Monthly Archives: October 2013

SING A NEW SONG – Introducing a New Tune: Part I

lyre and pitchpipe-1PART I:  CHOOSING THE TUNE

I’ll start this post on introducing a new tune by saying “don’t do it.”  At least, don’t try to introduce too many new melodies at once.  And avoid incessantly changing tunes for the same prayer or hymn in the service, unless they are all familiar tunes.  Variety is nice, but consistency and familiarity can be reassuring.

That said, it is nice to change things up from time to time with something brand new, so here are some helpful thoughts:

WHAT IS A GOOD TUNE?

Words and music.  Choose tunes that are appropriate to the text and its meaning, and especially choose tunes that scan well with that text.  Too many times we hear a tune that has been poorly “retrofitted” to the text (or vice versa), and we have to fit 3 or 4 syllables to a note.  A little of this isn’t bad, as long as the rest of the tune fits well, but remember that the catchiest and most memorable songs are those where the text and notes fit together hand-in-glove.  If they don’t fit at least reasonably well, consider not using the song.

Be apropos to the occasion.  Emphasize those prayers and tunes that are unique to the day or season.  After all, most of these observances only happen once a year – seize the opportunity.  Try to use tunes that relate to the nusach of the day.  (More on nusach in a later post, but for now suffice it to say – if you don’t have a good knowledge of our chant modes, you’re missing out on a powerful musical resource and an opportunity to help perpetuate Judaism’s great musical tradition.)

Be practical to the occasion – Consider how you’ll use a tune in the context of a service.  Remember that much of the liturgy must be done according to certain procedure, such as with responses or specific repeated verses (as in Hallel, Kaddish, or Kdushah).  When in doubt, be sure to discuss this aspect of any new tune with the rabbi or cantor before introducing it.

Make it interesting and singable.  If a tune isn’t at least somewhat intuitive to its audience, it won’t be quickly or happily received, and will be less likely to stay with them.  Some groups are more musically skilled than others.  Judge accordingly.  A good communal tune should be interesting but without too much chromaticism or too many weird intervals.

Get a round, have some fun.  For extra fun and musical substance, try teaching a 2, 3 or 4-part round.  Instant harmony! 

Quality should trump popularity.  Try to avoid choosing a song or style just because it’s in vogue.  Although chances are if it’s popular it must have something worthwhile to offer, this isn’t always the case.  Make sure it’s a good tune, appropriate to the dignity of worship.

Don’t give in to pandering or “selling out.”  It’s incumbent on song leaders, cantors, rabbis, to maintain and observe standards of quality, dignity and appropriateness in our Jewish worship.  Avoid the syndrome of “lowest common denominator.”  And keep in mind that for every individual you may attract to services by doing what’s popular, you’ll possibly be chasing someone else away.  Make it your business to choose and teach the most beautiful, authentic, appropriate and dignified music you can find.

Use the definitive version.  Pretty much any tune (old or new) you’re likely to be teaching has been composed by someone.  As a composer myself, I can attest that, grateful though we are that our music is being sung and enjoyed, no composer appreciates hearing his or her work devolve into a dozen permutations – an all-too-common occurrence in the world of Jewish congregational music, as tunes are often spread around like gossipy rumors.  Sometimes the damage has already been done, and may not be readily reversible.  But when introducing a new melody, be sure to rely on an authorized source, and be scrupulously accurate in transmitting it to your congregation or group.  You owe the composer at least that.

Keep the Old.  Not all our tunes have to be new or in vogue!  Occasionally it’s good to bring out an old melody that is perhaps more authentic than many of the new ones.  They are often worthy of being called classics, and they keep us connected to our history.  Hearing such old melodies can invoke memories in a powerful way, and make the worship experience more authentic and meaningful.

In PART II of this post, we’ll get into teaching the tune.

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WHERE YOU LEAD, THEY WILL FOLLOW – Tips For Great Song Leading

cong music close-up-1While most synagogues have traditionally had a professional or semi-professional cantor to conduct services, many congregations these days are encouraging lay people to participate in this capacity.  While this often involves solo singing, quite a lot of the time it means leading the congregation or group in communal song.  It’s important always to distinguish one from the other, and to approach each of them differently.  Today, let’s talk about how to be an effective leader of congregational or group singing.  Whether you’re a lay person or an experienced sh’liach, I’m sure this will be helpful to you.

In general, put yourself in the congregants’ place.  When you’re sitting out there, take note of what works for you the congregant, and what doesn’t work, and why.  Take your cues as the leader from your own experiences as a follower.  And of course, learn from the feedback of other congregants.

Some things to keep in mind when leading song: 

