Category Archives: Jewish Music

UNDERSTANDING THE CONDUCTOR – Learning the Signals

baton-1People who follow baseball or football know the importance of signals to the successful win.  Not being one of those people, I won’t wade any deeper into it than that, except to say that conductors of music use signals that are of equally crucial importance.

You may have watched a classical performance in person or, better yet, on TV with close-ups of the conductor doing his/her thing.  Have you ever wondered what the conductor was doing, and how in the world the performers of the ensemble were able to follow?  If you have caught any such performances, did it seem to you that the conductor was effective in conveying these things to the singers or players?

(See also previous post KEEPING IT TOGETHER – The Importance of the Conductor)

Of course, every conductor is different.  Some are strict utilitarians, others are showmen.  Some are easier than others to follow, and this varies even among top-notch professionals.  And in any case, some conductors are more, some are less, demonstrative on the podium –  One may prefer economy of gesture, while another may “wear the heart on the sleeve” as it were, giving the full tilt of facial and bodily expressions, hopefully along with clarity of beat.

Speed and Attitude.  There are two basic things the conductor is supposed the convey to the ensemble:

1. Tempo – how fast or slow the music flows, and fluctuations thereof;

2. Mood and Affect – which can be conveyed in dynamics (variations in loudness/softness), accents and articulation, and other more subjective manifestations of expression.   In choral conducting, the attitude of a gesture can even be conducive to the vocal approach of the singers.

Recognizing the Basic Beat Patterns.  

Hopefully, your conductor will know the beat patterns and use them clearly and effectively.  If he/she does, and you the singer can properly discern them, you will have a powerful tool for always knowing where you are (or should be) in any given bar of music you perform.  This is really an essential skill to develop.

Here then are those patterns (customarily delivered with the right hand), each shown from both the conductor’s and the ensemble’s perspective:

The ONE Pattern:  This is basically just a repeated downbeat, creating a simple pattern that can be thought of as a vertical oval (generally wider for more legato effect, narrower for marcato), with the single pulse at the bottom of the oval.

The FOUR Pattern:

beat pattern 4 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 4 group view

Group View

 

 

 

 

 


The THREE Pattern:

beat pattern 3 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 3 group view

Group View

 

 

 

 

 

 

The TWO Pattern:

beat pattern 2 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 2 group view

Group’s View

 

 

 

 

 

 

The SIX Pattern:

beat pattern 6 conductors view

Conductor’s View

beat pattern 6 group view

Group’s View

 

 

 

 

 

So what’s an Ictus?Ictus is simply a term to indicate precisely where the beat pulse falls.  In these diagrams, these pulses will occur at the arrowheads.  In sharp, angular patterns, they should be very easy to discern, but should still be clearly enough when delivered even in a smooth, legato pattern.

While the basic pattern tells you where you are in the measure, it is also important to note the manner in which the beat is delivered, which hopefully the conductor is using in an intentional way to achieve the effects desired.

Size matters – How big the pattern is beaten will indicate volume.  A small beat, as you might have guessed, indicates a quieter dynamic, while large means loud, and all the gradations in between.  If the music calls for it, one or more beats might be delivered larger than the others, indicating sforzando.

Hand shape – The conductor can convey various moods and attitudes by using, for example, thumb and forefinger touching to convey delicate precision; a flat horizontal hand to indicate broad accent; or even a fist to evoke heaviness of beat.

Beat shape – A legato (smooth) feeling will often be conveyed with a more curvy beat pattern.  A sharp, angular pattern, especially with a strong ictus, indicates a marked feel to the music.  A lack of movement between pulses might indicate a detached, or staccato approach.

Conducting in 911 – When during the course of a performance, things might begin to go amiss and the group is not properly together in tempo, the conductor might resort to an emergency procedure which I like to refer to as the white pattern.  This is a large, flat pattern of straight horizontals and verticals with a clear but unaccented ictus.  It’s sole purpose in the moment is to indicate in the clearest way possible that: 1) The group isn’t together, and 2) this is the beat and tempo that must be immediately adjusted to.  Think of it as musical CPR.  Once the crisis has passed, the pattern returns to normal performance mode.

Other “emergency” gestures include:
— Pointing to the mouth – meaning “more (clearer) text”
— Pointing up – meaning “you’re under pitch”
— Pointing down – meaning “you’re sharp” (not used as frequently as pointing up)

Both hands for emphasis – One or more beats may be mirrored in the other hand, such as for a subtle cue, or for a slowing or slight holding of one or more beats.  From the conductor’s point of view, the less often this is used, the more effective it is when needed.

Cueing – Some conductors don’t do this all the time, others seldom do it at all, still others are extraordinarily skilled at it.  Cueing is especially important in music where various parts are entering and cutting off at different times.  Some cues are given right on the entrance beat, others may be given the beat before.  This may depend on how fast the tempo is – in a faster tempo, the cue is generally given earlier.  All of this will hopefully be clarified in rehearsal.

