Monthly Archives: August 2013


Stained Glass Panel - Rosh HashanahThis month-or-so period preceding the High Holy Days holds a special place for me.  For one thing, since it is for many communities a time of musical preparation for these monumental holy days and their extended liturgy, many cantors and choirs are busily preparing their soul-stirring renditions.  And as we become re-infused with this music in rehearsal, the mood of the Yamim Noraim extends far out ahead of the Days of Awe themselves like the anvil top of some magnificent August thunderhead.

My home synagogue (since I was very young) has been Beth El, a large Conservative congregation with a long history of fine choral singing (not surprising here in Minnesota) both in this season and throughout the year.  I’m proud to have been a part of that history, with a few breaks, over the past 40+ years.

I have officiated cantorially for these holy days for over 30 years.  This will be my seventh year in this capacity at Sharei Chesed, a wonderful little congregation in a western suburb, where we have a small group of singers who sing lovely (mostly unison) tunes during our services.

At the same time, I make it my practice to attend the Beth El choir rehearsals in a kind of unofficial advisory capacity, singing with the bass section (or in falsetto with the altos) through the first several practices, then being a listener and offering occasional feedback and advice as asked, even though I won’t get to join them for the actual services.

It happens that this year, Sharei Chesed has taken on the task of hosting our community Slichot service involving several of the local congregations, with the joint choirs of these participating shuls adding their voices to those of our fine rabbis and cantors.  I have had the honor and privilege to be involved with the planning and coordination of this service.

The sense of communal purpose during these harried weeks preceding the High Holy Days is wonderfully palpable.  And choral singing is a quintissential embodiment of community.  It is in all senses a team effort, a cooperative venture, that will culminate in a synergistic way late on Saturday evening and again in the following weeks, as we enter the gates of repentence and raise our collective choral voice in the uniquely plaintive melodies and stirring harmonies that characterize this season of awe.

Hopefully we can carry that musical synergy through the rest of the year, to enhance our Shabbat and festival services with the same seriousness of musical purpose and choral cooperation, to bring the same degree of beauty, power and grandeur to those occasions that we create on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I do hope you will have such an opportunity, this year or in the future, to feel and fuel this communal awe by participating in the communal act of choral singing, both for these Days of Awe and throughout the year.

Here’s wishing you a happy, healthy and prosperous 5774.  L’shana Tovah!

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Blue on white etching of instrumentsOver the past thirty or so years, there’s been an evolving attitude in the synagogue community toward music in the service.  I recall in the early 1980s hearing a lot of railing against cantorial and/or choral music as being too much of “a performance” that discouraged congregational participation and unduly lengthened the service.  Given the occasional excess committed by some cantors and choirs (one heard anecdotes about certain of the great hazzanim in parts of Brooklyn for example, where the Saturday service routinely concluded at 2:00 pm), there may have been at least some justification to those complaints.

It shouldn’t be a “show.”  It wasn’t long before that argument seemed to transition to one saying that the best, most authentic Jewish worship experience was one with no choir, and with an emphasis on fast communal davening that encouraged a consistent rhythm and flow to the liturgy, and where it was incumbent upon the hazzan or bal tfilah not to get in the way.

Today, we find the ritual role of the hazzan has, in many communities, been greatly diminished if not entirely eliminated in favor of lay congregants divvying up sections of the service.  Ironically though, accompanying this new state of affairs has been a revival of the once-scorned performance element formerly embodied in the traditional cantorial/choral model, now replaced by chassidic folk and pop style tunes, often with instrumental accompaniment.  Witness the proliferation of “Friday Nite Live” or “Rockin’ Shabbat” services in so many congregations, that are ostensibly designed to draw in greater crowds.  The new role of cantor/hazzan is increasingly that of the guitar-toting song leader.

There certainly can and should be a debate on the merits or drawbacks of such a stylistic approach to mainstream Jewish worship.  More on that in future posts.

Then again, maybe it should.  The point here is that the de-emphasis of the “performance” element didn’t seem to last long, presumably because its absence left an unacceptable void in the service.  This should not be surprising, since ritual itself is indeed a performance.  And performance is, or should be, about beauty, emotional power and impact.