  • Lead so they can follow – Sitting in the pews, nothing is quite as frustrating as not being sure what the leader is up to in congregational singing.  A frustrated congregation is not a particularly happy or commited one.  A fully participatory group is one that has confidence in the leader and knows what’s going on.  And in the long run, the more comfortable and at ease they feel with you ongoing, the more secure your position will be. 
  • This isn’t a solo act – Don’t try to be the artiste here.  They’re not listening to (or watching) you as a performer, they’re trying to follow you and sing along.  Keep things simple and direct.  There are lots of chances to be the solo act, but not now. 
  • Tempo, tempo – Don’t indulge in lots of tempo fluctuations or held notes when leading.  Maintain a steady, comfortable tempo the group can keep up with – not too fast, not too slow.  
  • Rhythm – Sing in a clear rhythmic manner so the group can hear and feel it clearly.   If using a guitar, play “rhythm” guitar with solid chords. 
  • Be heard, be seen  – Don’t push your voice, as this is counterproductive.  Sing efficiently, in your most resonant and ringing tone, and well-supported, so they can hear you.  If you have a microphone, make use of it.  And even if they’re not hearing you, at least make sure they see you.  Conduct if necessary, even if it’s simply bobbing your head or other basic body movements. 
  • Choose a key most people can sing in – Judge your audience.  With young people, remember that adolescent boys especially, who are in the midst of their voice change, often sing in a different range than older adults – typically about a third or fourth removed from most of us.  If it’s mostly adults you’re working with, judge by your own comfort range and adjust as necessary.  If you call yourself a low voice (mezzo-soprano or a baritone), you are probably going to sing naturally in about the right place.  A high voice (soprano or high tenor) might adjust a little lower, while a very low voice (bass) might consider taking it up a step or so from your comfort level. 
  • Be energetic, but not sickening –  Remember, this is isn’t a nightclub act or an acoustic set at Folk City, but a worship service.  You don’t need to be an entertainer.  Simply be yourself and be enthusiastic, and you’re sure to accomplish the goal at hand. 
  • Know when to quit – Take it from experience, nothing falls flatter than a tune that “wears out its welcome.”  Avoid excessive repeats and recurring refrains that unnecessarily lengthen things.  Less is more. 
  • Success hangs in the balance! – Make sure you have a good amount of congregational participation, but balance it with moments of passive listening (perhaps with choir or solo pieces), readings, speeches, etc.  Let people rest their voices!  Let them contemplate.  If you’re in the position, impart this concept on your ritual or religious committee!

In an upcoming post, we’ll discuss how to introduce a new congregational tune.

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KEEPING IT TOGETHER – The Importance of the Conductor

baton-1Whenever a group of singers or players performs together, no matter if they are soloists, choir, chamber group, orchestra or any combination thereof, it is essential that someone lead or conduct the group.  With a small group, this may entail no more than a subtle visual cue by the first violinist, or the lead player in a rock band or jazz combo, occurring at a few key moments such as the opening attack or a final cutoff.  In Baroque ensembles (which generally aren’t exceptionally large), the keyboardist may conduct the group from the keyboard.  A similar situation often happens with church choirs.  But for most larger groups, especially of a non-professional level, someone will be conducting the entire piece.

For choirs, the person who conducts often holds the title of choir director, and one is tempted to picture them under the cliché of film director, sitting in a director’s chair with a megaphone and shouting “Work with me, people, work with me!” or “Action!” or “Cut!” or standing in a corner with a performer discussing motivation.

Actually, the more appropriate cliché here (as it is so frequently parodied in popular cartoons) would be the long-haired orchestra conductor performing histrionics with his baton a la Toscanini.

So what does a conductor really do?

  • Rehearsal – The conductor facilitates learning and rehearsing music, discussing dynamics (loud and soft), tempo (speed), articulations, and the general matters of interpreting a piece artistically.  He or she will also inform the group of certain particularly challenging passages where special signals will come into play, such as beating “in one” rather than in the pattern of the meter signature, or how a particular transition from one tempo to another will be conducted.
  • Performance – The good conductor performs some version of those fabled histrionics with expression as well as precision, since performance is not just about getting it right (although that is a prerequisite!), but also about making the artistic statement, indeed conveying to the performers in the visceral sense each expressive nuance throughout a piece.  The ensemble members are obliged to follow the conductor and serve that interpretation.

Light Travels Faster Than Sound.  There are two basic approaches to ensuring an ensemble staying together in performance:  by listening or by sight.

  1. Listening is the frequent method for small vocal groups of no more than, say, 6 or 8 voices; or for jazz or pop instrumental combos, especially since it is easier to hear wind instruments or amplified guitars or keyboards than unmiked voices.  Yet even in these small-group situations, more often than not at least some visual cueing is in play.
  2. Sight or visual coordination is perhaps the more reliable method, especially for larger groups such as large choral groups or orchestras, and certainly in those special scenarios where smaller groups are placed off-stage, or across a large room from other groups.

Our natural tendency is to try and stay together by sound, but we know that sound travels much more slowly (1,100 feet/second) than light (186,000 miles/second), and while this difference is negligible at a small distance of perhaps 10 feet or less, it becomes more and more of an issue as that distance grows to 30, 40 or 50 feet and more.  And so the conductor’s role becomes crucial, and it behooves the performers to rely on sight rather than sound.

Seeing the Conductor.  Some performances are done from memory, while in others, score and/or parts are used.  Performing from memory has the advantage of allowing the performers to give undivided attention to the conductor, especially in non-staged performances.  For some highly accomplished choral groups, this is standard procedure, though not always.

Most choirs, including some very highly regarded ensembles, perform at least some of their repertoire using music, and this is the usual procedure for oratorio and cantata performances, as it is for church and synagogue choirs.

Looking in Two Places at Once.  So the question for the choral singer becomes: “How do I watch both my music and the conductor at the same time?”  This is not as difficult as it sounds.  We hold our music high enough so we can look at the score and still perceive the conductor peripherally.  Ideally, we get to know the music well enough to find places where we can get out of the music and watch the conductor directly.  During the rehearsal process, we also note and mark clearly the places where it is particularly important to pay attention to the baton, such as a ritardando or accelerando, fermata or to accommodate a soloist.

Checking In With Your Eyes.  As many conductors will tell you, there is nothing more  frightening from the podium as seeing members of the group with their eyes buried in the music.  Make a point of checking in frequently with the conductor using direct eye contact.

Practicality.  That said, the pragmatic conductor will be accommodating to the group’s need to use music, and realize that beating a clear and large pattern is more likely to be perceived peripherally by the group looking at the music in performance.  Be sure to insist that they hold the music high so they can catch you in their view.  In the happy instances where the repertoire is familiar, there can be more insistence on getting out of the music and giving fuller attention to the podium.

In a future post, we’ll have more discussion about the basic language of the conductor’s hand motions.        Join Email List