Lesson to be learned:  Don’t rely too heavily on the conductor for your cues, as even the best conductor can and does miss a cue now and again.  Know your music well enough to be able to come in properly if the cue isn’t there.

“I can name that tempo in one beat.”  Depending on how experienced you and others in your group are in your ensemble performing, you may eventually be able to make this claim.  If the conductor can do it properly, it is possible for the ensemble to begin a piece (or section of a piece) in the proper tempo with a single beat.  (This is usually the beat before the entrance of the group).  But for many non-professional level groups, such as a congregational choir, it may be necessary to have two or more beats (or a full measure) to lead the group into the tempo.  The jargon for this has customarily been something like “one bar for nothing.”

The final beat of this lead-in is really a cue.  As such, it will properly be delivered with size and clarity by the conductor, who may even mirror it in the other hand.

Performing at the speed of light.  Remember that, as we have said before, light travels much faster than sound, and while the listening method is often very useful in staying together as a performing group, it’s always best to at least combine it with the watching method.  And there are times when you must rely completely on watching the conductor.  In the recent VocalEssence U.S. premiere of  Jonathan Dove’s “There Was a Child,” our acoustic circumstances were such that this was the only reliable way to go.

Baton or No Baton – This is really up to the conductor’s discretion.   The baton customarily being white, it often serves the purpose of aiding visibility from the orchestra pit of a darkened theater.  It is less frequently used in purely choral performances, especially those without orchestra or other instrumental ensemble.  In its absence will come more opportunity for expression via the unaided hand.            Join Email List

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

guitar angled-1Part II:  Teaching Your New Tune

In  Part I of this post, we explored some possible criteria for choosing suitable melodies for congregational/communal singing.

Okay, so you’ve found this great new melody that you’re sure your congregation or group is going to just fall in love with.  Make sure you’re well-prepared to teach it in a fun, engaging, positive and most importantly, non-tedious way.

Mission possible.  Be quick and effective in your teaching method.  Think of it as though you were pulling a daring rescue raid – time is of the essence, and you’ve got to “get in and get out,” do your job fast and well, because before you know it, people will get bored.  This means being thoroughly prepared beforehand, knowing your material and your teaching plan inside out before you even begin.

Always be positive.  Be encouraging when you teach (but don’t overdo it).  Always make a point of complimenting them when they get it right, but even when they don’t, precede your corrections with an encouraging “great job” or “good for you” maybe along with some good-natured humor.  Never show scorn or frustration, which are as contagious as enthusiasm.

Know and understand your text – as you always should.  You need to sell the song, so be ready and able to explain and convey its meaning and significance (for example, its place in the liturgy, or informational tidbits about the poet or composer) to your group.  You’ll be amazed how much more meaningful and compelling this can make the experience for them and for you.

Break it down, put it together.  Teach a song phrase by phrase.  Sing each phrase by yourself while the group listens, then have them sing it.  Repeat this process at least twice for each phrase, perhaps even more for tricky passages, then go back and combine phrases, slowly building the tune.

If either the text or the tune is particularly challenging, start with one of these elements to get it right, then add the other element.  For example, say the text without pitches or rhythm, perfecting the diction.  Then say it in rhythm.  Finally, add the tune itself.

Use the “listen, then repeat” method.  Whether you’re the teacher or the student, remember this important learning principle, as mentioned above.  If your audience is singing (or talking), they’re not listening.  Listening means absorbing the music in one’s ear, then actively repeating it.  It is the quickest way to learn – and to teach.  Repeat again to make sure they have it.

Be accurate the first time.  Another important learning principle, especially in music:  If you learn something incorrectly at the outset, it can be exponentially harder to unlearn the mistake than it would have been to learn it correctly the first time.  Don’t be afraid to correct them quickly and repeatedly.  But be positive and encouraging.

Start easy, get harder.  Start with simple and/or repeating parts to help them feel encouragement right off the bat, then graduate to the more challenging passages.  You’ll often be able to tell them “You’ve learned half the song already!”

Start slow, get faster.  For a fast song, start with a slower tempo for learning purposes.  Then gradually speed it up to its actual tempo.

Use it or lose it.  Once you’ve gone to the trouble of teaching the new melody, and they’ve made the effort to learn it, don’t just chuck it aside.  Even if it doesn’t seem an immediate hit, make a point of using it frequently, at least for a while.  Chances are the congregation will come around and embrace it.  Then, if it’s really worthwhile, it may become a permanent choice.
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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

ENERGY IN PERFORMANCE – Engaging Your Audience

Photo of candle flameHave you ever gone to a concert – any kind of concert – and felt completely “underwhelmed” by the performers even though they were performing competently, doing everything right as far as the music itself was concerned?  What was it that struck you as less than engaging about the performance?

