Category Archives: Jewish Music

THE BREAK-DOWN ON LEARNING MUSIC: BREAK IT DOWN

Close-up photo - string tremulosMusic consists of various elements – rhythm, pitches, dynamics, changing tempo, text – any one of which can prove tricky, challenging or downright daunting.  And once you’re combining two or more challenging elements, the challenge seems to increase exponentially.

One of the most common errors we make in learning our new music, particularly singers learning vocal music with text, is the all-too-often vain attempt to grasp all these elements at once.

Learn It Right the First Time!  For most of us at least, this all-at-once approach is bound to divide our concentration in this highly crucial first exposure to the music, and we end up learning something the wrong way.  Remember:  once something is learned incorrectly, it is much harder to unlearn the mistake than to learn the thing right in the first place!

Start With the Most Challenging Element.  Maybe there are tricky rhythms. Learn just the rhythms completely and thoroughly without the pitches or text, and in a slow, steady manageable tempo to begin with.

Subdivide.  For intricate rhythmic passages, find the smallest note duration value and sub-divide the entire passage into this value.  If, for example, it’s the 16th note, sub-divide all the rhythmic values into a continual 16th-note pulse, and practice the rhythm under the feeling of this pulse.

Tempo, Tempo.  Once you’ve learned the rhythms, this is a great time to start practicing in the indicated tempo of the piece, especially if such tempo is fast enough to present a challenge.  No matter what tempo you are practicing in, slow, fast or in between, make sure it is a steady tempo, true to the context of the rhythm.  A rhythm out of tempo is never really correct.

Here’s the Pitch.  Now go to the next most challenging thing – most likely, it’s the pitches.  Learn these at first without the rhythms.  Master those tricky intervals perfectly before combining them with any other element.

There are a variety of approaches for getting a handle on difficult intervals:

Wide Leaps – Try shifting the second pitch down or up an octave so that, for example, a 7th or 9th becomes a 2nd, or a 6th becomes a 3rd, etc.  Learn it this easy way before re-introducing the original octave context.

TritoneTritone (Augmented 4th or Diminished 5th) – try inserting one or more helper tones in between to make this devilish interval easier to grasp.  I like to think of this interval in one of two ways:  1) as two consecutive minor thirds; or 2) as three consecutive whole steps).

Trust Your Eyes.  For less difficult intervals, let the visual movement of the printed notes on the staff be your guide – that’s what they’re there for!  If you allow yourself to go by these movements from space to line, space to space, etc. you probably can’t go far wrong.  But make sure it’s right!  Use a keyboard to play the pitches, and listen to the correct pitches and intervals three or four times before singing the pitches.  Listen, then sing.  Make sure to learn them correctly the first time.

hayom-t-2-1Know Whereof You Speak.  Things get all the more tricky with a foreign language text.  We in VocalEssence have just finished our 2014 run of holiday concerts, where fully half the program was Scandinavian music in Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish.  For most of us, these languages were entirely unfamiliar, and it was especially necessary to learn the language text on its own before applying it to music.

Learn the text as a separate element first.  Get the diction down.  (Speaking the text aloud is very important because it ensures that you will train the muscles needed to pronounce it.  Mental knowledge is only half the story when it comes to pronouncing tricky words.  Once you’ve achieved perfect working pronunciation, practice the text in rhythm, without pitches.

Put It Together and What Have You Got?  Finally, add those pitches to the rhythms.  And once you’ve practiced this once or twice, begin paying attention to dynamics, phrasing and articulations.  If possible, begin incorporating these as soon as you have combined pitch with rhythm, so that they are hard-wired into your performance.

Breaking down the elements of new music in this way, whether individually or as a group, will not only ensure accuracy to what’s written, it will save a lot of rehearsal time in the long run.  It will also promote a sense of security – and more freedom for creative musicality – in performance.  Join Email List

DON’T BE TIMID! Commitment in Performance

piper 2-1At this past July’s North American Jewish Choral Festival in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York, we had the chance to hear many choirs of varying skill level.  Two of the tell-tale signs of a group’s degree of accomplishment were its degree of confidence and its energy level.

Among the very best of these choral ensembles was the select group of young singers from the International Jewish High School Choir, who performed with a degree of commitment and certainty not often encountered outside the professional realm.  These young people possessed a thorough knowledge of the music they were singing, and they gave a passionate, energized performance throughout.  This was true of all the best ensembles we heard.

The tragedy was how easily one or two hesitant or missed entrances, or lackadaisically executed soft passages, seriously marred some otherwise respectable performances at the festival.

Timid Doesn’t Cut It.  There is simply no place for hesitation or timidity in choral singing, or indeed in any sort of performance.  That awkward entrance by the basses, that lack of energy in quiet passages, and worst of all, the unnecessary sagging pitch which happens out of carelessness – these things simply don’t sell with the listener.  Effective performance, whether in concert or in worship, means being fully committed, and fully engaged in the music.

What are the causes of timidity in performance, and how can they be avoided or mitigated?

Quiet doesn’t mean weak or feeble.  It’s a natural subconscious assumption we all tend to make, that when we get soft, we can somehow relax, go on “auto-pilot,” use less energy or, in the most common phenomenon of all, slow down.  On the contrary, it is in these quiet, piano places where heightened energy is especially important.  Without it, the passage simply won’t read well from the audience.

Low Energy Leads to Flat Singing.  If we are singing without full engagement, we are less likely to be fully “tuned in” to the rest of the group, and that’s where sagging or otherwise faulty pitch can more likely happen.  Good ensemble means everyone must be singing in the same key!

Nerves Undermine Confidence.  For any performance, you must assume that you’ll be nervous – that is, unless you are such a veteran or you’ve performed the music so many times that you could do it in your sleep.  (And in that case, the danger might be low energy – see above).

