Antiphonal singing is when the choir is divided into two groups, with the sides alternating for each verse. [We generally have the lower voices on the left, facing the tabernacle, and the higher voices on the right to make it easier for the voices to blend.]
Although there is no break between verses [while one side finishes, the other is taking their breath to prepare to begin the next verse], there is a pause in the middle at the astrisk (*). This pause is important because it provides a moment of silence through the course of the chant. The length of the pause is dependent on the acoustics of the location – lasting as long as needed to actually reach a point of silence before starting with the second half of the verse. [On our handouts, I generally have “3 second pause” to encourage us to wait a moment before continuing.]
This rhythm is helpful because it instills a meditative quality to the Psalm or Canticle. By the two sides “sharing the work” of expressing the prayer, we not only preserve our voices in order to sing well, but we are also given the opportunity to listen as we pray. This balance of singing/listening incorporates not only our voices, but also involves our ears in allowing the prayer to enter into our hearts – guiding us to consider listening as a part of our prayer life. While prayer is essentially talking to God, we miss the reality that we are in relationship with God if we do not allow time to listen, being attentive to His response in our hearts.
Additionally, by attending to the moment of silence, we are given the opportunity to simply “be.” Prayer is not only our doing. In fact, prayer to God is an act of the Holy Spirit (CCC 2564). In each moment of silence, we recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit, uniting us through prayer with the life of the Trinity.
Lastly, in waiting for the silence, we are given the opportunity to check our minds and hearts – forcing us to slow down and to appreciate the moment we are in, offering a sense of peace that is often absent in our busy lives.
Another element of antiphonal singing is the incorporation of our bodies in prayer. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting any form of liturgical dance. Rather, I would like to highlight that in being attentive to our posture, we are allowing our bodies a greater degree of participation than just our ears, lungs, and vocal cords.
Pay attention to which cantor sings the Antiphon: those on the same side as the lead cantor will remain standing while the other side sits after the antiphon is completed/before the psalm or canticle begins. When you sit, be mindful that you still need to take a good breath in order to sing smoothly, so keep your chest upright to allow your lungs to expand as needed.
When we reach the underlined asterisks ( * ), the side that is sitting will stand. Whichever side is singing that verse will need to wait for the sound of people moving to stop before beginning the second half of the verse.
The next verse will be the Doxology (“Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit“), during which we will all bow towards Our Lord in the tabernacle.
This standing/sitting dynamic is also practical considering Vespers takes almost 30 min to sing. The Traditional Form of the Liturgy of the Hours included 5 psalms during Vespers, which would obviously take a bit longer than the 3 we encounter today (the Church would pray the full 150 Psalms in one week through the Traditional Office, which was revised to a 4 week rotation a bit before Vatican II). Standing for that period of time would be difficult for anyone, let alone the older members of a community. With this dynamic, we recognize and respect the limitations of our bodies, allowing the focused movement to become a part of the beauty of the prayer.
Just and added note: beginning with the reading, everyone will sit/stand together. This includes the Canticle of Mary/Magnificat, during which we will remain standing while singing antiphonally. Of course, please feel free to sit at anytime as needed.