extend a piece or cut it short – agree hand signals for those too.

If you are using a microphone, practice with it beforehand. Check whether the mic is uni-directional or omni-directional. Uni-directional pick up one voice very clearly – the mic at the ambo is likely to be uni-directional – and you need to stand further away than an omni-directional mic. If you can do so without it popping, turn the mic off when you are not singing so it doesn’t pick up background noise. Don’t sing too loudly into the mic – you don’t want to surprise people who have hearing aids tuned in to a loop system!

Think about when you receive Communion. The communion chant starts when the priest receives Communion so you may want to receive later in the procession, maybe once a hymn is established and the assembly don’t need you to lead.


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Skills for Cantors: being a Reflective Cantor

This is part of a series of posts summarising a workshop given at the Society of St Gregory Summer School 2014. Although this topic is specifically aimed at cantors, it is relevant to musical directors and other musicians too.

Your goal as a cantor is to encourage other people to sing. Ministry can be tiring and often you are concentrating on the next piece of music rather than on the liturgy itself. Making time to be a reflective cantor is important, for your own spiritual development and also the growth of the assembly of which you are a part.

Your spiritual preparation is important, as a minister of music. Remember you are having an encounter with God when you sing the psalm. Ponder the readings beforehand. Allow yourself a few minutes before the start of a service for silent prayer and preparation, leave the church if you need to.

Build relationships with people in the parish; not just the clergy, other musicians and the parish secretary, but members of the assembly too. You are serving them all. This will help you to…

Know your congregation, so you will come to learn how to get your congregation to sing, how confident they are in picking up new music, how best to introduce new music to them, how much animation and gesture they need to start singing.

Don’t turn up on Sunday unrehearsed. Make time to practice, either alone or with your musicians.

It is rare for church musicians to get personal development opportunities, so develop yourself by learning new repertoire, including in styles that are outside your comfort zone. Develop yourself pastorally, get to know the scriptures and the liturgy. Your local area or diocese may have study or pastoral development courses or similar opportunities for ministers. If there are sessions for readers, invite yourself along! You proclaim the word too. Join associations such as the Society of St Gregory, National Network of Pastoral Musicians or The Royal School of Church Music.

Get to know the liturgy and the scriptures. Know why we do the things we do and sing the things we sing. See Singing the Mass for the musical priorities and Celebrating the Mass (a well-written guide based on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal and other documents) for an explanation of the Mass.

Be open to constructive critique and coaching. Not everybody will love your style, of course, but be aware that your task as cantor is to help the assembly find their own voice. If they are telling you that your cantoring doesn’t help their singing and praying, think about what is preventing that from happening and…

Try something new. Failure is OK! You’re not here to give a performance but to worship God. Be incremental and flexible.

Ministry can be tiring so, every so often, take time off to sit in the body of the congregation, to participate in the Mass in a reflective way. Maybe in a service with no music.

Further reading

An examination of conscience for pastoral musicians