While nervous energy can actually work in our favor, often with performance nerves, we become less certain of everything, such as entrances, proper pitches, correct rhythms, etc.  Our vocal abilities are also compromised – we suffer from dry throat, less solid breath support, and tension.

The best way to combat nervousness, and even use it to our advantage, is to concentrate intently on the music, on performing all the tempo and dynamic subtleties you should have learned in rehearsal, and of course, on staying scrupulously in tune.  When you’re focusing carefully on these things, you won’t have time to think about being nervous.  And this means that you must….

Know Your Music!  Perhaps the main cause of hesitation or timidity in performance is not knowing what you’re doing.  Be confident and comfortable with every note, every rhythm, every nuance of loud or soft, slow or fast, both as an individual singer and as a group.  If you can know the music well enough to look at the conductor at least occasionally, the performance will be all the more solid, and knowing the music thoroughly will make the experience far more gratifying for you, for the ensemble, and for the listener.

commitment2-1Sing Like a Leader.  Make it your business to be a strong link in the chain of your choir.  When you “own” the material you are performing, you have less need to rely on others around you, and you can make entrances and cues with authority.  Of course, this works far more effectively if everyone can sing like a leader, and there are no weak links!

He who hesitates is lost.  Chazzak, chazzak (“Be strong, be strong!”).     Join Email List

BRIGADOON IN THE BORSCHT BELT

THE 25TH ANNUAL NORTH AMERICAN JEWISH CHORAL FESTIVAL

Monday Morning Community Sing - Big Tent-1

Monday Morning Community Sing

Annual Magic.  Many have aptly compared it to Brigadoon:  A beautiful place in the lower Catskills that comes alive once a year in mid-July with musical alchemy.

It is the North American Jewish Choral Festival, a program of the Zamir Choral Foundation, and this year’s 25th annual event marked an especially auspicious, and at times poignant occasion, a time to look back on the entire history of this conclave of Jewish choral music, back to its rather makeshift, extemporaneous beginnings.  In the context of the current strife in the Middle-East (no matter what one’s political position on that situation), it was all the more powerful to see Jews coming together in musical and spiritual solidarity —  to engage in, to use founder and director Matthew (Mati) Lazar’s words, “an artistic, spiritual and unifying musical catharsis.”

In the Catskills-1

In the Catskills

A Nice Cup of Borscht.  This year as every year since 2004, the venue for NAJCF has been the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa (formerly the Granite), near Kerhonkson, NY.  For the first eight years, the festival was held at the Concord Resort Hotel, another one of the several fabled Borscht Belt resort facilities in the general area, most of which are no more.  Such resorts have catered to city dwellers seeking a bucolic respite in these majestic surroundings.

In an average year, the North American Jewish Choral Festival draws about 500 participants, many of whom are cantors, choir directors, composers and performers.  In this 25th year, the ranks swelled to over 600.

Old Familiar Faces.  While each annual gathering features many new faces, there are many repeat performers.  This was my fourth time at NAJCF, and the long-time choir director at my congregation has managed to attend every single year since its inception.  Our cantor and cantor emeritus also were present as they have been in other years, and two friends of mine from my years in Highland Park, NJ have also been long-time regular participants.  Then there are the new friends I have made at the Festival over the years, talented souls most of whom have returned every year of my attendance.

There are performing opportunities for singers of all skill levels, and even if one isn’t a singer, it is possible to participate in the festival as a listener.  There are a variety of workshops and seminars on many Jewish musical topics.

The Big Tent-1

The Big Tent

A Busy Schedule.  Each day of the festival begins a choice of three different minyanim  – Egalitarian Conservative, Reform and Orthodox) for morning prayers, followed by a large breakfast (all meals strictly kosher).  Promptly at 9:00 am, singers gather in an enormous tent on the grounds for the daily community sing, which begins with a short warm-up.  New pieces are presented and taught in a matter of 10 minutes, followed by a recorded reading of each.

Then follows the morning rehearsal for each of the five Instant Ensembles, which represent five levels of ability ranging from no sight-reading skill and perhaps limited singing ability, all the way to trained singers of advanced musicianship and fluent sight-reading.  With my extensive musical background, I have always found myself in the top level group, conducted by Mati.

After a similarly large lunch comes whatever seminar or workshop one has signed up for.  These include workshops in sight-singing, works of a featured historic composer or compositional school, special musical skills such as barbershop or small ensemble singing, early Jewish music, solo singing master class, songs of the Yom Kippur War, Holocaust Hymns, and many other subjects, more or less related to music.

Then comes the afternoon Ensemble rehearsals (all leading to a final festival performance on the final morning),

Hearing What’s Out There.  Each night of the festival (and this year, each afternoon as well) affords the opportunity to hear guest choirs and ensembles singing a variety of Jewish choral and sacred repertoire.  For this 25th Annual festival, no less than 19 guest choirs performed, ranging from intrepid amateur level groups plagued by faulty intonation and inconfident entrances to highly accomplished ensembles such as the Zamir Chorale of Boston, Kol Rinah (of Westchester) and Nashir (of Manhattan) which two choirs performed as a combined ensemble, and The Second Avenue Jewish Chorale of Miami, FL.  Specializing in Yiddish song is The Jewish People’s Philharmonic Chorus, which presented a marvelous musical history of Jews in America.

For me, perhaps the highlight of all these fine performances was the Chamber Choir of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir.  These young people demonstrated exceptional vocal and musical abilities.  Their performance set, which included what was undoubtedly the most representative reading of Max Helfman’s Hashkiveinu I have ever encountered, had to be a source of great encouragement for the future to anyone (like me) hoping for raised musical and vocal standards in the Jewish choral community.

