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July 22, 2020

Adaptable songs for cantors

Adaptable Songs for Cantors

In these days when, in many places, choirs are no longer permitted, cantors are taking up the challenge to lead music. But it is not as simple as taking out a choir and inserting a cantor. Parish music directors often have songs that are best done by choir, and at other celebrations where a cantor or other group is animating the assembly, another song is chosen. What are we to do now? Are there songs that lend themselves to being led by a cantor alone, or are there techniques that will allow a single singer to use these titles?

Here are a couple of approaches that you might take. A reminder at the start, though, not all songs will work with all of these approaches, so use your years of experience and the specific musical talents you have at hand to create new experiences for your assembly.

Go unplugged. I have heard from pastoral musicians that the idea of belting out a massive hymn alone from home simply doesn’t make sense. And there is wisdom here. But from rock stars to classical musicians, taking what is normally a large production number and presenting it in a simple, almost meditative version has been a common approach. So reimagine some of these pieces — perhaps changing the tempo or even the key, certainly changing the instrumentation or even going a capella. All of this can support livestream liturgies or even those celebrations that have limited numbers of people present. Think of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s version of “Over the Rainbow” — with a single ukulele for accompaniment and over 32 million YouTube views. Not bad indeed, and a long way from the lush orchestration of the movie version.

Do a duet. This is kind of a subset of going unplugged, but depending upon the talents you have available to you, two strong solo voices can communicate the spirit of some of these larger pieces. And again, be creative here. Perhaps the organ, piano or solo instrument might take the melody line while two confident singers could take the alto and tenor lines. As a bass, I always like to claim that the bass line is the rock upon which everything else is built, so I like the idea of those deep tones rumbling under the melody line. And you may have to deconstruct the piece a bit to make this work — perhaps repeating phrases — a musical phrase sung in unison could be followed by an improvisation from the keyboard, or a duet of the alto and tenor lines for example. When OCP reviews choral music submissions, we are always on the lookout for the boring alto and bass lines. Good choral writing will flourish in times like these.

Recordings of Masses past. I am probably the worst person when it comes to this, but if you had the foresight to make audio or video recordings of your choir, now is the time to march them out. Certainly they could at least be used before or after Mass, and in exceptional circumstances there may be moments during the liturgy where these can also support the movement of the liturgy as a moment of prayer for people who are participating from far away.

I am sure that many of you have already started to look for ways to keep your choral ministry relevant. Keep the faith in God and in the hope that choral music and congregational singing will return. It may be in a way we don’t yet know, but the power of the choral expression of the human voice is not going away.