“Singing is praying twice.”
I can’t possibly number the times we’ve said this, with a warm-and-sweet-as-hot-cocoa smile, to shy fellow friends, parishioners and family members, encouraging them to sing aloud for the praise of God, even if the sounds they produce are slightly more atonal than astounding.
Because, after all, singing is praying twice. I couldn’t agree more with St. Augustine!
However, this adage takes on a whole new meaning when you’re a Mass cantor. If you’re nervous, if you’re new, or if you’re soloing an a capella Latin Sequence on international television for five minutes . . . you pray twice every second. Out of dire need, that is.
I’ve had the privilege of serving as a Mass cantor for nearly five years. Reflecting on that period of time (which was rewarding, instructive and blessed beyond anything I could have anticipated), I can say without hesitation that being homeschooled equipped me more than anything else for the success that came in this particular field of study and service in the Church.
I hope that by sharing my story and four special ways homeschooling has helped me in cantoring, I might inspire other homeschooled students and graduates who are called along a similar path!
1. Homeschooling cultivated my faith.
The central truth about cantoring is this: you can possess talent; you can have enthusiasm; you can work with the best accompanists and have the most time-honored sacred music set before you . . . but if you view cantoring merely as a performance, or if you worry overmuch about what the congregation’s thinking of you, you’re missing the entire point.
However, if your singing is born of true faith and awe over the love of God and the miracle of the Mass, it doesn’t matter if your accompanist misses notes (or if you miss notes) . . . you are joyfully using your singing to encourage other people in their faith.
The less you think about yourself, the more you become a vessel of grace to others. And that, essentially, is the role of the Mass cantor—to be one of the countless small channels of grace God uses to draw others to Him.
I began my journey of cantoring just before I turned fifteen years old. We’d recently moved to a new home and relocated to a new parish, and I volunteered to cantor for the 5pm Vigil Mass. Since that time, I’ve inevitably battled nerves and perfectionism when I’ve stepped up to the ambo.
But my formative years as a homeschooled student, spent living and learning in my family’s domestic church under the care of my loving parents, helped to root me in the beauty of my Catholic faith, and helped me to understand that singing is a prayer and an act of worship to God—it’s giving back to Our Lord the gift of music that He gave to me.
2. Homeschooling gave me time to seriously study music.
I started taking voice lessons as a fifteen-year-old, in preparation for my first time cantoring for a Catholic wedding. The bride-to-be had requested Schubert’s Ave Maria and I wanted help on the technique of singing it. Thus began a lovely friendship and learning experience with my current voice teacher.
As many home-educating families will attest, homeschooling provides not only a shelter, but also innumerable opportunities for the student to grow and flourish in the talents God has given him or her.
Thanks to my wonderful parents, this meant that I was given the help, encouragement and time I needed to seriously study music (both with my voice teacher and on my own) so as to become a better-equipped cantor.
I’ve spent many vital hours learning sheets of music I’d received only at the last minute, and I have no idea how I would have accomplished this if I’d been attending public high school!
Since I began cantoring my sophomore year, I’ve been able to learn nine different Mass settings, as well as many pieces of sacred music; I’ve been exposed ever more deeply to the beauty of Catholic liturgy, and have been able to improve in reading music, in singing Latin, and in my vocal technique.
I feel much more capable and confident when I approach the ambo than I did when I first began.
3. Homeschooling gave me flexibility for new opportunities.
Being a homeschooled student provided me with great flexibility of schedule. If our parish priest called me on a Monday and asked if I’d be able to cantor for a funeral Mass that Wednesday morning, I was able to say yes without difficulty. Weddings and other opportunities were also worked in this way.
Thanks to this flexibility, I was also able to serve for a year and a half as the cantor for a parochial school’s weekly children’s Mass, and I eventually instructed one of the students in becoming a cantor herself.
At my home parish, choir rehearsals for Christmas or the Triduum were also made possible by the simple fact I was learning at home and could tailor my studying around my service, and vice-versa.
4. Homeschooling gave me courage for the unfamiliar.
My parents and siblings, as well as other dear homeschooling friends, have been a vital source of encouragement over the years, urging me to swallow my fears and to cantor in situations that at first seemed quite daunting. Homeschooled students, in essence, are trained for challenge!
I’ve had the great privilege of becoming a substitute cantor for EWTN’s live Masses. Several of these Masses have fallen on feasts in our Catholic liturgy, including Pentecost Sunday.
I was extremely nervous at first, having to rise before dawn, put on a choir robe, quickly run over music (including Latin Mass settings I’d been given only the day before!), and then walk out to the little secluded ambo behind the sanctuary and do my best for God. But these have been beautiful experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything.
Last year, I was able to cantor for a Mass at our diocesan Cathedral. A last-minute decision led to my singing Mozart’s “Ave Verum” from the choir loft during the offertory—that was an unforgettable experience, but it also required learning music at the very last minute and cantoring in an entirely new environment!
Being able to cantor in very unfamiliar situations helped me to humbly surrender my efforts to God’s will, and to do it all for His love.
As I look forward to many more years of serving as a Mass cantor, of learning and expanding in faith and in music (and, in the spirit of St. Augustine, continuing to pray every two seconds if I’m particularly nervous!), I pray I’ll never forget that I’m able to cantor only by the grace of God, by the love and support of my family, and by the homeschooling that has equipped me to walk up to the ambo and sing for the glory of God.