Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Posts tagged ‘music’

Trophies for showing up: on the educational value of effort.

It’s back to school day. While I am hooking the projector to my laptop, one of the kids is telling me something I have heard way too many times in the last two weeks: “I don’t want to play recorder anymore; I’ll be trying viola.” The 4th grader has been playing recorder for less than nine months and he cannot yet tell a G from an A. Nevertheless, he’s got enough: it’s just too boring. While this conversation is taking place, another girl, of Russian origin, has unpacked her violin and started playing, page after page, a rather elaborated concerto with accuracy and gusto. I never taught her that, so I ask how has she improved so much in the short span of three summer months. Apparently, she has been in Russia all summer visiting relatives, and she has taken lessons there. Being of European origin, I confess I had almost forgotten how different the musical education abroad is, even with its many flaws. As a kid I was taught to take my music practice very seriously because the effort pays off. From the age of nine, I took lessons twice a week, practiced daily, and took exams in front of three teachers year after year. There was no money to go around jumping from instrument to instrument: your choice or an instrument implied a certain commitment to it. Yes, it may have been a little too tough, but I’m grateful for all that discipline, which fostered in me a sense of pride and accomplishment.

Do not get me wrong: there is nothing bad about children trying out instruments and different kinds of sports, nor about making their education a little more playful. My big question is if we –teachers and parents– are actually doing enough to encourage them to persevere on anything, to stick to that recorder another year, and this time actually taking five minutes a day to practice. Of course, no child can be left behind, but should we really stand still or barely move forward out of fear of challenging kids too much? Yes, the education we received was too dry, but perhaps –only perhaps– today we are expected to teach in a way that it’s all games an glitter, no effort and no challenges. Trophies for all, just for showing up, are great for the students’ self-esteem, but are they good for their preparation and maturity?

Almost at the same time this was happening, there was an uproar in my area because the shul where I work –otherwise out of the way, invisible, even ostracized by the bigger congregations in the area– dared to reduce its Hebrew school from twice a week to only once, even if doubling the learning time on that one day. It was a democratic decision based on demographic changes, availability of volunteer teachers, etc. The accusation from the big shuls in town is that this policy is watering down Jewish education and giving unfair advantage to our synagogue, because apparently everybody will flock to the “easy shul.”

In my opinion this statement reveals two big dilemmas. Firstly, people do not seem aware or concerned that Jewish education is already watered down to a rather clear little soup. Concentrating education in a single day will most probably not change a thing. After seven years of twice-a-week Hebrew instruction, an alarmingly high number of children end up learning by heart a haftarah from some transliteration, without understanding a word of what they’re saying. We just seem to love to pretend in front of our friends that the kid is proficient. Secondly, we not only acknowledge but even sanction the fact that many parents have one main goal: the fastest and easiest path to their kids bar/bat mitzvah. Once children are “barmitzvaed” (since, whoever invented this verb, set it in the passive form), they can graduate from Jewish life altogether, maybe to reappear, if lucky enough, for their wedding. As a result, adults go around with a mere varnish of Jewish culture and the concept of G-d of a 13 years-old.

Have we made Jewish education (or music education for that matter) so “nice and friendly” that it just lost its purpose? Have we decided that the best way to avoid boredom and desertion is simply to demand very little effort? These are questions that cannot be solved in a day but require a deep revision of our education systems. Among other things, I think it’s time to de-emphasize the centrality of benei mitzvah rituals, and even to delay them until age 16 or more, so that little Sarah doesn’t just “get barmitsvaed” by some rabbi but consciously chooses to accept on her shoulders the responsibilities, privileges and blessings of an adult member of our people.

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5 Reasons Why Jewish Musicians Should Network: the Shalshelet Experience

Today my good friend Cantor Jill Pakman sent me a link to a video presentation of last Shalshelet festival in New York city. I’ve been honored to participate in the last two Shalshelet festivals, and lucky to have two of my compositions awarded and published there. (At the bottom of this post I’ll insert the presentation video as well as that of my piece for this year).