I’ll wager it was a lack of commitment to the audience – a lapse of energy – that your were sensing.  It could stem from a few different things, such as:

  • Inexperience – Unless you’re at least somewhat experienced in the art of performing, you might have an insufficient insight as to how much you might have to do in order to have it “read” properly from the audience.  You may think you’re overdoing it, when in fact it could prove to be not nearly enough.
  • Tentative grasp of the material – Without the confidence that comes with full mastery and internalization of what you’re performing (be it music, a play, a comedic bit, etc.), your delivery might come off as tenuous and uncertain.
  • Stage anxiety – Sometimes nervousness can actually work in a performer’s favor, but just as often it can serve to quell the best aspects of delivery.
  • Fatigue or illness – Here again, nerves might prove beneficial in compensating for otherwise low energy.  Failing that, experience should tell the performer when that extra effort will be needed to make up for when we are tired or sick.
  • Lack of enthusiasm (“I’ve done this so many times….”) – This may be the most challenging barrier of all to giving the audience a scintillating performance.  If you ever acted in high school or college theatre where the production ran for more than 1 or 2 nights, you might recall that by the 3rd night, it was tough to summon the same kind of commitment onstage.  Now try and imagine yourself (as I often have) as a professional having to go on night after night for weeks or months in an ongoing Broadway production!

Regardless of the reason(s), a lack of full and complete commitment (aka “phoning it in”) will be all too apparent to the audience – as a lackluster performance, one with no “sparkle.”  Imagine whether Bruce Springsteen would be as successful as he has been without his fabled stage energy!

The fact is – whether you are singing or playing in a solo role or in an ensemble, whether popular, classical or ethnic music, whether it’s a concert or a sacred ceremony, or even a speech – energy and vitality in performance is absolutely key to engaging your audience.

Sometimes the energy lapse is limited to specific aspects such as diction, or facial expression, or musical line.   But even just one part of the performance that doesn’t quite sizzle can make all the difference between an “okay” performance and a truly exciting one.  And quite often having that sizzle can more than make up for other shortcomings.  An audience is far more likely to forgive an innocent mistake in notes or the occasional crack in the voice than they are to accept an overall tentative performance.

High Energy Doesn’t Mean LOUD or FAST.  While volume and speed can sometimes serve to convey a sense of engagement and immediacy, we can’t always sing everything loud and fast.  And yet the energy has to come from somewhere.

A classic example of this sort of challenge is in singing a very slow piece.  This often means having to sing long held notes.  You may feel it’s so slow, it’s like swimming in molasses.  The all-too-typical fix is simply to speed up the tempo.  But even this won’t make up for all of the energy deficiency, so why not deal with the problem head-on?

Listen to a good recording of Bach’s famous “Air for the G String,” or Handel’s equally celebrated “Largo” from Serse [Xerxes], two classic examples of very slow pieces which would lose their very identities if they were taken even just a little faster.  As you listen, try and notice how the initial very long notes are given life and energy, how they are made to “bloom” as they lead seamlessly into what follows.

No Rest for the Musical.  What you might notice is a feeling of crescendo without an actual crescendo, along with a sense of urgency without an actual speeding up.  These add up to a feeling of heading toward a destination.  This is the secret to singing or playing with a proper sense of “line,” of giving it shape and contour.  Although we are listening for it in those long-held notes, it must ideally be present in every note – long, short or in-between, and even through the rests!

Quiet Urgency.  This sense of constant energy is especially important when singing softly.  In fact a good rule of thumb is to increase your energy as you get softer.  Think of that urgency, that near-crescendo, and of diction, especially consonants (always important, but especially in those quiet moments).  Spit them out!

Learn to Gage How to Engage.  Energy does not mean OVER THE TOP, nor does it necessitate a lapse of dignity or good taste.  But it often does mean going farther than you as the performer might think is necessary or appropriate – exaggerating diction, facial attitude, dynamic changes, etc.  Let your conductor or other reliable advisor watch and listen from the house during rehearsals to gage what does and doesn’t work.

Put On a Happy Face (Or At Least An Engaged One).  If you’ve watched truly top-notch classical performers, they may not be putting on the smiley faces as they play or sing.  But they truly look engaged.  Solo and chamber players, and even orchestral players move and sway with the phrases.  And it’s a good bet they’re not faking this.  A solo singer communicates the song or aria on his/her face.  Choral singers should likewise be able to convey the mood and context of what they are singing facially.

In short, really get into your performing, and show the audience that you are enjoying it, even if it isn’t necessarily happy material.  If the music is sad, revel in that sadness and gloom, or whatever the mood and emotion might be.

