How To Become a Cantor
What Exactly Does a Cantor Do?
“What a Cantor did and does today are two very different things,” explains Erik Contzius, a Composer, classical baritone, and Cantor in the Reform Judaism tradition. “The Cantor, by the way, is an older profession than the Rabbi. The Cantor used to have the distinction of leading the temple orchestra or choir. ‘Cantor’ is from the word cantare (to sing) but the Hebrew word is hazzan and that’s what it traditionally was called. It comes from a word meaning ‘to have vision’ — the inspirational vision for the people praying in the synagogue. The Hazzan was not a full-time profession and wasn’t really professionalized until the 20th century. The Cantor would’ve been somebody who had another job and who had a pleasant voice and was intimately knowledgeable in Jewish liturgy; their job was to lead the Jewish worship service. That was not the job of the Rabbi. The Rabbi’s job was to preach and teach. The role in Judaism of the Cantor really began to grow and evolve with the modern synagogue. So, today what does a Cantor do?
Think about what a Rabbi does; that’s what a Cantor does. The Cantor became a full-fledged seminary-trained clergy position. So, the Cantor performs and officiates all life cycle events: weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs, baby namings, brises. In my own personal Cantor life, I was working with conversion students (to become Jewish), officiating at every life cycle event, preaching from the pulpit, doing hospital visitations. You’ll notice I have not yet said anything about music and that’s because, for a modern Cantor, whose primary training is in modern Jewish liturgical music, their primary work experience is in being a clergy person — which creates an interesting schizophrenia within the Cantor who like myself was inspired to go into the career because of the love of Jewish music. But that is not the primary function of the Cantor. If you look at the amount of time spent on the job and what you’re doing, as far as music is concerned, we used to prepare all the liturgies for music. That often meant preparing choirs and accompaniment, although that has waned in the modern synagogue. They haven’t had the same focus on choral and instrumental music, [going, instead] in favor of more accessible music with praise bands and a cappella.”
He describes how music fits into the work and worship life of the Cantor. “My vantage point is as a Reform (or liberal) Jew, which allows for mixed voices, instruments on the Sabbath, and singing in English, whereas in orthodox synagogues there’s no mixed singing, the voice of a woman is not permitted in the synagogue. (The more conservative movement has become more liberal.) There’s choral music, classically-based and composed music, as well as more contemporary music. Since Jewish music is mainly focused on the holidays, the festivals and the Sabbath (which starts Friday night and goes through Saturday), the musical preparation is not as time consuming as teaching bar/bat mitzvah, high school, and adult students, going to board meetings, or working with wedding and funeral families. So the proportion of time with music is very aligned with the clergy duties versus the cantorial duties.”
Cantors who have just graduated from seminary training usually start their careers working with smaller congregations. After some time in the field, they can seek a position with a larger congregation (oftentimes in a bigger city), which can mean a higher income due to an increase in congregation size. In addition, Contzius says, “there are Assistant or Associate Cantor positions. There are not a lot of those positions but they tend to be at the major congregations in Los Angeles, New York, or Chicago.”
Education & Training
“The education required to become an ordained Cantor is a masters degree in Sacred Music,” Contzius says. “There are two majors seminaries in town. One is the Hebrew Union College in Manhattan and Jerusalem. It’s a five-year masters degree that requires one year in Jerusalem and one in New York. The other is the Jewish Theological Seminary. I believe it’s a four or five-year program as well. There are other seminaries and educational programs, but the two major branches, Conservative and Reform, mostly hire graduates from those two seminaries. So if you’re going into it from your undergraduate education, you should have a minimum of two years of collegiate Hebrew. I would even suggest, possibly, a degree in Jewish Studies. If you’re going to do it from the conservatory standpoint, if you have a background as a singer, that’s very helpful but doesn’t guarantee you entry since the career has really grown and the seminaries have changed accordingly. So a conservatory training is not as valued as perhaps a degree in Jewish Studies. They only take anywhere from five to ten students a year so they can afford to be very picky. If your degree is in Philosophy or History what they’re going to want to know is how dedicated are you to your Judaism, because if you’re going to be ordained you need to demonstrate you have the proper constitution. That will require the student to be a person who is full of the faith, as it were, and understands the theology of the institution they’re interested in. The Conservative and Reform movements are vastly different.”