In any case, this presentation reminded me of the Shalshelet experience and made me reflect on Jewish musicians and composers, and how much we need to network. Shalshelet is an international festival that happens every other year. Composers and musicians from everywhere present their work at a main concert, as well as at a number of workshops. Other than the performances themselves, it is a great opportunity to connect with other people involved in Jewish music across borders and denominations. But why should we, as Jewish composers and musicians, care so much about networking and participate in events like Shalshelet. Here is my take, reduced to 5 main reasons:

1. Creating tradition: To me, this is the first and foremost reason. Unlike what most people believe, a good part of the “traditional” melodies we use at shul are not traditional at all. Our grand-parents would not recognize the eclectic mosaic of liturgical melodies we call “traditional” today. That includes hassidic music from the 1970s, Naomi Shemer, or Debbie Friedman, z”l. How can your music become the new tradition? Only by being shared and used by other cantors, song leaders, etc.

2. Diffusion of your work: Admittedly, unlike Christian rock, Jewish liturgical music doesn’t have many forums and doesn’t get much exposition in mainstream media. Major media are oblivious to our music and, if they ever touch the subject, it is only to offer a very partial, biased view of a couple of styles and standards, not of the whole panoply and richness of the Jewish musical universe.

3. Learning from others: We shouldn’t even have to mention that. Unfortunately, the smaller our entourage, the more we find artists that choose to measure up to the wrong models. Or maybe they just do not look up to other models but to themselves, secure as they are of their own artistic ways. I think this is particularly true in certain small and endogamic Jewish circles. There’s nothing as pernicious to art as misplaced artistic self-efficacy. (No, that’s not you, so stop worrying now 🙂 )

4. Collaboration. Let’s face it, generally Jewish music doesn’t make money. Most of us simply have no budget to hire session musicians for our recordings and for our performances.  However, cultivating your network is the key for having the collaboration of great Jewish musicians in your projects. I’ve been blessed with such opportunity in my last recording, and certainly look forward to repeat the experience with more and more projects, mine and other people’s.

5. Finding new venues for what you do. My immediate community is well aware that I perform Sephardic music and lecture (in more than one sense) about its history. Of course, I don’t feel the same ease and “authority” to play Yiddish ballads, for instance. Only by networking I can bring my music to another venue and get to know what you do, so I can invite you to talk and perform in my area.

So go ahead, network, network, network. We have amazing technologies at our fingertips. Let’s put them to good use. And let’s support great networking experiences such as Shalshelet.

Closing this  rather long post, here you have the videos. First, the Shalshelet presentation, with yours truly briefly talking at 2:39.

And here’s my piece, awarded in last Shalshelet. Sorry for the quality of the recording.

Welcome to my blog

I really appreciate you dropping by! I decided to start this blog in order to open a dialogue about issues concerning everything Jewish music. In particular, I want to focus on three main subjects, which of course are interrelated:

  • Jewish Music: its history, development, variety, and future. I am very interested on how music and musical memories contribute to the formation of our Jewish identity. In fact, this can be extrapolated to all other collective identities: we live  in a world where we do not only live in two civilizations –as Mordecai Kaplan claimed– but in a multifaceted, complex combination of civilizations and societal ascription that configure us as individuals.
  • Jewish Identity: factors that are (re)shaping the Jewish identity. What is the future of this identity in a changing world.
  • New Technologies: nothing like modern technology has changed the way we deal with music nowadays. It has shaped the way we listen to music, the way we have access to it, the amount of music available; how it is distributed, popularized, and published; how it is created and composed; how we share it within any given human group. New technologies have also reshaped how Judaism –and particularly its music– faces the future.
The title of this blog, Gershayim – גרשיים, has several meanings. It designates a typographical mark in the Hebrew language that serves to indeicate an abbreviation, an acronym, a number, the name of a letter, or even an acrostic (some people call it chikchak, go figure…). To me, this is a metaphor of modernity, the multiple meanings of simplicity. Furthermore, a gershayim is also one of the trop marks we use for Bible cantillation. It is a musical sign in itself, an embellishment formed by ascending and descending notes. Gershayim represents where writing, language, and music meet; where profane and sacred touch.