". . . little shall I grace my cause

In speaking for myself. Yet, by your gracious patience,

I will a round unvarnish'd tale deliver . . ."

(William Shakespeare's Othello, I.iii.88-90)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Role of the Cantor

A few weeks ago one of my Facebook friends, a pastor, posted a status update in which he extolled his parish musicians. Specifically, he said that he was blessed to have the best musicians of any church anywhere. In short order, several of his pastor friends came along to dispute that claim, saying that he couldn't possibly have the best musicians since each of them was quite sure that honor belonged to him. It was a beautiful thing to behold--pastors celebrating and building up their musical staff. Obviously these pastors understand the value of having competent, committed musicians serving with them. One commenter in particular said something I thought quite wise. He said that the sign of a really good musician is that he can turn a not-so-good musician into a better one. I suppose that's not always the case when it comes to professional musicians. There are concert artists who are not necessarily good teachers. But that pastor's comment made me think about what my husband does in his work as a Lutheran cantor. More than anything, his calling as a church musician is to equip and assist the music-making of others. It is not about making music for its own sake or about demonstrating his own skill or even about using his own musical talents to make the worship beautiful; it is, instead, about helping the saints in a given place and time sing the eternal story of God's saving love.

That work of helping the faithful to sing is accomplished in a variety of ways. It may mean leading the liturgy from the organ or piano in a manner that encourages robust congregational song. It may mean teaching children in the choir or day school how to read music so that they can better mine the riches of the hymnal. It may mean taking a piece of music that is too difficult for an instrumentalist who wants to play and arranging it into a version that he or she can manage. It may mean composing a brand new piece of music so that the available musicians can better magnify the appointed Reading, Psalm or Verse of the day. Sometimes it means all of these, with the cantor's putting in long hours arranging and teaching and rehearsing lay musicians for something that will take all of one or two minutes to execute in the worship service. In all of this work it is not just the congregation that is better equipped to sing but also the individual musicians who are supported in utilizing their musical talent and ability to live out their vocations as Christian musicians.

I don't know if I have ever shared this here. Sometimes people who aren't familiar with the term ask what a cantor is. The Association of Lutheran Church Musicians has a wonderful answer. It is called, appropriately, "The Role of the Cantor":

When Christ’s people, the baptized, gather for worship,
they receive God’s love in Word and sacrament,
and through the gift of music,
praise, pray, proclaim and recount
the story of God's grace in song.
The cantor--the historical term
among Lutherans--is
the leader of the people's song.
The cantor is responsible for leading the musical expression of the people--
the assembly, choral groups, solo singers, and instrumentalists--
among whom organists have been especially important for Lutherans. 
The cantor uses whatever musical resources are available,
using them in a manner appropriate to the talents of those serving
and the needs of the people who are served.
The cantor leads the earthly assembly in a foretaste
of John’s vision of the heavenly assembly
in which all creatures give praise,
honor, glory and power to the Lamb. (Revelation 5:13).
The cantor's work is a worthy service to God,
God's people, and the world.
It is a high and holy calling.  

Once upon a time, someone who wanted to hurt my husband told him that he doesn't do what he does for others or even for his Lord but for his own aggrandizement--to call attention to himself. I suppose that there is an element of truth in that statement to the extent that every sinner is motivated by selfishness. But what that person did not apparently understand is that if my husband really wanted to draw attention to himself he has been going about it all wrong. If it were all about him he would just play everything and sing everything and be done with it. He is, more often than not, the best musician in the house. But it's not about him, and he knows it. It's about putting the salvation story in the mouths of the redeemed. If it really were all about him, instead of putting in many over and above hours helping untrained singers prepare a song for worship, he would just sing it himself. Instead of taking the time to arrange a piece of music for the instrumentalists on hand, he would  look in the file cabinet, and seeing nothing suitable, shrug and decide not to have instrumentalists that day. Instead of choosing choral music that requires both him and his singers to stretch themselves beyond what is easy and comfortable, he would select a "wind it up and let it go" anthem that because of its predictability sings itself. Moreover, he wouldn't make multiple trips to teach in Africa or spend all the time he does behind the scenes advising and counseling pastors and musicians in synod who seek out his advice regarding music and worship. Nor would he go beyond his musical calling to provide emotional and spiritual support for his musicians who are facing struggles in their personal lives. If it were all about him he wouldn't spend 90-95 percent of his time focusing on others and how he as a Lutheran cantor can enable them to better live out their faith. 

When we left our former parish several of our dear friends, members of the choir, gave my husband a decorative glass nameplate as a going away gift. On it, instead of his name, were the words "Cantor Extraordinaire." He was deeply touched but in his humility expressed to me some reservation about displaying it in his office. He did not want to send the wrong message to our brothers and sisters in Christ at our new parish. As it happens, those brothers and sisters figured out all by themselves that what they now have in their midst is not merely a music director but a cantor, and on their own, not at my husband's request or by his efforts, they decided to change his title from "Minister of Music and Worship" to "Cantor." And now, also not by his own efforts but by those of his rather determined wife, that beautiful glass nameplate sits on a shelf in his office (granted, shyly nestled among some rather sizable tomes). I am so looking forward to seeing what happens in the coming years as this cantor helps a new congregation find its voice. Soli deo gloria. 

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