Try as we might, once we succeed in removing the “performance” aspect from ritual, we can’t for long have a truly meaningful worship experience.  It may work for a while, but sooner or later we begin to feel the void, and ritual becomes rote.  We need a periodic renewal of our understanding, on the most instinctively spiritual level, of what the ritual represents and celebrates.

Of course, these ritual procedures in and of themselves are there to remind us of religious precepts – the act of gathering the four fringes of the tallit in preparation for reciting the Sh’ma, the various “choreographed” moments throughout our prayers, the complex procedures and protocols of the Torah service – all of these constitute the theatre known as ritual.

Phoning it in.  But as any seasoned singer or actor (or rabbi or cantor) knows, there’s effective, meaningful performance, and then there’s “phoned-in” performance.

Sometimes we can achieve profound, meaningful prayerfulness, or kavanah, within our own consciousness, without the external theatrics of a musically gifted shliach or accomplished choir singing beautiful renditions to inspire us.   This is a skill we are encourged to cultivate and develop in our individual davening.  But even the most skilled among us are sooner or later bound to fall into a rote routine where it becomes harder and harder to avoid “phoning it in,” and more challenging to be in touch with the innate grandeur and profundity of our prayers.

Ritual performed apologetically, sheepishly or apathetically is not only dull and uncompelling, it can actually come off as fraudulent and dishonest.  Just as the successful performer can never allow hesitation or uncertainty in delivery, effective and powerful ritual must be performed effectively and powerfully, with full commitment – indeed, with a sense of theatre.  Proper music is essential in this pursuit.

Keeping it real.  Nearly all music is in some way theatrical.  Music has an uncanny ability to convey pictorial, emotional and dramatic narrative and, as our ancestors knew so well, lends itself perfectly to the enhancement of ritual.

Our Shabbat and holyday services should always merit and warrant the beautification and enhanced dimension that appropriate and well-appointed music can achieve.  If we really want our services to attract and engage congregants both old and new, we must be willing to conceive of our services as the powerful and evocative theatre they are, and be more serious about beautifying and enhancing them with great music, both old and new.  But we must do it in an appropriate and respectful way – without pandering, without the all-too-easy willingness to mortgage our authentic Jewish tradition of dignity and decorum in worship for the sake of conforming to passing trends.                             Join Email List

FACING THE MUSIC – Daring to Explore New Territory

photo of orchestral score pagesLike most of us, you have certain kinds of music you really prefer over others.  It’s a very personal choice.  And like most of us, you might have certain kinds of music you’re sure you don’t like, don’t care about or just don’t know much about.  You might even find it intimidating.  This is your golden opportunity to challenge yourself, and try something new.

On Its Terms Rather Than Yours – This challenge is about the willingness to forgo your pre-existing musical preferences and expectations, and look at this new kind of music without prejudice or preconceived notions.  Think of yourself as the intrepid cultural explorer of a landscape strange to you – a horizon-broadening musical adventure.

I personally find this process useful when I’m to perform a work I’m not sure I want to like.  More often than not, I end up finding at least one thing to admire about the piece, genre or style, and I learn about the culture behind it.  Not only is my mind is opened a little wider, but I’m able to give full and proper commitment to the performance.

Buying In – The first step in this approach is the willingness to overcome our misgivings.  We know how we feel, but we still put those feelings aside for the moment, and consider the new territory without pre-existing notions.

Crashing the Barriers of Prejudice – Sometimes it’s not the music itself that presents a barrier to our appreciation, but what it represents, culturally, socially, personally.  Some people don’t like Haydn or Mozart because they associate it with elitism and all its disagreeable aspects.  Other people don’t care for country music because they have come to associate it with some other set of negative cultural trappings.   Or perhaps we associate a certain kind of music with a particularly traumatic or unfortunate aspect of our own life.

Whether or not you feel you can work through such barriers is of course an individual determination.  But if you can manage it, you might be surprised in the end to find something intrinsically worthwhile despite your initial ambivalence.

