Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Guitar Workshop for Cantors

When I came to the School of Sacred Music (of Hebrew Union College) in 1974 and began to conduct services as a student-cantor I used a guitar to accompany myself. How else was I going to do it? Since joining NFTY in 1968 I had led dozens, maybe even hundreds of services, always with guitar. It was like a part of my body - I knew no other way. Thanks to my wonderful teachers, in a very short time I received the training I would need to be able to daven with or without an instrument, and over the years I have become comfortable in a wide variety of synagogue settings. But, given, a choice, I would rather accompany myself on guitar than sing a cappella or with a keyboard accompanist. It just feels right. What's not to like about setting your own key, tempo, rhythm, and dynamics, and being able to change it on the fly!!?? I can sing a prayer over-and-over, build the ruach to a crescendo, or I can pull back to a whisper, and the guitar follows wherever I go every time. (I can also segue from one melody to another without having to make faces or wave my arms to catch the eye of an accompanist.)

How many synagogues in 1974 had guitar accompaniment every Shabbat? Probably very few. But today, "Do you play guitar?" is one of the first questions asked of applicants in cantorial searches. As with any instrument, having the ability to play is one thing, but playing with style and sensitivity is another. At Hebrew College in Newton, MA, I work with cantorial and rabbinic students on repertoire for guitar, helping them develop a technique that will be spiritual, engaging, and tasteful. On June 15 & 16, 2010 the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College will sponsor the first Guitar Workshop dedicated to music for synagogue worship and celebration, special occasions and sacred moments such as hospital visits and healing rituals. Cantors, rabbis, educators, music leaders and students are invited to take part. We will play, pray, sing, listen, play some more, share, learn...and eat. All the information you need is here.


Ross said...

Great to hear Jeff! כל הכבוד!

classicalreformharpsichordist said...

This is all wonderful, it really is--I'm not being at all sarcastic or insincere--BUT, who is going to revive the languishing tradition of Classical-Style Jewish liturgical music? Nearly all the great Jewish organist/composers from the Classical Reform period have died, and much of their uniquely Jewish technique and music tradition has died with them. I can count on one hand the number of Jewish professional organists I know of, and only two of them have any involvement in Jewish music. The other three play in Churches and concert halls. Historic pipe organs and perfectly good acoustic grand pianos are being dispensed with in Synagogues all over the world, and replaced with folk guitar, synthesizer, and bongo drums. It's important to explore new avenues and sound worlds for Jewish music, but we mustn't forget the masterful music that has already come down to us from decades and centuries past. Also, choirs are in danger of going the way of the synagogue organ. Who's going to bring the choral music of Salamone Rossi out of its present state of neglect? There are nice recordings, and I believe two Reform synagogues occasionally use his music during services, but the truth is, it's hauntingly beautiful, contemplative music that in many ways sounds more modern than the standard 19th Century German Romantic Classical Reform music! Rossi is certainly good enough to deserve a somewhat regular place in the modern sanctuary. Who's going to bring the harpsichord back to it's rightful place on the bimah, which it occupied from the 16th-18th centuries, especially in Sephardic synagogues in Italy and the Netherlands? It works surprisingly well for cantorial accompaniment. While there is an effort underway in the Reform movement to revive the German Rite Classical Reform music for occasional Shabbat and High Holiday use, most of the other Classical Jewish music (which I think would be more captivating to a modern, YOUNG audience of Jews), is relegated to obscure recordings and the occasional appearance at a choral concert. That's not right. We should be pushing the musical envelope in BOTH chronological directions--forwards AND backwards, so that we can have a truly diverse musical and spiritual palette to choose from.