Square Zero

Speaking in Tones

Posted by Eric (April 25, 2006 at 2:29 pm)

Icon of St Mark by Michael O'BrienToday, the Feast of St. Mark, I cantored solo for only the second time at St. George Church in Aurora. The first time was last week, when the regular cantor called me while I was driving to the Church to say he wouldn’t be there.

I tripped up fewer times today than last week. My biggest speedbump today was that I went astray in the middle of the Exaltation (“The angel declared unto her . . .”), having hit the wrong interval somewhere. I don’t think it sounded bad—I didn’t slip into another key or really depart from the character of the piece, but it took me a while to find my place again.

It was a disappointing misstep inasmuch as I had actually practiced that particular setting quite a bit yesterday. But I was encouraged to find that I didn’t really choke when I departed from the printed music, but actually managed to keep going and bring it back on track before then end.

Exaltation music

How could I mess up something that I had practiced so much? It turns out that cantoring is a whole lot harder than you’d think, especially when you’re a novice like me. It’s not a matter of singing all these little independent pieces throughout the liturgy, but of responding to the priest or deacon, in key, and at a tempo that suits the liturgy. You’re under a great deal or pressure, and that makes it easy to miss an interval that in the privacy of your living room you hit every time.

One of the biggest challenges is starting on the right note with any particular response, antiphon hymn—that is, recognizing where in the scale the priest or deacon has left off, and what the interval is for your first note. If you start on the wrong note, either you mess up all your intervals and more or less impose a dissonant mode upon the chant, or you have to place the “wrong” note in the right context in a different key—which could easily lead you out of your regular range.

Somehow I tripped up like this on the Our Father, a chant setting that I know very well. I started off on the wrong note (the root instead of the second, I think), stayed in that key, and thus climbed up the first four notes in the entirely wrong part of the scale. By the end of the first phrase I had somehow got things back in tune.

There were probably a couple of other places where I started on the wrong note but just seamlessly slipped into a different key. In the “Hymn of the Incarnation” I started way too high and almost had to switch into falsetto for the highest note. But it sounded fine, I think.

Cantoring alone is quite different from assisting someone else, even aside from the greater challenge. I’m finding my own voice, so to speak, separating what’s natural for me from what I had instinctively picked up from others with whom I’ve been singing.

Most unexpectedly, I find that cantoring on my own is somehow more prayerful. Perhaps it is that I am leading the Church in her response to the priest, really “speaking for” the Church in a particular way, rather then just helping someone else to do so. Even through there’s more pressure, there is also in a way more freedom—and a greater sense that this is me, offering back to God the gift of the voice that He has given me.

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One Response to “Speaking in Tones”

  1. BEMA » Blog Archive » Our Holy Fathers, Radiant Stars! says:

    […] Fr. Fred noted that those duties are now being passed on to a new generation. I am one of those to whom they are passing. I have been helping with the cantoring as St. George for some months now, even cantoring solo on a few occassions. […]

    Comment posted June 1st, 2006 at 12:20 pm