Meet Cantus—eight men who use their voices to make a big sound and an even bigger impact within the music community

Student Guide

Cantus (pronounced CAHN-toos) is a choral chamber ensemble committed to creating excellent and meaningful music for its audiences. With such a small number of singers, you might be surprised at how the group can fill a room with sound. But rest assured, they do this by performing mostly a cappella singing (singing without musical instruments), although occasionally singers are accompanied by percussion or an acoustic—as in, not electric—instrument.

With less than a dozen singers, and little or no instrumental accompaniment, each singer must be on his “A game” at all times—perfectly in tune, rhythmically accurate, and matching the energy that each song requires. The members of Cantus accomplish this with a shared goal of musical excellence and a commitment to one another.

Cantus performs choral singing, where most often the goal is to create one sound, or a single “voice” that emerges from the group. That doesn’t mean everyone sings the same part, but rather, that the audience hears the ensemble instead of eight individual voices. Even when a soloist is featured, he’s supported by the other members as a unified force.

Cantus, however, isn’t all “classical business.” One of its goals is to spread the joy of singing, whether that’s through traditional classical music, American folk standards, or modern compositions. And they don’t take themselves too seriously, either. Watch this parody of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s song “Thrift Shop,” which the group renames “Barbershop”—rap and all.

Take a listen:

A Chamber Ensemble of Voices

The mention of chamber music might suggest a small group of instruments, like a string quartet, and rightfully so. Chamber music is often associated with a group of instruments where, rather than multiple instruments playing a part (like in an orchestra), each instrument carries a part by itself. And just like instrumental music, each singer in a choral chamber group sings an individual part, as opposed to a choir, where multiple voices per part are present.

Cantus has singers with a range of voices, which helps the audience experience a full, rich sound. Each singer identifies as one of the three major male “voicings.” Male singers can be either tenors (the highest male voice), baritones (lower than tenor), or basses (the lowest male voice).

Learn a little more about the different classifications of voices from London’s Royal Opera:

Cantus is more than just a performing group, however, as they routinely share their love of music in concerts for adults and young people alike. The group is also heavily involved in educational outreach, providing guided performances that draw on repertoire from modern Grammy®-winning composer and choral conductor Eric Whitacre to international folk music.

In this performance and demonstration, Cantus explores the ways that music helps us find and experience connections with one another. The program will include some of the following repertoire and perhaps a few other Cantus favorites:

“There is a Meeting Here Tonight”
By Bob Gibson, Alex Hassilev, and Glenn Yarbrough

“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”
by Billy Joel

“Follow the Drinking Gourd”
arranged by Vincente Chavarria

“Starry Messenger”
by Z. Randall Stroope

“Darest, O Soul”
by Mari Ésabel Valverde

by Grace Brigham

by Chris Foss

“Space Oddity”
by David Bowie

BREAK: Question and Answer Session

“You Will Be Found”
by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul

Who’s Who


Photo by Curtis Johnson

Cantus was founded in 1995 by four students at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The group grew to eight to be able to perform a more extensive variety of pieces, including the group's signature piece, Franz Biebl’s Ave Maria.

The word “cantus” comes from the Latin word cantare for “a song or singing.” In the history of music, the term “cantus” refers to a kind of church singing called chant, where there is a single line of melody. It was later used to refer to the melody line (specifically called the “cantus firmus”) of a choral work in polyphonic style, where two or more independent lines of music occur at the same time, creating a “thick” musical texture. The definitions might seem like opposites—a single melody versus a complicated composition—but they’re a perfect juxtaposition for the breadth of musical abilities that Cantus features. Each singer is an accomplished and respected musician individually, but together they create music greater than the sum of their individual voices.

Cantus is one of the few full-time vocal ensembles in the country. The group proves that making music can be a day job by rehearsing, performing, and professionally instructing 46 weeks out of the year. Cantus performs with no conductor; instead, the members perform as a true chamber ensemble, each an integral part of the group’s vocal dynamic. From choosing songs to interpreting the music, to rehearsing, each singer leaves his fingerprints on the music they present.

