Sunday, January 31, 2010

Cantorial Music: An A-choired Taste?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

I grew up with a visceral distaste for chazanim and choirs.

Part of that was just an immature impatience with all things slow.
Part of it was a dislike for music that didn’t fit the ‘80s pop mold.
And part of it was the cynical feeling – again, visceral rather than intellectual - that people were singing to impress rather than davening to express/build kavvanah.

That distaste continued into my yeshiva days. One Rosh HaShanah I asked the posek in Kerem b’Yavneh whether I should ask mechilah from the Yamim Noraim chazan, for the comments I had made about his cantorial style.

Fast-forward to today, and my taste in music is still decidedly un-chazanish, and my impatience with artifice [in all but myself, of course] is undimmed. So this morning, when I knew a choir would accompany the Shabbat Shirah davening, I was apprehensive. I brought along a sefer, but even with that – would I survive?

I was, to say the least, pleasantly surprised. It was beautiful. More: My sons sitting with me enjoyed it, too. It even helped my davening.

What’s changed in me over the years? Is the choir an acquired taste?

Part of it is the patience that comes with growing older, yes; adults have enough data and concerns in their heads to pass the time.

Some of it is the realization that people who ordinarily chattered or spaced-out during davening were actually paying attention to the words.

A piece of it is just that the choir was really good [and not too slow, either].

And part of it is the fact that growing up, and meeting/working with a diverse sample of humanity has uncynicised my view of people. I find it easier to discount my first-impression suspicion and perceive what’s really there. So when my gut reaction to singing is, “Those are performers,” my next reaction is to ask myself whether I have any basis for that assumption.

Certainly, there is a performance aspect to singing - but the sincere כוונה [focus] of the singers this morning was so blatant as to be undeniable. These were not actors, manipulators of voice seeking approval from their audience. Rather, they were בשר ודם [flesh and blood] turning to HaShem with the gifts at their disposal, and helping others to turn to HaShem likewise.



  1. I've a feeling you aren't much a fan of opera either. Lifelong chazonish style enthusiast here. One, when I hear a chazon it gives me another chance to thank God for the extraordinary blessings he has bestowed and allowed to be used--a beautiful voice is no less a gift than the ability to make a violin or piano "sing" its best, or the ability to paint like one of the Masters. That voice lets us "see" what is being sung in a new, deeper way.

    Two, we send a shaliach tzibur to be our representative in our tefillas before God. You want someone whose voice barely carries past the second row or who mumbles the words or do you want someone whose voice wings upward, strong and true and yes, emotion laden?

    Three, the biggest complaint by most is that a chazon shleps out the davening, makes it last too long, keeps us in shul too long. That's when the accusations arise that the chazon is just gorgling to hear himself produce the sounds. So, talking to God a little longer is a bad thing?

    I'm glad that yesterday at least you got a little taste of why we enthusiasts will walk miles on Shabbos to hear a talented chazon and/or choir.

  2. Personally, I get very annoyed at davenings that have no singing at all and that people mumble or rush through (the 15-minute Shabbos peuskei dezimrah is one of my biggest gripes: you can't even say the words properly at that speed. I know. I was yeshiva-trained all my life and cannot do it]). Why do people bother praying at all in such a situation? I also get very impatient with people who rush the davening so they can get out just a few minutes earlier, as if they have some meeting they need to attend on a Shabbos morning. And why would the next generation of Jews want to continue davening at a shul in which there is no sense of spirituality? As a person who was trained in music (though I am not a professional), it pains me to see Jews who actively and arrogantly mock the traditional chants as "outdated" in favor of styles that are much less musically intricate. This type of attitude is leading to the loss of chants and niggunim that are centuries old, and sometimes perhaps even longer. Chazzanus and choirs help bring back that sense of intricacy and care within the davening.
    Of course, I hear your concerns regarding tircha de-tzibbura. I generally do not like hazzanim who drag things out or perform concerts on a Shabbos morning, and I start getting jumpy and hungry after 2 and a half hours, which disturbs my concentration. But not all styles of chazzanus are the same. If you've ever attended Breurs in Washington Heights, you'd see that the yekkish chazzanus style does not repeat words and keeps things moving, even as it makes each aspect of the davening meaningful through special and intricate niggunim. Sephardim also keep things moving, saying everything out loud and inserting melodies and communal responses that can be sung by everyone throughout. Rather than speeding up the davening to save time, I would advocate taking extra mi-shebeirachs and some of the piyyutim and extra kaddishim said after davening, which are not al-pi-din, out of the davening. טוב מעט בכוונה מהרבות בלא כוונה.

