Raise It Up! Raise It Up!

This weekend is Song leader Boot Camp East.  It is, according to their website, “an intensive leadership training program for Rabbis, Cantors, professional songleaders, and new songleaders offering a profound exploration of the physiology, psychology, strategy, and execution behind explosive Jewish teaching and songleading.”

My Saturday began with a double B’nei Mitzvah.  Two wonderful, dynamic boys were called to the Torah in a lovely service.  Immediately afterwards, I got in my car and sped (and luckily didn’t get a ticket) to Scotch Plains, NJ, to arrive late at the JCC for boot camp.  The day was intense, to say the very least.  Very early on, Rich Recht and Sheldon Low had 40 strangers jumping dancing, and clapping their hands in the air.  Chests were lifted, breathing and heart rates increased, we were pumped and we hadn’t done anything yet.  And that was just the point.  We didn’t even get out our guitars until after dinner.  Almost the entire day was spent on the psychology and physiology of performance.  Much like voice lessons, I discovered that there is a great deal of technique to this and that it is exceedingly difficult to keep all of these things in your head.  It’s like walking, chewing gum, rubbing your belly, and singing in Hebrew all at once!  But, like voice training, I am certain that a lot of it becomes second nature with practice.  At least I hope so.

This morning at Sunday school, I tried to put SOME of what I had learned into action.  We begin our Sunday school with a brief service.  I tried to use praise phrases, encouraging the kids to sing more and louder and then praising them when they did.  The energy in the first session (grades K-3) was fantastic!  The kids were singing.  They were energized.  It was great.  There was only one problem.  If you are singing the Mi Chamocha prayer, and right in the middle of the text you say, “Raise it up!  Awesome!” You have stopped talking to G-d and are now talking to the kids.  In that case, have you, as songleader, removed yourself from the process of prayer and become only a songleader, concerned with the volume and enthusiasm of those being lead, but not so much with the prayer itself?  How can you be both the songleader, inspiring and leading others to sing, and the cantor – really praying and inspiring others to prayer through your example?  I want people to sing with me, but I didn’t like interrupting the prayer to comment on it.

Maybe the answer is that in speaking to the kids, you are calling to the Divine Spark within those kids to be raised up?  Maybe that’s part of the prayer.  It seems to me, though, that that is its own prayer, not the Mi Chamocha.  That is the prayer of a song session, but not the prayer of a regular worship service.  It will be interesting to explore these questions further during  Song Leader Boot Camp Day 2 later today.  I’ll also be curious to see how these techniques play out with our second session of Hebrew school students (4th-6th grade).

I’ll let you know how it goes…

Until then, Raise it up!!


7 thoughts on “Raise It Up! Raise It Up!

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  1. Sounds like a wonderful experience! We saw Rick Recht in concert this summer here in Wilmington, and Marisa (who hadn’t grown up going to NFTY events, camp, etc.) marveled at how he knew exactly when and how to feed people the lines to new songs without missing a beat. I think for many of us who grew up in the Reform movement or the camp experience, we just kind of expect those things, but you’re right, they’re techniques, and they happen to work very well at including people in the dynamic. A good songleader, like a good shaliach tzibbur, holds the space but also shares the space, and that’s a skill that, no matter how talented or charismatic you may be, needs to be learned.

  2. Mark Goldman at Rockdale used to do that, in part because Rockdale was VERY old-fashioned at Classical Reform (in the sense that people sat on their hands etc.) and he very much felt that it was his job as shaliach tzibbur to encourage people to participate and feel something. And on a certain level, how different is it from starting to clap during a song, thereby getting people in the pews to ‘raise it up’?

    Having said that, I’ve always been torn…I get very nervous when the service gets interrupted too much and there are too many “Iyyunim” (without being too critical, it’s an aspect of the Reconstructionist worship style that I find really jarring); the service really loses momentum and you can kill the mood rather than enhance it. On the other hand, I think worshipers are looking for affirmation and encouragement, and there are some times (in music especially, but also in other moments as well) where it’s clear that there’s ‘a moment’ happening and you want to build it up. When I was at Shir Ami, there was one service where EVERYONE danced at the Mi Chamocha, and I liked introducing it and encouraging people to go for it and take themselves into the aisles. And, as you said, when doing a ‘family’ or ‘youth’ service, it lends itself to that kind of language.

    If done right and with skill, the positive language leads to enhancing the moment/experience, which leads to closeness with the Divine. Which is very Hasidic somehow…

  3. As a member of the kahal, I like it when the shaliach or shlicha tzibur makes clear what effect the moment calls for, and what role we have in achieving that effect.

    Meaning no disrespect, I would not expect that one becomes a cantor in order to pray, or in order to sing, but in order to lead a congregation in prayerful singing. Whatever our line of work, we all encounter times when tzim-tzum is called for, when we have to pull back from ourselves in order to involve or empower or guide those we serve.

    The other important message in your post is reminding your readers that a group of people who are good at what they do gather together to become better at what they do. My sister-in-law has a plaque in her kitchen that reads, It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts. To those who know it all and keep on learning, we can only say kol hakavod.

    1. One becomes a cantor for all of the reasons mentioned. I am often told by members of my congregation that they appreciate when they see that I am really praying – that it helps and inspires them to pray. It is my opinion that if a Cantor is ONLY songleading, they are not properly leading the congregation. It is the same as when a Cantor stands in front of the congregation and performs. They are only serving one of the many roles that they are trained and called to do. The best cantors lead, sing beautifully, and pray all at once. It’s a deep challenge and is most difficult, because it exposes you so deeply. Praying in front of people is the most difficult thing to master because it can feel so naked. I know that I am doing something right when I feel the prayer deeply, and look out into the congregation and see the kahal all singing and praying with me.

      1. As a member of Cantor Neff’s congregation, and someone who is involved in Jewish choral singing, I have to say that prayerful singing is what connects me to spirituality. The song leading happens almost spontaneously because the cantor connects us to the song of prayer, not because she is showing us HOW to do it, or telling us WHEN we are doing it. In a choir, when you are learning HOW to sing the song prayerfully so that others will feel that connection, song leading is important. But in a service, it can interrupt the connection and the meaning of prayer. We are blessed to have a cantor whose prayerful connection comes across in every piece she sings and can spark that in her congregants as well.
        Libby Tulin

  4. I agree with Libby Tulin’s comment. In prayer, ideally, I think, a cantor leads but does not perform or direct, other than perhaps a few notes before the prayer begins. I think that to have the cantor step out of the prayer to direct would be very jarring.

    Cantor Neff wrote, “It’s a deep challenge and is most difficult, because it exposes you so deeply.” That is a very informative comment. I have often wondered about that.

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