The group currently includes the following members:

Alexander Nishibun, tenor
Jacob Christopher, tenor
Alberto de la Paz, tenor
Chris Foss, bass
David Geist, baritone
Samuel Green, bass
Sam Kreidenweis, baritone
Paul Scholtz, tenor

Check This Out…

  • Cantus is a bit different from other musical groups, even other chamber groups. For one, there’s no conductor; the group instead relies on group dynamics, proximity on stage, and lots of rehearsal to perform at the highest level. Members also take turns acting as a producer on different pieces. The producer chooses music, interprets musical elements (think tempo, dynamics, rhythm, tuning, and blending voices), and creates a rehearsal schedule. Observe how the group interacts without a conductor. How do they know when to stop and start, speed up or slow down, or get louder or softer? (Hint: watch their eyes, their head movements, and how they breathe.)
  • Cantus combines their voices to create a larger sound than you might expect from eight people. How do you think they do that? See if you can notice which men sing which part and what notes you hear. Listen for supporting, sometimes sustained notes in the bass (remember, that's the lowest voice) which often forms the basis of a song’s harmony. Often, you’ll be able to hear the melody of a song in the higher tenor voice. You might even close your eyes. Can you hear individual voices at all, or do the sounds meld into something bigger?
  • We already learned that Cantus wants to spread the joy of singing. What about their performance (think: lyrics, musical sounds, or even facial expressions) spreads joy? Even when the songs they perform are quiet or serious, can you still detect a sense of joy? What other emotions or reactions do you feel?

Think About This…

  • Most of Cantus’s programs include a larger message—in fact, many of their program themes center around a social message. Cantus views their music as an extension of their beliefs; they advocate through music for social justice, support for the military, and other causes that are important to them. Now consider how music (or other arts) impacts your life. In what ways can or does art influence the world beyond the stage or studio?
  • To Cantus, music encompasses, well… everything! Which might be why they created a space-themed program, expressing the wonder of outer space in song and lyrics. Watch an excerpt from “One Giant Leap,” the 2019 touring program for Cantus, which celebrates space exploration, the human spirit, and innovation:
    How does music represent or mean something larger (even as large as the universe) to you?
  • Cantus is all about collaboration. Their music and performances wouldn't work if they all acted as individuals. Observe how they work together as a team, taking turns as the producer, and how they interact on stage. What lessons can you apply from their collaboration to your own life—at school, at home, or in your own art?

Take Action: Share Your Voice

The mission of Cantus is to engage audiences in meaningful musical and human experiences, especially through collaboration—working together. Think of a way that you come together with others to give a voice to shared human experiences. It could be, like Cantus, through music, or perhaps you collaborate through dance, or visual art, or even serving others.

Take a picture or video of how you share your voice and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any other platform. Make sure if other people are part of what inspires you that you have their permission to include them in your post.

Alright, you’re ready to hear Cantus.

Teacher Guide

Teachers, Guardians, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered

Welcome! Whether you grew up in a choir or are brand new to chamber music, we’ve got your back.

Cantus is a group of eight men that belong to a choral chamber ensemble—which is like a choir, but smaller. They sing a cappella, without instruments, and unlike a choir, where many singers sing each part, each singer in Cantus holds down his own part. Cantus sings a variety of songs from classical music to modern compositions, focusing on sharing joy through music. The group performs concerts and musical education for students across the country, infusing their music with social messages.

Here are a couple of links to get you started:


Writer: Tori P. Friedrich
Content Editor: Lisa Resnick
Logistics Coordination: Katherine Huseman
Program Manager: Tiffany A. Bryant
Producer: Kenny Neal



David M. Rubenstein

Deborah F. Rutter

Mario R. Rossero
Senior Vice President

The Fortas Chamber Music Concerts are supported by generous contributors to the
Abe Fortas Memorial Fund, and by a major gift to the fund from the late Carolyn E. Agger, widow of
Abe Fortas.

The contents of this Guide have been developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and do not necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education. You should not assume endorsement by the Federal Government.

© 2019 The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

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