Friday, January 29, 2016

Of Cantors, "Song Leaders", and Microphones

I know I've touched on this previously, well, way way back when I was blogging regularly under the Christus Vincit moniker, but I don't think many new readers (the few I may have) will want to try to dig back a decade into the archives to see what I (or any blogging partners I had) really wrote.  Or will they?

I am a regular poster and lurker on the Facebook page "I'm Fed Up with Bad Church Music".  It's a great group for venting about really bad music that often takes place in our churches.  And it's not only for Catholics (though a good number of us are).  Many Protestant faiths are represented on the page as well.  It's one of many ways some of us give an example of what NOT to do at church.  The page is extremely active, not to mention well over 11,000 members strong!  And, like any other page, you might get a small handful, or maybe even one or two who join the page for the sheer purpose of calling us out for our task at hand, but that we'll save for a future post.

Anyhoo, on the above mentioned page was posted a video of a guitarist and singer at (surprise, surprise!) an Episcopal church bellowing (and I do mean "bellowing") the infamous I Am the Bread of Life.  You know, the ditty often referred to as "Toolanbread", after the ditty's songwriter, Sr. M. Suzanne Toolan, RSM.  I would normally expect such at a mainstream Catholic church, and I'm sure even most Episcopal organists would writhe in pain after hearing this!  Here is that video...

Like any other thread in an active page or listserv, while much of the thread stayed on topic, there were places that branched off into discussions about cantors, "song leaders", and the dreaded microphone.  That is my inspiration for my post as it appears below the following lovely string of asterisks.


A cantor's basic role is to sing the Psalm, whether it be in the form of the Responsorial Psalm, the Alleluia (and its versicle), a Communion responsory (proper preferred).  Those are the things usually assigned to a cantor.  Of course, the responses to such Psalmody belongs to the congregation.

The role of "song leader" (if one is really needed) would be to lead the singing of the hymns, the Mass Ordinary, and other items that belong to the congregation.  Ideally, at Masses in which the choir is singing, then the choir is the "song leader".  More on this two paragraphs down.

Does a cantor or "song leader" really need a microphone?  Under proper conditions (acoustics good, singer(s) trained to project well, congregation's turn to sing), no.  I remember a liturgy committee leader (who had a brother for whom I worked for eight years later on) once telling me back in the summer of 1983 that if the person leading is singing too loud, the congregation will very likely "start listening and stop singing".  And in many cases, he's right.  So, why the microphone, except to attract attention to oneself?

My biggest pet peeve is not only a cantor or "song leader" (Don't you just love the way I use quotation marks?  Tee hee!) blaring into a microphone, but even doing so when there is an able and competent choir singing.  Is that really necessary?  I've seen it in small churches and cathedrals alike.  The choir is singing, yet there is the "song leader" up front, blaring into a mic, flapping his/her arms up in the air when it's time for the people in the pew to sing (we have to hope and pray that said "song leader" does not have B.O.), thus the choir is hardly heard.  Before I took the job at Sacred Heart, my wife Ann and I once went to a small church not far from home where the situation was exactly that for the entire Mass!  The choir, a very competent one, I might add, was basically relegated to serving as the back-up group for their "featured singer".  And wouldn't you know, just months later, a pastor from another church called me up, asking me if I was interested in the organist position there.  I learned that he was looking to downgrade the music program severely (not in his words, but he talked up his moves like they were bragging rights).  That included unplugging the three-manual Moller pipe organ and replacing it with an electronic "keyboard", hiring a "song leader" from the outside, and relegating the choir to merely backing up their "featured singer" (and yes, the pastor used the words "featured singer")!  This, sadly, is what it has come down to in many parishes.

More on microphone abuse:  More than once have I played a funeral where the family requested a singer who was not only microphone happy, but very loud, and very warbly.  Funny thing is that in both cases that come to mind the most for me, the opening hymn was Amazing Grace, and in both cases, it sounded like this:
Without amplification, the hymn was sung fortissimo ("ff", or "very loud", for any non-musicians reading this).  Add the mic, the end result was an earth-shattering fortissitissitissimo ("ffff" or "extremely loud").  In the latter case, the parish secretary asked me what the hell that noise was, as she could hear it from the rectory!

First of all: LOSE THE MIC!  If the singer is trained properly, he/she will project.  As a member of a chorus in high school (a public high school, mind you!), we were trained to project, so that we could be heard without the aid of microphones (or at least "excessive microphones").  I was Jud Fry in our high school production of Oklahoma! in my junior year.  We all had to project.  Even the women with the softest of voices that got roles projected.  They made themselves heard with no amplification whatsoever.  We were very fortunate to have a choral director (Mrs. Nectar Lennox) and a drama teacher (Miss Gail Frappier) who taught us those things.  GIA Publications may be publishing a lot of crappy music as of late, but they did come out with a couple of good buttons that were being sold in bulk.  One of them was "BACK OFF! LET THE PEOPLE SING!"

Next: Carpeting --- if it's killing the acoustics, get rid of it!  You don't need it.  So now that's two things we don't need - excessive mics and carpeting.  Save your scuttola!  Thus the other GIA button: CARPET BEDROOMS, NOT CHURCHES!"

Finally: if you have a drop-ceiling in your music area, lose it!  I had to deal with one in a former parish whose name and location I will not mention.  It was a nightmare!  It also had carpeting.  Nightmare times two!

If the choir sings at Mass, let them lead the hymns and sung Ordinary.  You don't need a separate "song leader" to drown out the choir.  Teach them to project as a group.  Give the cantor parts (Psalm versicles, etc.) to someone within the choir who can project them from his/her spot in the choir.   You can even write choral versicles.  There is no written rule stating that Psalm versicles have to be sung solo.  Here's a sample video from St. Mary's Cathedral in Sydney, Australia (where George Cardinal Pell of ICEL fame was Archbishop until February 2014):

You may have to fast forward to spots like the entrance hymn and the responsorial Psalm.  But you will notice that there is not a cantor within eyesight or earshot in that mammoth cathedral.  Not to mention the musical selections are of very high quality.  Oh, and it was merely the 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time!

Carpet bedrooms, not churches!
Back off! Let the people sing!




Sara Piazza said...

Well done, BMP!

Brian Michael Page said...

Thank you, Sara!

Bear said...

It's been a while, Brian.

I am now a cantor at my parish where I sing from time to time at the early Sunday morning mass, when there is no choir. I don't use the mic. The church is small and my voice is pretty big. (I sort of suffer from what I call the Mario Del Monaco problem: I have a dynamic range that extends all the way from Fortissimo to Sforzando.)

At any rate, I agree with you: mics are a crutch for poor singing habits. Their for wimps, not singers (not that my howling always qualifies as singing.)

Brian Michael Page said...

I do not use the mic either, except to announce the hymn. Thankfully, my mic has an on/off switch, so it goes off once my announcement is finished. Otherwise, I (with my basso profundo which struggles in anything softer than mezzo-forte, ha ha!) will not only scare the people out of church, I'd probably scare them out of town!