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October 7, 2015 | 24th Tishrei 5776
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High Holy Day Music


  1. Dec 2005 Digests 195 and 196

    [Regarding Preparing:]…The first place to start is with Transcontinental's one volume High Holiday melody book. It has the music without the full orchestrations. Give the book to someone who can play the notes and/or chords and either make a tape or practice with them. You will get a sense of the piece. Don't worry if the music is not exactly the way it sounds on someone else's CD! This way you will get a jump start on the holidays and not panic in July. It is easy and effective: I did this for eleven years as a solo in a small congregation….

    …the new one volume (not two) of the High Holiday Greatest Hits is the volume you may want to start with. But get it now and go through it to determine which music is appropriate. Again, find someone who can chord it or note through it and then basically, sing along. If it comes from the heart, it will be beautiful.


  2. Dec 2005 Digest 195

    …Transcontinental's Songs of Repentance…volume is keyed to Gates of Repentance and has settings written in, or transposed to, manageable keys, together with chords. There is a 5-CD set that goes with the volume. It's not aimed at cantors, although cantorial voices are used on the CDs. Still the best resource out there for your purposes.

  3. Dec 2005 Digest 196

    If anyone is interested in the notes for Yair Rosenblum's Unetaneh Tokef, popular here in Israel, with a more popular beat, I have a transposed version in a PDF file…

    [Also,] Shittim: the Kibbutz Holiday Institute at Kibbutz Beit HaShita, has a DVD video (in Hebrew) about the writing of the music in the wake of eleven members’ and sons’ deaths in the 1973 war. They may have a CD as well. They can be reached at


  4. Dec 2005 Digest 196

    The URJ recognizes that there are multiple modalities for worship within the 900 member congregations in North America. With this in mind we purposely develop different instrumentalities for music and congregational use in the repertoire offered by Transcontinental Music Publications, which is housed here at our offices in New York.

    Transcontinental Music ( has the most extensive music resources available for use in worship. There are two different types of repertoire available. Congregational melodies, with participation in mind, are contained in the anthology, Shirei T'shuvah (Songs of Repentance). This anthology includes melody lines with accompaniment. It is a single volume and can be purchased with a 5-CD set including the recordings of each piece of music contained in the book. These CD's feature the voices of students from the School of Sacred Music at the Hebrew Union College. Yes, these men and women have vocal training and the average student cantor sings according to the notes on the page of music. However, for those who are not able to sing in the range of the music on the page, this can be adjusted according to the congregational comfort zone. The rule of thumb is that congregational melodies should range from Bb below middle C to Eb (the last space on the musical staff.) While there are other musical offerings available out there--Shirei T'shuvah is the most comprehensive anthology and provides multiple unison settings of many liturgical texts. This affords stylistic choices for "ritual mavens" according their unique congregational taste.

    The other significant resource offered by Transcontinental Music is a two-volume anthology entitled Yamim Noraim. This anthology is intended for the congregation that has a choir capable of singing in four-part harmony with cantor or soloist. It too has a 5-CD companion set available for purchase--again it features the trained voices of many excellent cantors serving our URJ congregations. As well, a single CD with highlights from the larger set is available. Here I would only mention as an aside that personally I am troubled by the seeming perception that the trained voice is synonymous with non-participative music. When my colleagues and I raise our voices--albeit trained voices--we intend that it inspires active engagement in prayer, including congregants singing along with us. When others on the bimah sing along with the cantor/soloist, this is often a very positive role model for the rest of the congregation to follow suit.

    Beyond choosing the music for High Holiday worship, the process by which new music is introduced to the congregation must be carefully orchestrated. Caution must be exercised and worship leaders are wise to take care not to change too much too fast. Choosing repertoire and preparing those who sing is one part of the process. The congregational preparation is also very important in this process. Plan to introduce new melodies by offering a program prior to S’lichot services or integrate the melodies by singing them as a niggun during Shabbat Worship in the weeks prior to the High Holidays. Perhaps you can consider putting together a CD for members of the congregation (please remember to observe copyright laws) so the congregational members can learn the new tunes for the holidays in the comfort of their own home/car.

    Last but not least, there is more to artful worship than the musical choices. Worship leaders must carefully choreograph the details beyond who reads which prayer and who sings that song. The kavanah (intentionality) resides in the breath between the notes, the words between the prayer texts, and the connection to the heart. Without all of these elements integrated the t'filah will likely miss the mark.

    Cantor Alane S. Katzew
    Director of Music Programming
    Union for Reform Judaism

  5. Dec 2005 Digest 196

    We have a volunteer choir of ten voices which we augment with an organist for the Holidays and bring in a cantor. Our choir director works with the cantor to finalize our music by around May.

    We hire the organist for rehearsals through August and September and rehearse once or twice with the cantor before Rosh HaShanah. The outcome is good; at least that's what the congregation says. We have, in some years augmented our choir with a couple of students from [a university] for the Holidays. I'd be glad to share our "play list" with other congregations…Maybe we could hold a High Holidays music kallah for small congregations…with a bit of help from the Union and the ACC wherein we could all learn a complete High Holidays liturgy from which we could then “pick and choose.” Transcon could help, expecting to sell music. Just an idea. The summer programs at HUC-JIR have been valuable for our choir director, but something for "singers" over a weekend where we could learn the music more by hearing and singing it might be beneficial.


  6. Dec 2005 Digest 196

    … services with cantors who have beautiful operatic voices are rarely accompanied by full congregant participation. It feels more like I am attending a wonderful concert, and not one that I am particularly invited to sing along with. Sometimes there are choirs, and again, while the music is beautiful, the congregational accompaniment can feel like a drab add-on, an afterthought. In my experience, most people cannot follow the intricacies of those choral arrangements nor sing in the ranges that are often present in these experiences. Although I have a very good ear, I have a limited range and no vocal training. I find learning new music in those kinds of environments very difficult. And the same goes for recordings by folks with wonderfully trained voices (although I have not yet listened to Shirei T'shuvah and am excited to do so). Perhaps it is really the synagogue itself that is the source of the "concert" atmosphere--that very well may be the case--but it has been difficult for me to find a source (or a teacher) that can give me the ABCs, the basic structure--in a range I can handle--so that I can learn. Perhaps I am trying to learn in the wrong way, or my expectations are inappropriate to the situation. I will think about that…


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