After dinner comes the evening presentation and concert, followed by an informal piano sing of old pop standards and showtunes.  At the piano for this in-the-lobby gathering is often found one Mr. Peter Sokolow, a veteran player with a vast encyclopedic knowledge of popular and show tunes harking back to the Tin Pan Alley era.

The Final Chord.  On the night of the last full day (Wednesday), we all gather in the lobby, standing before the stairway on which Mati stands to conduct us with an impromptu mass reading of Louis Lewandowski’s Halleluyah (Psalm 150), a war horse most of us know from memory.

Finally comes the big day, the culmination of our efforts – the final Thursday morning performances by each of the Instant Ensembles.  Everyone marvels at the accomplishments of his/her colleagues in just 3½ days.

All of which makes the point that this marvelous Brigadoon of Jewish music and culture, in this or any year, makes for a comprehensive experience  – of listening, of singing, of scholarship and fellowship.

Raising the Standards.  While in past years I have been a little disappointed by the lack of musical and vocal refinement in many of the choirs, and rather unhappy with the lightweight pop style of much of the repertoire, this year’s Festival seemed to signal a much higher standard in all these respects.  Yes, even this year there were occasional unfortunate experiences from my perspective.  And my abiding hope is for fully acoustic performances (presently, they are heavily miked).  But I nonetheless have come away feeling encouraged and hopeful for the future of Jewish choral and musical culture in North America.

We should all be deeply grateful for the hard work and passion of Mati Lazar and his colleagues, Rabbi Daniel Freelander and Dr. Marsha Bryan Edelman, along with the many other perennial devotees who have grown the Festival, and the burgeoning Jewish choral movement.       Join Email List

GOOD TASTE – Part II: DETERMINANTS & CHARACTERISTICS OF GOOD TASTE

Whistlers MotherWHAT MAKES US AESTHETICALLY DISCRIMINATING (OR NOT)? 

Socio-Economic class?  Not necessarily.  It’s stereotypical to associate discriminating tastes with snooty rich people.  Well this writer (while perhaps snooty) is not a rich person, but here I am writing about good taste, and I feel at least somewhat qualified to do so!

A more accurate indicator of taste might be one’s education level.  The better a person’s education, the more likely that he’ll be equipped with an ability to discern and appreciate great works of art, literature and music, old or new, popular or classical.  Proper education will hopefully provide exposure to, knowledge and appreciation of great music, art and literature.

Unfortunately, such proper education, even in America, is increasingly tied to socio-economic status, even in the public arena.  This is to say nothing of the trend toward de-emphasizing the arts and humanities due to ideology and/or lack of funding.

But educational barriers aren’t insurmountable, especially given technology which has made art and culture more accessible to more people across a wider socio-economic spectrum than ever before.  If we’re interested and we know where to look for it, it’s there, often for free!

Age?  When we’re young – adolescent or college age, we’re living in a time of social and sexual self-discovery, and our hormones often rule the day.  And we haven’t yet achieved the world-weariness and enhanced perspective of having lived – those collective life experiences that seem to feed our appreciation of some of the subtleties and profundities of great art.  Our priorities (hopefully) change as we “grow up.”

Popularity?  There’s certainly something to this.  Popularity usually happens for good reason.  But it isn’t an infallible indicator.  There are plenty of musical works, for example, that are widely considered among the greatest masterpieces, and yet don’t enjoy the biggest mass appeal.  Handel’s Messiah is more well-known to most people than Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.  Beethoven’s late quartets are not so widely known as his Fifth Symphony.  And yet in each case, the less popular work is at least as highly regarded by music historians and aficionados as the more popular one.

Mass appeal can be determined by many things, some of which might be deemed artificial, such as effective marketing, vogue, reputation, etc. – factors that have little if anything to do with inherent quality or substance.  The greatest music and art is that which has withstood the test of time and is above and beyond the forces of current trend or popularity – it is classic.

SOME EAR-MARKS OF GOOD TASTE

What Makes for Tastefulness?  Here are some of the principals that discriminating people pay attention to, consciously or subconsciously.

Substance, not empty showiness.  Dazzle and glitter are nice to engage the audience, in limited quantities, and when properly balanced with substance.  An over-abundance of the proverbial “Look what I can do!” factor has a cheapening effect, whereas honest, restrained sentiment is an important element of substance, and all the better if it can be presented in a unique and individual way.

Avoidance of Cliché.  While music or art of any given era will have its hallmark style and characteristics, the best works are those that, even within the rules of their era, will nonetheless avoid being governed entirely by those rules.  Most of all, they will steer clear of the most over-used clichés.  Avoiding the expected, going with the unexpected – at least some of the time – can be very effective in producing something unique, original, and even transcendent of its time.

Subtlety and Restraint.  Honesty and freedom of emotion are kept within boundaries.  There are some things in our lives that simply aren’t for public consumption.  At the very least, such things should be well-enough disguised, concealed or restrained that, although we sense their presence, they don’t hit us over the head.  This is called subtlety.  Most of the best art and music lives under this rule.

Don’t Be Crass.  In our zeal over the past several years to counteract an endemic cultural puritanism, we have tended to scorn such subtlety and restraint in the movies, TV and popular music, coming out in favor of complete openness, of “pushing the envelope” of good taste, because for many of us, good taste has been unjustly equated with cultural repression.  This over-reaction to puritanical repression is surely yet another reason to disdain that puritanism, because for all of this our culture suffers qualitatively.  It can be argued that certain aspects of life and art are more interesting and intriguing when perceived from behind the vail of subtlety.

Don’t Pander.  Treating the audience with the respect they deserve, even if they might not realize it, is always in good taste, because it helps avoid qualitative decay.  If we wish to challenge our audience, one way to do it is by refusing to cater to the lowest common denominator of taste.

