Education and Training Requirements
Jewish high schools are located throughout the United States, but are most often found in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and their metropolitan areas. If you attend such a school, you’ll take the typical courses in business, science, mathematics, English, and speech, but also take Jewish-centered classes on the Talmud, Bible, Jewish philosophy, Jewish music, and Hebrew. Regardless of the type of high school you attend, you should take as many music, communications, and psychology classes as possible. Join the band and chorale groups to develop your musical skills.
Today, cantors in large non-Orthodox synagogues have master’s degrees in Jewish music/Jewish education or related fields from approved Jewish seminaries. The graduate program typically lasts five years. While working on their degrees, cantorial students study the Hebrew language, Jewish history, and the chants used for daily services as well as high holy days [Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement)]. They also participate in internships at local synagogues to obtain practical experience. Many colleges require that cantorial students complete a year of study in Israel as part of their education. Members of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC, Reform movement) often receive their training at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion or other accredited seminaries approved by the ACC. Many members of the Cantors Assembly (Conservative movement) receive training at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music.
Training for Orthodox cantors is less structured. Some take courses at Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish Music that lead to a cantorial diploma or an associate cantorial certificate, but most receive private instruction from an experienced cantor or vocal coach.
Indiana University at Bloomington offers a Jewish Sacred Music curriculum that helps students prepare to become cantors and enter cantorial school. Visit http://www.indiana.edu/~jsp/undergraduates/music.shtml for more information.
Other Education or Training
“Great cantors never stop learning,” according to the American Conference of Cantors. “There are always more skills to master, more questions to ask, more scholarship to digest, more melodies to sing!” The conference offers continuing education (CE) classes in musicianship, liturgy, pastoral skills, time management, and other topics. The Cantors Assembly and the Women Cantors’ Network provide CE opportunities at their annual conferences. Contact these organizations for more information.
Hebrew College offers a certificate in Jewish sacred music to those who complete six courses (including basic Torah and Haftarah cantillation; basic nusach for Shabbat and High Holy Days; liturgy of the synagogue service; and Jewish music survey) and two semesters of cantorial coaching. Many colleges and universities—including University of Pittsburgh, Duke University, Graduate Theological Union, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Vanderbilt University—offer undergraduate and graduate certificates in Jewish studies, music, vocal performance, or related areas. Contact schools in your area to learn about available programs.
Certification, Licensing, and Special Requirements
Certification or Licensing
Cantors must register as justices of the peace to be legal officiants at weddings in some states.
Orthodox congregations allow only men to serve as cantors. In the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements, men and women may serve.
Experience, Skills, and Personality Traits
Only those who complete university training or private instruction from an experienced cantor or vocal coach can become cantors. Many cantorial students augment their training by completing internships at local synagogues.
Successful cantors have a love of music and Judaism. They have an in-depth knowledge of the Tanakh and other Jewish literature, Hebrew history and traditions, and their tradition’s worship methodology. They feel a “calling” from God to serve their congregations—and some would say they are able to bring “God’s presence” into their performance. Cantors need a pleasant and strong singing voice, as well as an artistic delivery. In addition to leading musical liturgies, cantors are increasingly teaching students who are preparing for the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, officiating at weddings, counseling congregants who are experiencing life challenges, and filling in for the rabbi when he or she is unable to perform their duties. As a result, cantors need excellent communication and interpersonal skills, strong organizational and time-management skills (because there are many demands on their time), leadership ability, and basic knowledge of counseling techniques.