Why a new Cantor Education Program?

In the course of this month, you will be seeing several new articles on this website describing our  new cantor formation program. But first I’d like to take some time to explain why we are creating a new program in the first place.

In brief: we need new cantors (Metropolitan William estimates we could use fifty new cantors right now). We need cantors who are comfortable leading all our services. And we need cantors who don’t just sing the music in front of them, but who show the faithful how to turn it into real prayer.

Traditional Cantor Education

In Europe up until World War II, cantors typically served as village schoolteachers, and studied formally in cantor/teacher schools for several years before receiving certification. Many of these trained cantors came to the United States, and taught cantors to succeed them. Unfortunately, in the years that followed, our liturgical life became narrower, and volunteer cantors (some of whom could not read music) succeeded those with formal training. The singing of services like Vespers and Matins became a lost art.

On the other hand, attempts to start cantor schools in the New World were not always effective; the schools did not have a set curriculum, and were out of reach of many potential cantors due to the distances involved. Even when they had the support of our bishops, cantors might “finish the program” without a firm grasp of the liturgical, musical, and leadership tools required to lead the singing at all the services of the church year.

Enter the Cantor Institute

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute was founded in Pittsburgh in 1997. It taught quite a few new cantors, and equipped more experienced cantors for new challenges and greater responsibilities. But it still faced problems of geography (how many students can get to Pittsburgh every month?) and pedagogy (what do you when the material is too advanced for some students, and too easy for others?).

In 2013, we decided to write a formal set of cantor certification standards, describing the knowledge and skills a cantor must have in order to lead church singing throughout the year. We met with several groups of long-time cantors and made some additions based on their input – but there was general agreement that what was on the list was essential.  A cantor who cannot lead the funeral services, for example, or the hymns of Holy Week, needs to learn them. Put another way: the standards should be such that the material could be taught in 3-4 years, and any cantor who met the standards could practically be parachuted into a parish and land on his or her feet, needing only to learn the particular traditions of that parish.

A Metropolitan Cantor Institute

In January 2014, I was appointed director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute and asked to orient it toward serving all four eparchies of the Byzantine Catholic Church (Pittsburgh, Passaic, Parma, and Phoenix).  It had become clear that much of what we were teaching in Pittsburgh could be taught online; in fact, for several years the MCI sessions were designed with that in mind.  But for the rest, how do you teach someone to sing? and how to do certify that a student can not only sing our chant, but lead the services?

The answer is to use both technology and our collective experience wisely. We will be holding vocal classes throughout all four eparchies, making these classes available in video format, and encouraging cantors to obtain some formal voice training in their own area. (We will provide voice teachers with information about exactly what it is that cantors need to do!) Internet-based tools will allow students to learn pitch matching and accurate singing of intervals. In many cases, we will match up students with more experienced cantors and clergy in their area, who can help them and assist the MCI with assessing their progress. When this is not possible, students will upload recordings of their own singing and receive feedback from MCI instructors.

But no cantor will be certified without an in-person assessment by at least two experienced cantors at an actual parish service, at which the cantor to be be certified shows that he or she knows the liturgy, can sing the chant, and can properly lead the sung prayer of their parish.

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