MCI: Why a new Cantor Education Program?

Over the course of this new year, Byzantine Catholic World readers will see several articles about a new cantor education program. In this issue, I’ll explain why we are creating a new program.

In brief: the Church needs new cantors (Metropolitan William estimates we could use fifty new cantors right now). We need cantors who are comfortable leading all of our services. And we need cantors who don’t just sing the music in front of them, but cantors who show the faithful by example how to transform it into real meaningful prayer.

traditional cantor education

In Europe up until World War II, cantors typically served as village schoolteachers, and studied formally in cantor/ teacher schools for several years before receiving certification. Many of these trained cantors came to the United States, and taught cantors to succeed them. Unfortunately, in the years that followed, our liturgical life became narrower, and volunteer cantors (some of whom could not read music) succeeded those with formal training. Thus, the singing of services like Vespers and Matins became a lost art.

On the other hand, attempts to start cantor schools in the “New World” were not always effective; the schools did not have a set curriculum, and were out of the reach of many potential cantors due to the distances involved. Even when they had the support of our bishops, cantors might “finish the program” without a firm grasp of the liturgical, musical, and leadership tools required to lead the singing at all the services of the church year.

enter the cantor institute

The Metropolitan Cantor Institute was founded in Pittsburgh in 1997. It taught quite a few new cantors, and equipped more experienced cantors for new challenges and greater responsibilities. But it still faced problems of geography (how many students actually can travel to Pittsburgh every month?) and pedagogy (what do you when the material is too advanced for some students, and too easy for others?).

In 2013, the decision was made to write a formal set of cantor certification standards, describing the knowledge and skills a cantor must have in order to lead church singing throughout the year. Meetings were held with several groups of long-time cantors, and some additions were made based on their input – but there was a general consensus that there are basic, essential concerns: a cantor who cannot lead a funeral service, or the hymns of Holy Week for example, needs to learn them. The standards are written so that the necessary material could be taught in 3-4 years, after which time any cantor who meets those standards could practically be parachuted into a parish and land on his or her feet, needing only to learn the particular traditions of that parish.

a metropolitan cantor institute

In January 2014, upon my appointment as director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute, I was asked by Metropolitan William to orient the MCI toward serving all four eparchies of the Byzantine Catholic Metropolitan Church (Pittsburgh, Passaic, Parma, and Phoenix). It had become clear that much of what we were teaching in Pittsburgh could be taught online; in fact, for several years the MCI sessions were designed with that virtual, longdistance learning component in mind. But in real-time, how do we teach someone to sing? And how do we certify that a student can not only sing our chant, but also lead the services?

The answer is to use both technology and our collective experience wisely. The MCI will offer vocal classes throughout all four eparchies, making these classes available in video format, and encouraging cantors to obtain some formal voice training in their own geographic area. (We also will provide those local voice teachers with information about exactly what it is that our cantors need to do!) Internetbased tools will allow students to learn pitch matching and accurate singing of intervals. In many cases, we will match up students with more experienced cantors and clergy in their area who can help them and assist the MCI with assessing their progress. When this is not possible, students will be able to upload recordings of their own singing and receive feedback from MCI instructors.

However, no student will be certified as a cantor without an in-person assessment by at least two experienced cantors at an actual parish service, during which the prospective cantor to be certified demonstrates that he or she knows the liturgy, can properly sing the chant, and can compellingly lead the sung prayer of their parish.

For more about the new cantor education, visit the new MCI web site at https://mci.