The Chief Singer: Reviving the title of "cantor" to describe what a church musician really does

I have trouble with some of the terms that are used to describe church musicians. They can be very misleading in a culture that views musicians as entertainers—people who provide the extra, ornamental frills. Even though the nature of the entertainment may vary widelyófrom dance band to lounge piano to symphony orchestra to ballpark organ to solo recital—the general perception remains the same: music is regarded as an extra, an ornament.

To prevent people from transporting that mindset about music into worship, I prefer the term "cantor." A cantor is the "chief singer," the one who leads not only the choir and the instrumentalists but all the people in their song.

The term "cantor" is not of my own making. It is derived from many sources: the practice or thought of the Jewish synagogue, the cantor or chazzan of the early church, the Reformed "cantor" in Geneva, the Dutch Voorzinger, the Puritan precentor, the Lutheran cantor, the precentor and succenter of the Anglican church, the notion of Isaac Watts, the Wesleyan heritage, the Roman Catholic cantor, and the actual "doing" of virtually every Christian worshiping community that sings.

What the Cantor Needs to Know

The cantor needs to know the big story, from creation to consummation. That doesn't mean knowing the story in as detailed a manner as does the preacher or the systematic theologian. Rather, it means knowing the essentials of the plot.

Cantors also need to know the little stories of the people and congregations they serve. Perhaps we don't need to know all the details pastors encounter through counseling, but we need to know the people we're leading well enough to sing with them. It's no easier to sing with people you don't know than it is to preach to people you don't know.

What the Cantor Needs to Do

It goes without saying that the cantor needs to have the musical skills required to lead the congregation. As musicians, therefore, we must spend time working on musical skills. A cantor should develop the skills to do the following five things:

1. Lead the people's praise. God acts, and we inevitably respond with acclamations that are intrinsically musical.
2. Lead the people's prayer. The song of the church is not only praise; prayer, groaning, and crying out to God are also intrinsically musical.
3. Lead and be primarily responsible for the story. The musical portions of the Bible are story: Miriam's song and Moses' song in Exodus, Hannah's song in 1 Samuel, the Psalms, the canticles in Luke and Revelation. So are individual hymns and hymnody in general.
4. Proclaim the Word—not as the preacher does, but the way a Bach cantata or Schuetz motet does.
5. Act as a steward of God's gift of music. That is, realize music's power and use it as a responsible deputy, not for ego gratification.

Choir Director as Cantor

The most direct way to exercise the cantorial role is by actually singing with, or in alternation with, the congregation as lead singer. But in our culture the cantor often exercises the cantorial role in other ways, such as serving as choir director.

The choir is that group, small or large, of singers that practices for the congregation. The choir does just what the individual singer can do: leads the people by singing with them; by alternating with them; by singing the complex parts of the story that the people cannot sing; by introducing new things; by modeling and controlling breathing, phrasing, rhythm, musical shapes, and the pacing and flow of the service.

As cantors, we lead this group of leaders—not only by training them, but by carefully selecting music for them through worship planning with the pastor.

Organist as Cantor

In our culture the organist is the most obvious cantor. The organist controls congregational singing—its tempo, articulation, phrasing, rubato, and breathing. The organist also alternates with the congregation and plays voluntaries such as preludes, offertories, and postludes. In short, the organist in large measure controls the pacing, flow, and tone of a service. As a result, those of us who serve as organists bear a very heavy responsibility for the way the story takes shape week by week—again, not only in the music's execution, but through worship planning with the pastor and the choice of music that grows out of that planning.

Pastor as Presider and Preacher

The pastor as pastor is not the cantor. He or she is the presider, the person responsible for preaching the Word, administering the sacraments, and engaging in the pastoral responsibilities that flow from Word and sacrament. The pastor who sings loudly to control the congregation's song is out of line, just as the cantor who tries to control the pastor's sermons is out of line.

The pastor, with those functioning as cantors, does control the pacing of the service. But, as presider, the pastor needs to know when to get out of the way and let musicians and others lead. The pastor is responsible for presenting the story through preaching, presiding at the table, counseling, and teaching. The cantor provides the broader context of the story through psalmody, hymnody, the liturgy, and its music—through actually leading the ballad of the church.


The cantor lives with many tensions. One of the most painful today is the tension between past and present. We live at a time of disorder, of dis-juncture. Yet in music and worship a sense of continuity is important. So, in dealing with a congregation, we have to figure out how to live creatively on the knife edge of the present as it moves from past to future. We know congregations can't sing all new music. Congregations need the sound, the language, the rhythm, and the phonation that have shaped them, but they also need to live that into an ever-changing future. The church musician is the one who has to help the congregation find their voice in this drifting and confusing sea.

To Sing the Story

As cantors, we are called to sing a story. Briefly, the story is that God created us, called us through Abraham and Sarah, rescued us at the Red Sea, sent prophets and priests and kings and psalmists, in the fullness of time sent Christ, adopts us as daughters and sons, and sends us into the world as agents of justice and peace. The vision that sustains us is above and beyond history and is now present to us in Word, water, bread, and wine—foretastes of the feast to come.

Music is part of that foretaste, but it is also the substance, the medium, the articulation of the story. What shape does it take? That depends on your church and your tradition. As cantors in varying traditions, we each have responsibilities for different portions of our musical heritage. Those responsibilities include Byzantine chant, Gregorian chant, chorales, metrical psalm tunes, the whole psalm-tone heritage, hymns in virtually every language, and hymn tunes in virtually every style from the highest art to the grittiest folk material. In fact, we are responsible for the whole Western musical inheritance from the medieval to the Renaissance to the Baroque to the Classic to the Romantic to the Contemporary periods.

Which of those are appropriate for your congregation? Pastors, musicians, and other church leaders have to figure out week by week, in each time and place, what their voice is and how they need to sing the story. The cantor is at the center of this figuring. She or he has to help puzzle out how to let the song be sung.

Singing the story has to do with the gut, root realities of the Psalms, which are the womb of church music; these realities include shalom, health, and our deepest needs. Church musicians are not normally reminded of this, but it is true. What you do as a church musician is profoundly important to the life of the church, to the lives of its people, and even to the world beyond them.

You are not usually encouraged. In fact, because our culture has chosen to make music a battleground, you are probably more often criticized. I want to encourage you. Hang in there and do what God calls you to do—not for your sake, but for the sake of your people and the world. And remember that behind what you do stands the grace of God. All is of God. All is for God. Soli Deo Gloria.

Reformed Worship 23 © March 1992, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.