They only take anywhere from five to ten students a year so they can afford to be very picky. If your degree is in Philosophy or History what they’re going to want to know is how dedicated are you to your Judaism, because if you’re going to be ordained you need to demonstrate you have the proper constitution. That will require the student to be a person who is full of the faith, as it were, and understands the theology of the institution they’re interested in. The Conservative and Reform movements are vastly different.”
What skills do you need to be a Cantor?
In terms of the skills required to become a Cantor, Contzius tells us “singing is first and foremost. There was a Teacher at the Hebrew Union College, Israel Alter, and he said that a Cantor needs to study three things to be a Cantor: voice, voice, and voice. In my opinion, that is very true. To be candid, I have seen the quality of the professional Cantor’s voice deteriorate in the modern synagogue. As a Cantor, you should be studying voice on a regular basis if you’re on the pulpit. [There are] people who enter the seminary then graduate and the quality of the voice is not necessarily greatly improved. When I entered seminary, I knew I had a smaller voice but I also knew I needed to grow it. I was very blessed I got to study with a great Teacher when I was in New York, Tom LoMonaco, and he gave me the instrument I have today. Even before you enter the seminary, studying voice is — no pun intended — instrumental. Having great facility with Hebrew and the liturgy is another important skill. I would also suggest being able to play either the guitar or piano, preferably the guitar. It’s almost expected you’ll play the guitar on the pulpit. Also helpful is teaching music to children. And it’s good to have some facility with the computer. I’m amazed there are young people who still don’t know how to use the computer well.”
“You’ve got to be a people person,” Contzius says. “The cantorate is not for a diva. There was a notable New York Cantor from Hungary named Tibor who, when hired by the synagogue, was told he had to teach students and Tibor said ‘Tibor no teach! Tibor sing’ and they still hired him because he had a glorious voice. But the famous Cantors of yesterday, like Richard Tucker and Robert Merrill, who went on to operatic careers, by and large, don’t exist anymore — so you have to have the personality of a clergy person. You have to have patience, like children, and enjoy teaching. You have to have a very empathetic personality because you’ll be working with grieving families. There is a saying in my profession, where ‘many have sung their way into the profession and talked their way out of it’ and sadly I’ve seen that happen to many a colleague who, for whatever reason, their personality wasn’t exactly suited for the position they’re in. You need to be a people person and you should not be rigid and you should be organized. That’s a great asset in this profession.”
“Typically, clergy people have one day off a week and it’s not the weekend — so get ready to lose your weekends,” Contzius tells us. “My day off was Mondays. You’re obviously working Friday night, Saturday morning, and if you’re traditional, Saturday afternoon. Sundays you’ll be working at religious schools in the morning. I have colleagues who work until 2 or 3 o’clock on Sundays.
They’re late hours. I would be in the office at 9 am and leave by 9 or 10 pm. That was typical. So the work life balance is ‘you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a pound.’ It’s a lot and if you have a family, and an understanding congregation, typically in their contract clergy people get a month off for vacation a year. (You don’t use it for one month solid.) I’ve also had the good fortune of having a sabbatical after several years.”
As has been mentioned above, Cantors must attend seminary training to receive their master’s degree before seeking a placement with a synagogue. However, some career-building steps should be made while still in school. Contzius recommends teaching sacred music and getting to know your local Cantors prior to graduation. “In my senior year of college, I had two different religious school music teaching jobs,” he says. “Also, as a senior, I must have interviewed at least twenty local Cantors. (I was lucky because I was living in New Jersey.) I cold called a lot of different synagogues asking to speak with the Cantors and learn more about the profession.” After graduation, newly ordained Cantors can contact their union in regards to possible placements.
How Much Does a Cantor make?
The average salary for a Cantor is approximately $51,400. Depending on job responsibilities and the size of their synagogue, however, a Cantor may earn anywhere from $17,000 to $122,000 annually.
“It’s a salaried position with benefits,” Contzius explains. “You have to negotiate your contract like anyone else would. We’re at an interesting time right now; as the economy waxes and wanes, the synagogue is likewise affected. If you’re at a synagogue that’s healthy financially and otherwise, you can be treated well. You’re not working as an ascetic; you’re not giving up all this time and working six-day weeks without compensation.”
