Category Archives: Performance

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


blue&white3-1Have you ever noticed how relaxing it can be to do a routine task, like folding laundry or washing the car?  Your mind wanders as you go about a simple task.  Maybe you have the TV or radio on while you’re doing this “mindless” activity, and without even trying, your focus goes to the program.

Do you find golf to be a tranquilizing activity?  Do you enjoy relaxing with a good book?  Maybe you like to decompress by knitting or needlepoint, or by surfing the web.  How often have you fallen asleep to your favorite music?  (And yes, if you’ve ever suffered from insomnia, you’ll know that successfully falling asleep can be a matter of focusing the mind on counting those sheep.)

Just what is it that all of these activities have in common?  They are all potentially relaxing.  But why?  They all lure us into a state of trance, a kind of hypnosis – in simplest terms, a place of deep concentration.

“Concentratus Interruptus.”  Now imagine that your concentration is repeatedly broken.  Sometimes this break is induced by outside sources.  Often it comes from within ourselves – we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to inhibiting our concentration.  In either case, I’m sure you’ll agree these interruptions are anything but relaxing, and can be deeply irritating.

Concentration is relaxation.  This is common knowledge, stated by many experts on effective performance of any kind, whether it be music, theatre, public speaking, sports, or what-have-you.  And yet, it’s all too easy to overlook.

We might sometimes think of intense concentration as some sort of tense, stressful condition.  We are confusing intense concentration with the kind of intense frustration we may feel when we’re unable to focus, but really need to.

It’s Only Natural.  True concentration is the opposite of tension.  It’s so natural, we usually don’t notice we’re actually doing it.  As a personal example, I really enjoy typing, especially when I can establish a flow over a long period of several minutes.  It is very hypnotic, relaxing, soothing.  And I’m actually producing something, so there’s an extra note of gratification.

The same goes with music.  For those of us involved in choral singing, performing music is not only gratifying, it can be a remarkably effective way of unwinding.  This is in part a result of the deep breathing required for singing – taking deep breaths is relaxing and cleanses our mind and body by reconnecting us with a steady oxygen flow.  But it also has to do with the mental concentration required.

For effective choral singing, indeed for any sort of accomplished ensemble performance, concentration is key.  That’s what it takes to really tune in to one another:  to enter and cut off together, to blend our vowel color and our consonants, to feel each and every nuance of articulation, dynamics and tempo, to be at one with the music, and with one another.  And when that chain of group concentration is broken or torn by even one person not fully participating in it, it can be frustrating for all concerned.  But don’t let it get to you!

Concentration is Focused Attention.  This means attention to what’s being requested of us during rehearsals, listening carefully to the conductor’s (hopefully clear and succinct) instructions, and then an equally sharp focus on carrying out those instructions in the music.  But each and every individual has to do his/her part in this communal concentration – a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.  And it takes practice.

There’s really no mystery about concentration – just focus your mind on the thing at hand.  (And try not to be lured into that pitfall of stopping to notice how well you’re focusing, because that’s not focusing!)

In the context of singing, there are a whole set of specific things to concentrate on.  It’s impossible of course to focus on too many elements all at once – that’s why we must learn and rehearse the music over time and build it into our minds and our bodies.  Then the notes and rhythms and our coherent sense of form become second-nature, and we can focus in on energizing and selling the music to our audience.

Practice Makes Perfect.  Once you get to know first-hand the synergistic magic that can happen when everyone is concentrating, the communal experience of effective music-making can be unforgettable, just as it can be in an effective team effort in sports.  And the more we practice both individual and communal concentration, successfully tuning in to each aspect of the music, the easier and more second-nature it becomes.  And the better our choir will sound.
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Blue on white etching of instrumentsOver the past thirty or so years, there’s been an evolving attitude in the synagogue community toward music in the service.  I recall in the early 1980s hearing a lot of railing against cantorial and/or choral music as being too much of “a performance” that discouraged congregational participation and unduly lengthened the service.  Given the occasional excess committed by some cantors and choirs (one heard anecdotes about certain of the great hazzanim in parts of Brooklyn for example, where the Saturday service routinely concluded at 2:00 pm), there may have been at least some justification to those complaints.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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