Is It the Money?  It must be said!  So much of cultural degradation stems from market considerations.  Sex sells, violence sells, and there’s the infamous axiom of commercialized journalism:  If it bleeds, it leads.  Of course, it’s a lot to ask of any artist to completely ignore the marketplace, but the more you can do so, the more artistic integrity you’ll have.  It’s a balancing act.  But work that is produced or performed solely to maximize the money is almost certain to be in poor taste.

Knowing Your Audience means respecting their expectations, and avoiding unpleasant or unwelcome surprises.  We don’t try to force Mozart on a jazz or rock crowd, and vice versa.  In a worship setting, for example, dignity and modesty are the order of the day.  And if we’re going to challenge the audience, it’s wise to ensure that they want to be challenged.

Beauty.  What is it exactly?  It’s hard to describe or define.  Beauty moves us in a profound, elevated way.  So why have we become so afraid of beauty in art and especially in music?  We explored some possible reasons for this in Part I of this post on Good Taste.  We should never underestimate the value and importance of beauty.

Balance.  One of the hallmarks of beauty in art and music is the idea of balance, of restraint.  As we’ve already seen, it shows good taste to ensure that emotional expression and technical display are kept within sensible boundaries.  Maintaining balance is one of the wisest principals in life, and in art.  It’s a sure-fire method of avoiding tedium, and of keeping your audience engaged.  Emotional restraint is the mark of artistic and intellectual maturity.

It’s Not About Being Snooty.  Let us repeat that the principals of discriminating taste are applicable to pop culture as well as high culture.  The fundamental purpose or effect of pop culture may be more modest, less lofty or ambitious than high culture, but it still lives by many of the same rules of good taste.     Join Email List

MUSIC AS WEDDING DRESS

Pair of RosesWhat is a wedding if not an occasion to dress for?  We clothe ourselves in the most formal and dignified attire of our entire lives.  And why?  At first we might think it’s simply because we’re celebrating a joyous occasion, so why not dress “to the nines?”  But there are other joyous occasions we normally celebrate in much more casual attire – birthdays, for example.  When was the last time you dressed up in formal wear for a birthday or anniversary unless it was because you were going to a very fancy restaurant?  Even then, you might have done so only to meet the restaurant’s dress code.

How we dress can of course be a means of self-expression, of telling the world how we feel (consciously or subconsciously) about ourselves and about our lives.  But mostly it’s a way of presenting ourselves appropriately in society.

When we reach huge milestones in our lives, no matter our cultural background, it is customary to present ourselves in the most dignified light possible – not only for ourselves, not only for each other, but for the occasion itself and what it represents in our life.  Those of us who feel a spiritual or religious aspect of the wedding day might well imagine ourselves as coming before the Almighty to declare our commitment of lifelong love, to take our vows of matrimony.  If nothing else, it is to demonstrate our seriousness about such a commitment, perhaps before G-d, certainly before our family and friends, before society.  We might think of such seriousness as analogous to the sort we convey when making a profound and important speech.  We hope that our speech will not be taken lightly, and take a serious tone in order to be taken seriously.  Likewise, we dress for important occasions in order to take them, and to be taken, seriously.

Dressing the Wedding.  In the wedding ceremony, we extend such sense of dignified dress to the physical surroundings of the wedding venue.  Whether it’s a museum, conservatory, garden or other space – even a grand sanctuary, the ceremonial venue is further dressed up in lovely flowers and furnishings.

Music as Wedding Attire.  With all the time and thought we give to these various sartorial and decorative aspects of the ceremony (and the more unbuttoned reception and celebration that usually follows), it often seems surprising that the music, arguably the most important atmospheric ingredient in the wedding service, or indeed any ritual proceeding, is sometimes given less consideration than the other elements.  Lack of musical knowledge, a place to cut corners, a notion that in posterity no one will remember the sound of the music (it doesn’t really photograph well).

Serious vs Fun.  We make a distinction between the ceremonial music and the celebratory reception music.  While the latter is generally in a popular vein, typically suitable for dancing and for a relaxed and festive social setting, the former is meant to create a decidedly more formal, even sacred, mood.  Just as once we arrive at the reception, ties and jackets might come off, and even the bride removes her vail, so the music is more relaxed and fun.  We are breathing a collective sigh of relief after making it through the very solemn moments of the ceremony.

But that ceremony, even if we intend it to have a more secular feel, should always carry that sense of seriousness, dignity and pride that we hold for this major occasion in our life, and that we wish to convey to all our family, friends and community – it is the same basis for our very formal and dignified dress.  We want the world to know about our love for each other, and about the life commitment we are making.

Dignity and Beauty.  Let well-chosen music convey that mood of grandeur on your momentous occasion.  Whether you hire professional players or choose pre-recorded music, let it be commensurate with the dignity and beauty of the day.

One of my cherished tasks as a composer has been my endeavor to produce the sort of music that attains this goal.  I invite you to visit and explore my website of wedding music, written in many styles and moods, instrumental and vocal, sacred and secular.  Two video samplings of my wedding works, one for general and the other Jewish weddings, are available on YouTube.

In upcoming blog posts, I hope to share with you some insights of my wedding works and how they can help you transform and elevate your special day into an occasion you and your family and friends will remember with your ears as well as your other senses.   Join Email List

FOUR PREREQUISITES TO AN ENHANCED JEWISH CHORAL CULTURE

instruments-1In our Jewish community, we are desperately seeking something to enhance the beauty and interest in our services.  Those of us for whom instruments in shul are not permitted under the laws of observance, the only real way to add dimension to our music is choral singing. Choir music in the synagogue is by no means new, and in fact there is a long history of it throughout Europe going as far back as the late Renaissance with the likes of Salamone Rossi.

