Some 40 years ago, a series of courses took place to train people for what was then the newly reintroduced ministry of the cantor. The courses were up to 10 weeks long and drew a large and enthusiastic number of participants. But that was then, when the renewal of the liturgy was a new experience which generated great excitement.
So when it was suggested to the Music Committee of the Archdiocese of Glasgow that there was an interest in a course for cantors, it was with some uncertainty that they looked at putting together a course. Would sufficient people be interested and would they – could they – give the commitment for a number of weeks, in what is a very different world today?
The answer we now know is “yes” to both questions. Over 50 participants from 23 parishes turned up for the course which ran for 4 successive Tuesday evenings in St. Simon’s, Partick, from 11 February to 4 March. From the evaluation sheets returned at the end, the response to the course was overwhelmingly positive.
The aim of the course was to give cantors the tools and the resources to carry out their ministry and, where appropriate, to build up their confidence. Because of the numbers attending, it was decided to split participants into one group of more experienced cantors and two groups of beginners or less experienced cantors. In this way it was hoped that people would get the most from the practical sessions. Each week a booklet of resources was provided and these were backed up with a CD of the music.
The workshop began each week (after tea/coffee and home baking of course, courtesy of Sandra Lamb and her husband!) with a short opening service of prayer, a scripture reading and singing, followed by a short talk or presentation, before the participants broke up into their groups to work on music from the resources provided, before coming back together for the final session of singing.
In week 1, things got off to a lighthearted yet very practical start, with Frances Dunlop’s “Cantors from Hell” which introduced us to the foibles of a variety of characters that we might just have come across in our church or, dare we admit it, in ourselves.
This was followed by excerpts from a presentation on the role of the cantor by Grace Buckley, which set the context through the introduction of some of the Vatican II and other documents which define the ministry of the cantor, and through a summary of the main qualities of a good cantor. Patricia McGlinchey of the East End Deanery choir then spoke about the practical aspects of preparing to carry out this ministry in the liturgy.
In the second week, after the opening service which used music learned in the previous week, Emma McGlinchey (a music graduate from Strathclyde University) gave participants practical tips and exercises for warming up the voice, getting the breathing right and settling the nerves. Mgr. Gerry Fitzpatrick then opened a discussion on choosing repertoire for the parish community, giving examples and pointers.
Week 3 had Gerry Devlin of Our Lady & St. George’s talking about how he plans the music for the liturgy in his parish, and helps the musicians and cantors learn any new music. Participants were quite taken with his innovative use of his smartphone for circulating music and information. He also recommended various resources including music planner such as Decani’s. Gerry finished the session with a demonstration of some of his own Lenten introits, based on a common musical theme,as an example of relatively simple and straightforward music which congregations and choirs take to quite easily.
The final week coincided with Shrove Tuesday so pancakes were in order with the tea and coffee before the workshop began. Fr. Gerry took participants through some examples of plainsong, highlighting what makes plainsong work for people. He also used examples of other contemporary music (e.g. Taizé chants) which make use of similar features. He then discussed resources for Lent, Holy Week and the Triduum, and the practicalities of what music to use.
In this final week, the less experienced cantors were brought together in the church for the practical session, to give them the opportunity, if they wished to take it, to try out what they had been learning over previous weeks. The results were very impressive, particularly when you realised that some had never sung as cantors before.
The groups came back together for a final session of singing, and time for discussion and questions, as well as the completion of evaluation forms. The Committee will now use these as the basis for deciding the next steps. They had been inspired by the atmosphere at the course and the clear commitment and enthusiasm of those involved, and they are determined to build on these foundations.
St. Simon’s proved to be a great location for the course, and thanks are due to the parish priest, Canon John McGrory, and the community (particularly Paul O’Donnell who provided unstinting help every Tuesday) for the use of the church and house.
Courses such as these depend on input from so many people, and thanks should also go to the members of the Committee for giving their time and experience. In addition to those mentioned above, Jane McKenna and Gordon Thomson played for the group sessions and the services, Mary Bradley and Elspeth Glasgow carried out the very necessary administrative side of the proceedings, and Sr. Pat Graham devised and led the opening services each evening.