If you want to engage the audience, be engaged.  But whatever you do, don’t allow yourself to commit the cardinal sin of performing – boredom!     Join Email List

GIVING BIRTH TO MUSIC – The Thrill (and Fright) of Showing a New Child to the World

Hayom T'amtzeinu by Michael Reid Winikoff - photo of sheet musicTo Change the World?! – One of the great dramatic prayers of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins, “Today the world is born.”  The old traditional interpretation of this is that Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of Creation.  Another even more compelling version is that today, each year, the world is re-born, created anew.  Each of us has the opportunity to re-create our own world, and by extension the whole world, for the better.

As composers, many of us hold the audacity of hope that each of our new compositions, to which in a very real sense we give birth, and which we often think of as our children, will in some small way make the world better, will introduce into it a tiny sparkle of joy, of hope, of inspiration, of a more profound understanding of things.

This past week, on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I had the great honor of having one of my liturgical choral works, a setting of the concluding litany Hayom T’amtzeinu, introduced to my lifelong home congregation.  Although I was leading services at another synagogue and so wasn’t able to hear it sung for the first time in situ as part of the service, I had been attending the choir rehearsals and helping them to prepare the piece, and had the privilege of hearing it come into full flower.

Winning Over the Performers – I was delighted (and relieved) at the very positive response to the work by everyone involved.  While the parts are occasionally tricky with unexpected melodic turns, I knew pretty much from the first read-through that the group would be able to tackle it quite easily – that they “got” it.  Much of the harmony came through immediately, and they seemed to catch on quickly.  It also didn’t hurt that they found the parts vocally comfortable.

I’ve been fortunate not only that we have a particularly fine choir this year, but also that the two cantors and the conductor have all been strong advocates of my new piece, both in deciding to take it on and in ensuring meticulous preparation of the choir.  They too seemed to “get” it, and I didn’t need to say very much.  By all accounts, it came off very well in the service.

The Best Laid Plans – There was, unfortunately, one frustrating aspect of this wonderful adventure.  This year the synagogue is using a new prayer book, in which the editors felt it necessary to change the order of verses in the text.  It’s the sort of frustration that undoubtedly many composers of sacred settings in many faiths have had to experience – that of having to try and accommodate text changes for an existing musical setting or risk that setting becoming unusable and irrelevant.  Fortunately, I think I’ve found a way to address the changes.

Winning Over the Audience – Given that this place in the service is a beloved opportunity for congregational song, it can be daunting and risky indeed to dare make any change of tune, let alone introduce a choral setting.  This is perhaps the chief reason my Hayom was sung only once, on the second day, so that congregants would only be confronted with it once, after they’d gotten to sing the old tune on the first day.  But mine features a very singable, congregation-friendly melody, and I’m hoping they’ll come to embrace it and not resent the change too deeply.

What’s So Good About It?  In the wake of this gratifying experience, I’ve been trying to understand the possible reasons why my setting has been so well-received by the musicians.  Here are some thoughts:

Consider Both Performer and Listener.  I tried to think of both as my audience, and to know that audience.

Make it Accessible – For this particular audience, I ensured it wouldn’t be too avant-garde or esoteric – this is not the place for experimentation.  On the practical side, it couldn’t be unduly difficult, either musically or vocally – it would need fit the resources of the average synagogue choir.

Appropriate.  I endeavored for something not only beautiful and memorable, but especially apropos of the particular mood and occasion.  In this case, it meant knowing and making creative use of the special chant idioms for the High Holy Days and, of course, understanding the meaning and significance of the text.  Thus the old adage of authors – “Write what you know.”

Singable.  I made certain the music was tuneful and coherent, taking special care to fit the music to the rhythm of the text in an optimal way for maximum singability.  In our Jewish community at least, all too often we encounter a congregational melody that doesn’t really fit the text, which has been shoe-horned in.  This doesn’t make for a very satisfying singing experience.

Concise.  I knew this would be no place for undue length, so I got to the point, avoided repetition and stayed within two minutes.

Ledgible.  I also made sure the score was easy to read – this seems obvious, but is not to be underestimated, and too often it doesn’t happen.  In general, if the performers are presented with too many obstacles, the frustration and wasted time can prove counter-productive.  This is especially true with an orchestra, but it applies here as well.  I try always to grease the skids in introducing new music by making things as easy as possible for everyone.

Interesting.  Finally, I tried to achieve some degree of musical depth and substance.  A bit of harmonic interest, a touch of counterpoint, a compact and cohesive sense of form, all sprinkled with occasional subtle touches of the unexpected.  This may constitute a bit more challenge in learning at first, but properly done it can increase the gratification factor for both performer and listener, and might increase the durability of the piece in your repertoire over time.  Boring pieces can quickly become passé.

Think of your perennial musical favorites, and try to figure out some of the things that make them work so well for you.  Then apply those principals to your own creations.  It’s sure to make for more successful, well-bred “children.”       Join Email List

CHOIR & COMMUNITY

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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RITUAL AS PERFORMANCE

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