But we have a lot of catch-up work to do in our choral singing compared to the church community, from which we can gain some valuable perspective on music making.  Here are some general areas we might concentrate on.

Improved Musicianship.  When it comes to fundamental musical skills, a little improvement can go a long way toward enhancing our realm of repertoire possibilities, for we will use these skills endlessly.  When we speak of cognitive musical skills, we are referring to such abilities as reading music, specifically sight-singing (which, incidentally, isn’t necessarily possessed by even skilled instrumentalists who read music).  Good sight singing requires the further skill of hearing and recognizing in our ears the various tonal intervals, as well as seeing and recognizing these intervals on the printed page, and ultimately correlating the audial with the visual.  The same is true of the rhythmic element of music.  Of course all this means also knowing our way around a printed score, gaining the acquaintance with the beautiful language of written music.

Improved Vocal Skills.  Vocal ability – singing ability – means being able to produce the tone beautifully and efficiently, and with enough control to execute changes in dynamic and articulation, as well as produce beautifully shaped line.  These are largely skills of physical coordination related to the physical act of producing sound.  Again, as with musicianship, a little skill enhancement can make a big difference here.  See the post on singing basics.

Team Work/Ensemble.  Choral music and choral singing are nothing if not about unity – unity of tone color, vowels, consonants, dynamics, tempo, rhythm – in short, a closely-knit team effort in regard to every aspect of the music.  This is the art of ensemble (meaning “together”), and it requires learning how to listen even as we are singing, being perfectly tuned with the rest of the group, and being able to adjust and change course in a split second as necessary.

Improved Musical Knowledge & Taste.  In our wider secular culture these days, there seems to be a narrow (and continued narrowing) sense of what constitutes good, or indeed great, music, with more and more of us shunning higher musical culture as something we are not worthy of, that we should be intimidated by, or that we owe our disdain due to its elitist trappings. Worst of all, for an apparently increasing number of younger people  there is an out-and-out ignorance of this higher musical culture, a completely deprived sense of what truly great music is,

One can sense this even within the pop realm, with the music displaying less and less melodic, harmonic and formal (not to mention literary) substance. Let’s ask ourselves:  how many pop songs of the past 20 years have endured as standards in the way many of the songs of Lennon-McCartney, Paul Simon, Bob Dylan or Burt Bacharach have endured?  Those artists were still operating under an awareness (even when they outwardly rejected it) of the fundamentals of substantive music.

This cultural void is, if anything, more pronounced in the Jewish community, which has had a long history of being excluded, and excluding itself, from the higher culture of whatever wider community has surrounded it.  For a Jew to be included individually in this higher culture, historically, has often required assimilation and/or renunciation of one’s Jewish faith and culture. Such requirement may have receded, but the Jewish sense of obligation to it doesn’t seem to have faded completely.

Given the glorious legacy of Jews in American popular culture through much of the 20th Century, it isn’t surprising that this first real era of Jewish inclusion and importance in a broader culture should hold such a perpetual and affectionate attachment to Jewish self-identity in America. One senses a great jealousy and need for such a legacy of inclusion, and its attendant sense of identity, in the British or French Jewish communities, to name two.

All of which is to say, we American Jews revere our pop culture – so much so that we may not think twice anymore about elevating it to the level and status of high culture.  But at the very least, shouldn’t we be more willing to explore other territories which carry much higher and historically much longer reputations for quality and substance?  And in our efforts toward enhancing our worship and ritual, shouldn’t we be aiming as high as possible?  And if we’re being elitist, isn’t this entirely appropriate for our musical offering to the ultimate Aristocrat, the Object of our awe and reverence?

As we discussed in the previous post, pop music is fun, and occasionally may rise to a level approaching that of high art,  But even at its best, pop music will almost always be about romantic love and courtship, and will therefore have an element of the secular, and even the sexual, in it.  Let’s therefore be careful not confuse our attachment to popular music with a misperception of its appropriateness in the sacred realm.  And more subjectively, let’s be cautious in assigning it more qualitative status than it might deserve.

In all of these areas, we can and must learn a lot from outside the Jewish realm, and yes, this includes the church community.  If nothing else, we can prosper from seeing what is possible (and necessary) qualitatively in terms of singing and musicianship, qualitative taste and standards, and in terms of the power and effectiveness of well-chosen worship music.    Join Email List

THE CASE FOR MORE APPROPRIATE SHUL MUSIC

Hallelujah - Psalm 150 by Winikoff

Dignified Joy in Music

Contrary to what many rabbis, cantors and synagogue boards might choose to believe, not every congregant really cares to come to services and sit through endless repetitions of simplistic “chassidic” melodies, clapping, drumming (using actual or makeshift drums) or a faux party-like atmosphere.

Contrary to what they might believe, most congregants don’t come to services to “have fun.”

Contrary to what they might believe, not every congregant believes that pop-style music is appropriate as mainstream worship music.

Contrary to what those who (understandably) fret about declining shul attendance might be dying to believe, pandering with pop music is not a wise approach in attempting to lure more attendees to services.

Contrary to this misguided mindset, is the well-known Jewish principle of dignity, modesty and respectfulness in worship.  Hence the customary and powerful motto found over many synagogue pulpits, serving to remind us of this tradition:  “Da lifnei mi atah omeid – Know before Whom you stand.”

We all love fun, even if we might each harbor varying ideas of what constitutes fun.  Be let’s ask ourselves:  Is shul really supposed to be fun?  Are we confusing the sort of regenerative (and under ideal circumstances, transformative) joy we are to experience on Shabbat or Yom Tov with fun?  And aren’t there ample opportunities in our secular lives for fun?  Hence another Jewish principle –separation of the sacred from the secular.