Once you’ve decided to be brave, the next step is to have some fun and explore the music itself.

sheet-music-still-life-1.jpgListen – Do this repeatedly over a long period (perhaps once or twice a day over two weeks), and preferably with a good pair of full-spectrum speakers or headphones, which will help you to hear all the details of the song or piece.  If you have access to the score and are adept at following along in it (but it takes practice), this is an excellent way to learn the true construction of a classical work, for example.

After your listening period, if possible, leave it alone for a month or two, then come back to it.  Chances are you’ll hear it with a new appreciation and perspective.  

Research – Your appreciation may be enhanced by knowing the backstory of the piece:

  • Who is the composer or artist who created it?  Learn about their life.
  • What was their purpose, if any, in creating the piece?
  • What compelling circumstances might have influenced the composer?
  • What about the era during which the work came to be?
  • What have critics and enthusiasts said about the work? 

Evaluate – In your opinion:

  • How well does the piece do what it does (even if you don’t necessarily like what it does)?
  • How unique and original is it?  Is it done in a well-worn style?
  • Does it have technical brilliance (i.e., is it showy)?  Does this enhance or detract from the effect?
  • If it’s a well-known classical work, compare recorded performances.  This is an especially popular pastime among opera lovers.

At Least Try It – To go to such an effort doesn’t obligate you to end up liking or embracing this new music.   If you find you still can’t relate to it, maybe you’ll be induced to think about why, rather than just relying on your established tastes.  And at the very least, you’ll have made the honest effort to explore this new territory, and in the process learn something about how to understand and evaluate music.                                                      Join Email List



Photo of Michael Reid Winikoff

Michael Reid Winikoff

This is my first post on the subject of music, both in the Jewish community and beyond.  I’m anxious to talk to you about what thrills me (and about what doesn’t necessarily thrill me) in Jewish sacred music today, and in the wider musical world – sacred and secular.  I want to offer my perspectives on where we’ve been, where we seem to be headed, and where I would like to see us go.  I would also like to impart to singers and conductors some helpful ideas on various styles and approaches to music, how to read and understand written music, how to rehearse more efficiently, how to be a “team player” and improve your ensemble.

Who Am I and What Do I Know About Music?  I am Michael Reid Winikoff, a classically trained singer who has performed as a classical soloist, cantorial soloist, choir singer, and not infrequent conductor.   Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting and learning from many distinguished singers, conductors, voice teachers, coaches, composers and cantors.  I have learned about the many aspects of successful performing from both the stage and the audience perspectives.  And I’ve been honored to participate in numerous world and American premieres by other composers.


Classical to Pop.  I’ve been composing (or trying to) in some fashion since about age 15.   My musical influences have been wide-ranging:  the Big Bands, mainstream pop (in my youth “mainstream”  precluded most rock music), Broadway, Hollywood, and eventually even rock and folk-rock.

But most of all, it was classical, and especially classical choral music that has always stirred my imagination, and classical is my predominant musical sensibility.  In junior and senior high school, our chorus repertoire included Handel, Bach, Mendelssohn, Haydn, and many others in-between, along with the obligatory pop selections.  And yes, Xmas music contributed to the mix as well.  I’ve learned an enormous bit from all of it.

Shul Music.  After 45 years of Jewish choral singing,  and 34 years as a cantorial soloist, I feel well acquainted not only with our liturgy and the musical legacy contained in our nusach (chant modes), but with a growing portion of our great choral literature: Lewandowski, Sulzer, Helfman, Zilberts, et al.


A few years ago, I felt a need to take a different direction in my career.  I took the radical step of quitting my day job for a while to pursue composition full-time.  In the process, I learned loads of technology, built my website, composed and published lots of music on the site.

During this period I have participated in the revival and burgeoning of choral music in the Jewish community, most notably through a program like the annual North American Jewish Choral Festival under the auspices of the Mati Lazar’s Zamir Choral Foundation.  It’s a brave new world out there, radically different than just 20 years ago, a world I’ve found both exciting and frustrating – but more on that in future posts.


In upcoming posts, I’ll have things to say about music in shul, wedding music, classical vs. pop esthetic, composing, singing, performance and musicianship – all areas where I feel I can contribute to the discourse.  I hope you’ll join me for some lively discussion!
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