  3. I agree that there is a real difference between hearing a chazan who seems to be showing off, or indulging his own virtuousity, and one who sings because he feels that is the best way to present the tefillah. I have very little patience with 'concertizing' during davening, but I love to hear a good voice and a good nigun.

    To me, the difference is simple. If there were no 'audience' (other than G-d) would he sing it the same way?

    I think the choir you heard sings mostly for the pleasure of doing so, and I find that they really enhance the davening, the 3-4 times a year that I hear them. They aren't classical chazzanus, but they do sound pretty.

  4. If singing was good enough for bnei yisrael when they crossed the yam suf, then it's good enough for me.

  5. Thanks, everyone, for your comments on this. I think I'd like to re-visit this in a future post; there's much more to say here, and right now I'm not in the right frame of mind to write it.

  6. I realized I failed to address another legitimate objection of yours: hazzanim who get more into their own ego than the tefillah. I similarly dislike this phenomenon, but it gets too much press. Any voice teacher will tell you that in order to get the best out if singing a piece, you need to feel the emotion and meaning in the song. Just like your choir sang with feeling, there are plenty of chazzanim out there who do intricate singing with great feeling. It's no different from any other endeavor that requires hard work and can easily lead those people who are good at it to hubris. As an example, many learned rabbis are good examples of people who learn for its own sake, but some certainly use their learning to increase their own status. The same would apply, lehavdil, to sports, chess, politics, etc. The issue is not unique to chazzanim.

  7. I wonder how much of our problem with chazzanim lies in the tunes themselves? I'm not talking about the basic nusach which I always like, but about the over-ornate, under-composed, fundamentally boring "arias".

    Jews have composed so many wondrous tunes in classical and popular music including the Broadway stage, so why have so few produced works of high merit for chazzanim?

  8. In my experience, the choir takes everyone's focus off of the service. Here, the choir is not aiding the congregation by leading prayer; instead, they are performing different songs at different times. Everyone has to sit for them, waiting to finish, so we can get back to prayer.

    I also think that there is a fine balance between a chazan with a beautiful voice, leading us in our prayers to Hashem, and someone who merely enjoys the sound of his own voice.

  9. Wow, there really is a lot of interest on this thread. I wish I had the time to sort through my thoughts on this - both the core topic and the side items that have been interwoven in the comments. Soon, maybe...

  10. I think that there in terms of classical music, there is plenty of excellent material for chazzanim. Bechor Shor, Solomon de-Rossi, Levandovsky, and many, many others all composed beautiful choir pieces for the davening. And Carlebach and now Debbie Friedman have brought in a contemporary beat. It may be that certain chazzanim are trained only in a specific elite style that focuses almost solely on arias, but I think that the issue is often ignorance. Frequently, I get the sense that the shelichei tzibbur themselves are not trained musically and can only mimic what other people do, and are likewise unaware of the breadth of the Jewish musical tradition (I also get the sense that many bar-Mitzvah boys are trained by people who themselves are not well-versed in this tradition). And the musical tradition is not meant for the chazzan only. I grew up with a Czechoslovakian-born chazzan who could do both the traditional chants and who inserted contemporary melodies into places like kedusha (Breurs does this as well). Sephardim use Zemirot tunes in specific spots of the davening that get the kehillah involved. I think starting real programs of teaching aspiring ba'alei battim would be helpful in this regard, as would requiring any ba'al tefillah to go through some sort of nusach training beforehand.
    Of course, not everyone likes the same style. And while not everyone will enjoy choirs, others will find that they enhance their davening. I admit that I have seen places in which the choir does a performance (even as many people in the shul seemed to really be taken up with the chanting), but I have also seen choirs that form the background music to the chazzan's voice, spurring the entire kehillah to sing along. That experience was by far the strongest in terms of communal participation I have ever seen - EVERYONE was singing.