Shouldn’t worship should be a unique and elevated experience in our lives, rather than just another manifestation of our broader culture?  Shouldn’t it harbor a higher spirituality rather than a spirit of simple hedonism.  Should it not reflect our tradition of dignity and respectfulness “before Whom we stand?”

The Schtik Factor.  Sometimes, I think we Jews have never quite separated our illustrious secular American pop cultural legacy of “showbiz” from what should be the loftier realm of our spiritual practice.  In doing my own rather thorough survey of American Conservative Jewish congregational websites, I’ve noticed something reflected from time to time in the contents of most of these sites:  a sensibility of schtik – of comedic silliness embodied, for example, in clever plays on words to describe events – for example, the commonly coined “Friday Nite Live,” which seems to evoke the spirit of that long-running late-night Saturday evening comedy series which is the very embodiment of adolescent “fun.”  Or the many too-clever-by-half plays on words used to describe a congregation’s musical or choral ensembles.  All of which contributes to an air of Jewish cultural self-parody.  There should be more to Jewish culture than Henny Youngman.

The “Cool” Factor.  One suspects the new obsession with the pop idiom in worship music might be partially rooted in our deep-seated and often subconscious need to feel “cool” or “hip,” or at the very least not to appear passé or out of step.  Trouble is, what’s considered cool or “happening” now will almost certainly be passé before very long.

The pop-music-in-shul phenomenon may also be simply a manifestation of an out-and-out ignorance of other better types of music, or perhaps a misguided fear or loathing of anything too closely resembling “church” music.  Through this ignorance and this fear we have limited our choices.

We Jews must stop feeling apologetic for our good and honorable religious life in all its rich complexity, stop feeling the need to hide behind the schtik, and learn to embrace and celebrate the great moral dignity and beauty of Yiddishkeit by treating it with dignity and beauty.  Too often I sense even from rabbis a kind of reluctance to recognize these qualities in some of our rituals, a kind of shame or embarrassment about them.  Our rituals, if they are to be effective and inspiring, must be taken seriously as the wonderful high theater that they are, and the music – whether congregational, cantorial or choral, should reflect this.  It’s time to raise our standards of what we consider appropriate music in shul.

To begin to accomplish any of this requires, first of all, knowing and appreciating the meaning and tenor of our liturgy and the rituals it supports – the sublime beauty and grace of L’cha Dodi, the grandeur of K’dushah, the mystical drama and power of Hashkiveinu, the pathos of Havein Yakir Li, to name a few examples.  And by extension, it points to the need for better understanding and appreciation of our nusach, our musical chant, which is perhaps the most authentic embodiment of our worship music tradition – the better to sense what is appropriate music for these prayers.

Fulfillment of these needs ought to be preached and validated by our cantors and rabbis, taught and touted as a vital resource for composers of serious, authentic, appropriate and substantive Jewish sacred music.

The desperate pandering to popular taste that is currently happening may be great fun for some of us, but it’s not likely to work for long, and it carries a high price tag:  the mortgaging of our musical heritage.  Let’s leave the “fun” for its appropriate occasions, and strive to bring a higher sense of beauty and joy to shul.    Join Email List

THE SCOOP ON SCOOPING: DON’T.

scoopHaving grown up, worshiped and worked as a singer/cantor almost exclusively in Conservative (i.e., middle-of-the-road) Jewish congregations, I take some entitlement to level a bit of loving critique at the current state of musical culture in the Jewish community.  A full measure of such critique I’ll reserve for a future post.

But for now, let’s discuss what may seem a rather petty complaint, one that has directly to do with something we have already covered at some length, one having much to do with the art of choral ensemble.  I speak of what I like to dub the “United Synagogue Scoop.”  I call it that because I have seemed to find it, along with the ever-present Jewish rallenando, especially endemic in the Conservative Jewish community.

Maybe the “USS” is somehow connected with our abiding affinity with ‘60s folk music, perhaps related to our illustrious “Jewish Liberal” culture.  Our United Synagogue Scoop is characteristic of that sort of music (much of which, I’ll hasten to add, I happen to enjoy as well).  From Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to Dan Fogelberg and beyond, you’re bound to hear it, for it is part and parcel of the style.  In fact, it’s an element found throughout most pop vocal singing, especially solo.  Perhaps because of this, we might subconsciously assume that scooping makes our vocals sound “legit” or authentic, or professional.  It doesn’t.

What for some kinds of music might be a valid stylistic element, can all too easily become an unconscious mannerism, not particularly problematic in solo, congregational or otherwise informal singing.  But it will get in the way of good choral ensemble which nearly always, regardless of style, calls for clean, scoopless pitches.

What is scooping, exactly?  Typically, it means sliding to a main pitch from another shorter (and usually lower) pitch, rather like a grace note.  In some types of scooping, the lower note is only a semi-tone or whole tone lower, while in other kinds, it can be as much as an octave lower.

There’s a Time and a Place.  Now there are occasions when scoops, slides, portamento and other pop mannerisms are called for and effective as expressive devices.  But as a rule – and if you need to break a rule, there must be one to break – as a rule, it’s important to know how to sing beautifully without such tricks, especially in choral situations.  Then on those very rare occasions when we do need to scoop, slide or portamento, these can be added and carefully coordinated with the group for proper effect.  But once these things become ubiquitous mannerisms, they can be distracting to listen to and difficult to refrain from, especially in those frequent situations where they are not really appropriate to the style.

Being True to Style.  Style is an important part of musical performance, just as it is in cinema, theater and clothing fashion.  Style is made up of different elements of approach, many of which are quite subtle, all of which are crucial to the cumulative effect being striven for.  Compare and contrast different pop music genres and see if you can discern such differences.  How is Country approached differently from Grunge or Hip-Hop?  They are also to be found in the various eras of classical music.  Bach and Handel, for example, are approached differently from Brahms or Schumann.

