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November 23, 2014 | 1st Kislev 5775

Music in Mishkan T'filah

by Cantor Alane S. Katzew

The publication of Mishkan T’filah presents a wonderful opportunity to examine new and meaningful ways to approach worship. Integrating the spoken word with uplifting musical settings of our liturgy can generate a dramatic worship experience. Music can be a gateway to the spirit; for many congregants searching for meaningful worship, carefully planned and balanced musical choices can provide a pathway that guides their spiritual journey. The following suggestions are offered as a guide for planning the music of worship. No one size fits all. Mishkan T’filah will be one prayer book that has variegated applications in each synagogue community, according to each congregation’s unique minhagim (customs).

Key Concepts in Planning for Successful Worship

  1. Dream a vision for worship within your community and dream it together. Include all the stakeholders as a team: the rabbi, cantor, soloist, ritual chair/lay leaders, choir director, accompanist, etc.
  2. Set long range and short term goals by which to measure and evaluate progress toward the vision. How will you know what you’ve accomplished or if you’ve succeeded?
  3. Plan worship consciously and deliberately. Don’t just let it happen. Have the team meet regularly to discuss the planning of weekly worship. Focus on calendar, community, and world events that impact upon your unique congregation and think about integrating the meaning of these events into the worship experience.
  4. Adapt don’t adopt. This is the key to success. Each congregation has its own particular history, demographic make-up, traditions, and expectations. Because one musical style works elsewhere does not mean it will work everywhere. It is essential to make sure that questions are asked and choices made fully mindful of the particular community in which the answers will be implemented.
  5. Assess. Meet periodically to prioritize, strengthen, and renew the vision.
  6. Work collaboratively by engaging all members of the worship team (musicians and non-musicians alike) in supporting each component of the worship. For example you may want to use a melody to set the mood for a special reading or Kavanah, or you may want to set the context with the spoken word for a new melody you’re introducing.

Pitfalls to Avoid

  1. Using labels. Generalizations about musical styles (“traditional,” “classical,” “camp,” “cantorial,” “performative,”) are often inaccurate, and worse, meaningless. They also have the potential to set up different factions within the group, splintering discussion rather than unifying. Talk instead about what the different pieces of music make happen or about the mood that they create.
  2. The phrases “I liked…..” or “I didn’t like……” Instead, focus on outcome and result, using phrases such as, “When we chose that reading, sang that melody, stood up, sat down, held hands, used musical accompaniment, etc., the outcome was…”
  3. Valuing one mode of participation over another. Both active and passive participation in worship are desirable and can be deeply meaningful. Congregants can be as equally engaged in thought as they are in deed.
  4. Discouragement! Remember that every worship service is preparation for the next worship service. Today’s innovation may become tomorrow’s tradition.

Some General Guidelines

Achieving prayerful intentionality (kavanah) is elusive, because like prayer itself, it requires reflexive action. What worshipers put in to their worship experience has a significant bearing on the power of what they are subsequently able to derive from prayer. As one plans to lead worship, consider the following elements (with thanks to Merri Lovinger Arian who developed these concepts) that may assist worshipers in finding their own meaningful kavanah during worship:

  • ENGAGE the congregation in participatory prayer through both active singing and active and thoughtful listening.
  • ENHANCE the texture of the musical text through the use of different voices and instruments. Vary tempos and styles to avoid tedium and monotony.
  • EXPOSE congregants to new melodies and musical settings.
  • EDUCATE worshipers toward greater understanding of the text as well as the special times, seasons and rhythm of the Jewish calendar.
  • ELEVATE the spiritual dimension by being fully present in the moment and knowing before whom you stand – Da lifnei mi atah omeid. Be ever mindful that all prayer is intended in the service of the Almighty.

Music & Text (Text and Tune)

For any given prayer-text there are multiple musical settings. Why choose one melody over another? Does the music enhance or detract from the expression of the text? One worshiper may enter the sanctuary with strong unspoken and often diametrically opposed musical expectations from the congregant who sits in the seat next to her. One person may approach worship in mourning or with sadness; another may be seeking a joyous and upbeat gathering in the midst of community. Each worshiper’s needs must be considered in the musical mix created by the worship leaders. One way to plan for greatest inclusiveness is to consider the functions of the melodies utilized; then include each of these musical elements in the musical plan for each worship service. Consider the following types of music (with thanks to Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller who developed these concepts) and associated challenges and questions:

  • Majestic—Music that evokes a sense of awe and grandeur. How can we create moments of awe and grandeur when inclusivity (participation) has become the hallmark of our age?
  • Meditation—Music that leads us inward, toward reflective, contemplative prayer. Is our liturgical music conducive to moments of genuine, personal, and private meditative moments?
  • Meeting—Music with moments in which our awareness of the larger community is heightened, and we literally meet other souls through prayer. Where is the point in worship where the gathering of voices engenders a new prayer that cannot be achieved by the individual alone?
  • Momentum/Movement—Music that moves us away from where we are to where we want to be. Is there a sense of flow not only within the music and the words but in the spaces in between?
  • Memory—Music is at once rooted in the sacred heritage of our past and also mindful of the present. Does this music provide this sense of connectedness between and through the generations?

Tools, Techniques, Tips, and Tricks Unique to Mishkan T’filah

  1. Use the chanted chatimah (the closing line of a prayer which begins with Baruch ata Adonai) as a cue to turn the page. This will promote smooth transitions between each two-page spread in Mishkan T’filah. (For example, the chatimah on p.32/33 can be used to lead smoothly into Elohai N’shamah on page 34)
  2. Chant, don’t speak, instructions in order to facilitate the flow of worship. (“We rise for the Amidah, beginning on page _____.”)
  3. Model antiphonal singing with designated respondent/s. One example might be Nisim B’chol Yom on pp. 36-41. The cantor or soloist might begin, with the rabbi and choir responding. Alternatively, the rabbi could begin, with a congregant, asked in advance, leading the response.
  4. Identify some Hebrew text changes in Mishkan T’filah and educate the congregation to anticipate the musical nuances. An example of a Hebrew change is the ordering of the matriarchs in the Avot V’Imahot. (See the article "Have You Noticed?—Changes in Hebrew and English Wording in Mishkan T'filah") for a full list of changes.)

Other More General Tips that Work with Any Prayer Book

  1. Take a known melody with an English text and superimpose Hebrew over the melody.
  2. Introduce a new melody first without any words (as a niggun) and then later reintroduce it with text.
  3. Use a melody multiple times in the same worship service. Start by using it as a niggun, then in a musical interlude, again hum the melody underneath an English reading, finally sing with text and tune together.
  4. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It takes multiple times for most people to feel comfortable with new melodies.
  5. Prepare a tape or CD of melodies (observing copyright laws, of course) that features musical settings to be introduced over time at worship services. Give it as a gift to your congregants.
  6. Ensure that the musical choices have an appropriate key relationship. It can be jarring to move indiscriminately from one key to another. Each major key has a relative minor. Check in advance that appropriate transpositions are used when the printed page is written in a discordant key.

Use of Instruments

Many congregations use a keyboard instrument (electronic keyboard, piano, or organ) as a primary instrument for accompaniment. Other congregations use a guitar as the instrument for accompaniment. Some congregations have no accompaniment at all. Repertoire should be chosen to best highlight the uniqueness of the specific instrument. Consistent use of the same keyboard instrument is recommended during a single worship service.

  • Electronic keyboard works well with contemporary and amplified ensemble instruments (bass guitar, acoustic guitar, extensive percussion).
  • Organ affords a sustained sound to support congregational and choral singing.
  • Piano is versatile and is well paired with any number of other instruments, ranging from strings to woodwinds, as well as guitar and percussion.
  • Guitar works well as a portable instrument, often effective in less formal worship settings for teaching new melodies, and increasing the tempo of the music.
  • Percussion—Introduce different percussion instruments gradually and learn what works best in your congregational setting. Some congregations gradually introduce percussion after the musical momentum begins to take hold and the congregational singing reaches a certain “spiritual energy.” Often an instrumentalist can sense that a prayer can tolerate a strong percussion instrument such as a djembe or bass drum. By contrast a simple tof or doumbek can produce light and gentle rhythmic variety and also strong tribal beats which, when used judiciously can be extremely effective. Portable percussion instruments such as maracas, rain sticks, wind chimes, tambourines, bongos and the like can be powerful tools when used with care. They can, also be terribly disruptive when handed out to unseasoned congregants without sufficient instruction and guidance. In this case clearly, the more is not the merrier!

Some Suggestions for Introducing Additional Instruments

  1. Use sparingly at first
  2. Texture and layer
  3. Tempo should vary
  4. Use for transitions in and out of silence


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Cantor Katzew is the Union for Reform Judaism's Director of Music Programming.

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