Unions, Groups & Associations
“The nice thing about graduating from one of the two major seminaries is it gains you access to the two major unions, the American Conference of Cantors (Reform) and the Cantors Assembly (Conservative),” Contzius says. “Each of those unions has placement directors and synagogues who are looking for professional, ordained Cantors. Newly graduated Cantors can apply for synagogues below (I believe) 1,000 family units. More experienced Cantors can apply for any synagogue. I think there are similar rules with Cantors Assembly.”
- “A very key skill is knowing how to chant Torah, the different books of the Bible. Knowing that before you even get into the seminary is helpful.
- Learn Hebrew and make a practice of going to the synagogue regularly. If you’re getting sick of it or you like your free time on a Saturday morning, don’t consider the profession. It’s not for you.
- If you’re looking for a paycheck, don’t go into the profession because you do give a lot of time and energy. If you don’t have the faith and don’t commit to it, you’re not going to be happy in the profession. You have to be filled with the same hazzan, the same vision to inspire others. If you cannot find that inner fire in you, then it’s just a job and this is not the kind of job you can phone in. People will know immediately. If you’re a decent enough singer you can probably sing oratorios and sing in church choirs, but if you’re in opera and you can’t cry when you need to cry, [it’s not going to work.] It’s the same with the synagogue. If you can’t comfort people when they need it and rejoice with people at the zenith of their lives, you’re going to burn out really quick.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Have your ego in check. The profession has gotten a bad rap because people think the Cantor or the Rabbi is a profession about ego. It’s not. My Voice Teacher, Richard Slade, says there are three kinds of singers: the storyteller (the person who sings through the fourth wall to the audience telling a story), the singer who sings behind the wall (the opera, Broadway or actor-singer who embodies a character and channels their message through that channel), and the the religious singer, whose job is to become almost invisible. They’re a lens through which the congregation experiences the divine.
In traditional congregations, the Cantor doesn’t face the congregation; they face Jerusalem. Even in synagogues where the pulpit faces the people, the job of a religious singer is to bring people closer to God. It requires the singer to become very skilled and this is why I’ve always worked on my voice — because I didn’t want my lack of voice to bring people out of the moment. The best compliment I can ever be given would not be ‘you sounded lovely,’ but ‘you inspired me’ or ‘you got me closer to God’ or ‘I was really feeling low and I felt uplifted’ — that’s where the singer has to become almost invisible. At the same time, in the modern synagogue where the Cantor has become more of a cheerleader to get people to sing along, they too have to become invisible. They have to lead enough so the congregation feels comfortable but at the same time blend enough so people don’t feel intimidated.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“When people are in the cantorate, they stop taking voice lessons. That is a huge mistake. Most of my colleagues do study voice but I know a number who do not study with a Voice Teacher or who have stayed too long with a Teacher and have not made progress.”
What is the question people should ask about this career but rarely do?
“I did almost anything a Cantor could do in the pulpit and a big thing I discovered was my ability to compose. I’m a published Composer of Jewish music. I was really fortunate and blessed to be in positions where I could compose music for the synagogue, then perform it immediately. Many Composers do not get that opportunity and I feel this is a place where Cantors can find their own voice: through composing. Not everyone can do it, but I think every Cantor should try it and they may be surprised. It’s a great way to stretch the profession.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Hazzan. Vision. I want to come back to that because ultimately, if there’s going to continue to be a role for the Cantor in the 21st century synagogue, the Cantor — despite all the clergy duties and going to meetings and all that stuff — has to remember that his or her primary duty is to inspire. The Cantor must always try to find inspiration that he or she can then share.”
Cantor Erik Contzius is a versatile baritone, a creative composer, and a dynamic performer. His Jewish repertoire is eclectic, ranging from the highly classical (performing the Ernest Bloch “Sacred Service” in Bulgaria, Canada, and Israel) to traditional hazzanut (appearing on the stage of the Stardust Ballroom at Kutsher’s Hotel in the Catskills), to dynamic vocal jazz (touring with the Afro-Semitic Experience!). Cantor Contzius’ compositions have been performed by cantors and choirs across the United States and can be heard on his album, “Teach My Lips a Blessing.”
The New York Times praised his “potent narrative,” while he has garnered high praise from JazzTimes, The Arty Semite, Catholic New York, The Jewish Press of Omaha and Metroland. His setting of Psalm 116 in Hebrew & Latin, in fact, premiered at the Vatican. Contzius’ musical template is an idyllic reflection of his relationship with the Divine.