All of which is to say, there are artistically compelling reasons to avoid doing things that don’t fit the style.  More often than not, scooping is one of those things – and it’s very obvious.

Ensemble as we have learned, means together.  In most all choral music this means, among other things, that everyone in the group approach the music in the same style, delivering each pitch cleanly, accurately, with blended warmth and richness, and without scooping, sliding or other such mannerisms unless specifically instructed otherwise.  Lack of scooping should be the default approach to choral singing.

The First Step is Recognizing We Have a Problem.  If we want to lay the foundation of great Jewish choral culture (as at least some of us do), we have to learn to lose the scoop.  You may not even know you‘re a scooper, but it may be easier to hear in others.  Be ready to practice not scooping over a period of time, until your singing is nice and straight again, unaffected by years of indoctrination into the pop music manner.

Just say “no” to the scoop.  It’s all part of the continuing process of increasing our awareness of what makes for great choral ensemble.
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WHAT A NICE JEWISH BOY LEARNED FROM SINGING CHRISTMAS MUSIC

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Christmas Tree – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Earlier this month, I had the privilege and honor to participate in a five-performance run of “Welcome Christmas” with VocalEssence, just as I have for over a decade.  And each year, these concerts are broadcast nationally (on a one-year delay) on Public Radio.

These experiences through the years with VocalEssence have by no means been the first instances in my life of singing Christmas or, for that matter, other church music and classical sacred works.  All through high school and college, I became intimately acquainted with this repertoire.  This is as it should be for any serious student of great music – and I’m deeply gratified by what it has taught me, as a singer, composer and human being.

The first half of the “Welcome Christmas” program consisted of a single work, La Fiesta de la Posada, a joyous holiday cantata by Dave Brubeck, featuring the sort of authentic mariachi music Brubeck grew up with in the small California town of Ione.  This marvelous work alternated some passages of classical grandeur with others of festive Mexican colors, and still other moments of the warm, urbane gentle jazz improv not unreminiscent of that featured in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  And I mean this in a good way.

The second half of the program featured Christmas songs old and new, including – for the 16th consecutive season – 2 new works written especially for the occasion.  We opened with a stunning Leland Sateren adaptation of a German song fitted to a holiday text, and also sang Norman Luboff’s charming “Still Still Still,”  But perhaps the highlight of this second half was Steve Barnett’s very cool arrangement of “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”  Years ago, Philip Brunelle, founder and director of VocalEssence, specifically asked Barnett to come up with a new arrangement of this classic spiritual.  To hear Philip tell it, he felt that someone who grew up in the synagogue (as Barnett had) might have a fresh musical take on a song that had seen many rather routine renditions.  The notion is fully validated in this rendition.

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Chanukkah Menorah – IDS Crystal Court, Minneapolis

Steve Barnett was, in his youth, the long-time choral conductor (and arranger) at B’nai Emet Synagogue in Minneapolis, and has since built a reputation as composer, arranger and producer.  His musical affinities seem to lie in the realm of jazz and blues, and he has done some very interesting arrangements of Jewish texts, including a couple of disarmingly jazzy settings of the Chanukkah songs S’vivon and Mi Yimalel, which I had a chance to sing years ago on a holiday program with the Dale Warland Singers.

So why is a nice Jewish boy waxing enthusiastic about Christmas music?  Because not only is it beautiful and fun (and even inspiring) to sing even for someone like me who doesn’t subscribe to the theology of Christmas, but it’s also instructive on so many levels.

And I’ll go further out on a limb and say that the Jewish musical community can stand to learn a few things from the best Christmas music (and other sacred music), about how to sell our own message both to our own people and in an educational sense to the wider world.  I would even say there’s a desperate need for this.  Great music has the power to draw people into any cause, even if it’s just to inform.

Music as a Means.  But what does this mean, exactly?  Does it mean we have to make everything sound like church music?  Of course not.  But we could take a few cues from the much higher choral standards found the churches (at least traditionally), standards of vocal ability, sight-reading and choral art in general.  Let’s begin by developing and fostering our own choral culture to the highest standards possible.  At least two reasons for doing this come to mind.

The Choir as a Musical Instrument.  First, if our Jewish tradition dictates that we use no instruments in shul, then it stands to reason that we can ill afford to ignore the choral medium or fail to develop it to the highest calibre possible.  This is because the choir is the one means available to us of adding musical dimension, color, texture and variety to our shul music, to provide a more worthy and equal complement to the cantor.  And this will certainly help to attract more people to services on a more regular basis.

It’s worth noting that much of the Christian Orthodox tradition, like ours, has also restricted the use of instruments, and those churches have developed their choral art to a very high degree.  Let’s learn something from them.

Cultural Exchange and Mutual Understanding.  Which brings us to the second point:  As we begin to find greater parity in our Jewish choral culture with that of the churches, we might open the door to their greater understanding of and familiarity with our traditions.

While we aren’t out to convert anyone, the fact is that appallingly little about Judaism is known in wider society.  This lack of knowledge and understanding is one of the contributing factors toward prejudice, even the subconscious kind that is harbored in the most open and progressive minds.  It’s incumbent upon us to foster a greater degree of such understanding to our gentile friends, especially if we want to mitigate their fear and prejudice.

Familiarity, in this case, breeds not contempt but greater comfort and less fear of the unknown.  And of course for our part, this is a two-way street.
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TOGETHERNESS – The Team Work of Good Ensemble

roof pattern-1Ensemble means TOGETHER, as in a unified or coordinated whole.  We hear the word pertaining to clothing, as in a coordinated outfit that works together in terms of color and pattern, etc.  In music, it can refer in the specific sense to a group that performs together, i.e., a vocal ensemble, wind or string ensemble.  In the more subjective sense, “ensemble” is the quality of togetherness, relating to the coordination of various elements of performance (outlined below), seemingly minute factors that can make the choir sound either neat, polished and professional, or sloppy, careless and amateurish.

What may be surprising is just how little it takes to upgrade or degrade a performance just by focusing on, or neglecting, one or more of those elements.

As you might guess, good ensemble demands, first and foremost, two important skills:  watching and listening – the discipline to watch the conductor, and the discipline to listen, to tune in, to your neighbors and yourself.  Together they comprise an acute awareness that must be maintained at all times when we are performing, even in rehearsal.  Most of us don’t have these skills naturally – they must be developed with practice, and if we make a point of thinking of them whenever we sing in a group, they’ll develop all the more quickly for us.

Don’t be the weak link!  Remember that all the things we think about in good ensemble can end up being for naught unless everyone is concentrating on them.  All it takes to destroy good ensemble is one singer out of sync with the group.  And once you have tuned in to the ensemble, never let your concentration flag even for a second, for that is where most mistakes happen.

Here then are some of the basic components of good ensemble, many of which we will explore in more depth in upcoming blog posts.  Although they should be addressed at each rehearsal, be careful not to let them become tedious.  Devise a short but purposeful warm-up regimen that includes exercises conducive to these elements – and especially to the overall skill of “tuning in.”

PITCH & TUNING
Singing “in tune” is of course crucial to good ensemble, and potentially problematic since some of us have a better natural sense of pitch than others.  But for nearly all of us, it’s a skill that can be learned and honed with a little practice and concentration.  And in order to “tune up,” we each must “tune in.”  Practicing intervals, both individually and as a group, can help us develop this skill.

VOWELS
Unification and refinement of vowels is an important but usually neglected part of achieving good ensemble.  Here are some things for every choral ensemble, and its conductor, to think about.

Avoid “spreading” the vowels – that wide, horizontal mouth shape that most of us just naturally do.  Besides sounding outlandish and uncultured, spreading our vowels has the effect of damping the resonance in our sound, making it weaker, less vibrant, less warm, and more strained.  Not mention, it often adversely affects pitch.

Try this exercise:  Have your mouth closed in a fully relaxed, neutral position (“lips together, teeth apart”).  Gently hold your two index fingers pointing up, at each corner of the mouth (but not touching the face).  Practice singing or speaking (in varying order) the 5 vowel sounds:
Ah (as in father)
E (as in take)
Ee (as in free)
Oh (as in go)
Oo (as in true)
Do this without letting the mouth exceed the width between your two index fingers, and without tension anywhere.  Impose this width limitation in all of your singing and your sound will improve noticeably!

Modify vowels in the higher range – Don’t let anyone tell you you must approach vowels literally in your high range.  For example, it is no use trying to sing a pure AH up there.

  1. Remember these two important rules about high notes:
    It’s especially important not to spread – think tall and narrow in your mouth shape (but without forcing); and
  2. Whatever the “true” vowel is (even if it’s E or EE), think of injecting it with a little UH (as in love).  While you may think it feels weird, have complete faith that it won’t sound weird to the listener.

Agree on dealing with diphthongs – On sustained notes, diphthongs (where necessary) should normally come at the very end.  Until that time, the first vowel sound should be pure and constant.

Where diphthongs are unnecessary:
Learn pure (non-diphthong) vowels – For example, a simple E (as in take) should be pronounced not with two vowels EH and EE, but as a single constant E (think of that stereotypical Canadian “E?” sound).   These pure vowels are especially essential in languages French, Italian and Spanish (among others), but they are called for in any language.

Correct faulty vowels – For example, many of us naturally pronounce AH too widely (spread).  It should be narrower and with a tiny bit more AW in it.  Another common issue is learning to sing a pure OOH.  The correct mouth shape for OOH takes more muscular effort than most other vowels – a pointed, forward pucker of the lips is needed here.  And finally again, get rid of unnecessary diphthongs.

CONSONANTS
Uniform arrival and departure – Getting on and off of consonants together is key to good ensemble.  

Anticipatory consonants – Consonants must not happen on the beat.  If they do, every entrance will be late.  Make a point of putting the vowel right on the beat, and the consonant will find its proper place before. 

Bring out consonants! – A common shortcoming of even highly accomplished vocal singing is unclear diction.  Think of overdoing those consonants, of propelling them forward, and it will probably be just enough for the audience to understand you.  There’s also the added benefit of an energized breath, and vowels will be more vibrant.

DYNAMICS
Everyone must execute a crescendo or diminuendo, or any other change in volume, at the same rate.  When the group can feel the expressive purpose and power of a dynamic together, the effect is all the more compelling to the listener.

ATTACKS, RHYTHMS & RELEASES
Everyone singing the same line must begin and cut off at the same time.  Rhythms must be felt and executed in perfect unison.  For rehearsing complex rhythms, try subdividing everything in the smallest note unit of that passage.

ACCENTS, ARTICULATIONS, SPECIAL EFFECTS
Everyone must observe and execute these things in the same way at the same time.

UNISON SINGING
This is one of the real tests of good ensemble, especially given the tendency to assume that singing in unison is easy.  It is easy to sing in unison, but not so easy to make it sound good!  Here’s where all the units of ensemble must be perfectly aligned and coordinated.

ACHIEVING GENERAL TOGETHERNESS
There is the sense of ensemble that only comes from conductor and each singer feeling the music in complete sympathy.  To some degree this is indefinable – it just happens.  But it can only happen with everyone’s total concentration on tuning in, both by listening to one another and by watching the conductor.
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