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A Cantor's Craft

The Cantor stood before the congregation and, in a bellowing voice, bragged, "A couple of years ago, I had my voice insured with Lloyds of London for $1 million."
 A silence immediately came over the crowded room. Suddenly, the voice of an elderly woman at the back of the room called out, "So, what did you do with the money?"

I am an athlete. I play my sport professionally at least twice a week. Like most athletes, my success is based on a blend of technical skill, knowledge of the sport and intuition, and I practice those skills each day. Similarly, I have a coach with whom I meet at least once a week; she guides me in running up and down, jumping, skipping and gliding and periodically we run through other drills, experimenting with new moves and new techniques. Maintenance of my sport’s equipment demands 24/7 attention; I feel it if I miss one day of practice … those who witness my presentations know it if I miss two or more days.

While I do indeed enjoy working out, the “sport” to which I refer is singing, and my equipment is my voice. On my first day of cantorial school at HUC, Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller taught that our voices were our instruments; without our voices, we had no way to connect to God. Spiritual connection, Torah and liturgical knowledge were essential, but if we were going to be cantors, we had to treat our bodies – and our vocal chords – with the deepest respect. Weekly voice lessons and daily practice were a must. In other words, we were to treat ourselves as though we were athletes.

The nurturing and maintenance of vocal technique is one of the foundations of my spiritual connection to God, my synagogue and my Jewish communities. This is why, to many peoples’ surprise, I take weekly (sometimes twice a week) voice lessons with a wonderful voice teacher, Newtown’s Anne Carlson. Under Anne’s guidance, I stretch my voice well past the boundaries of the music of a typical Shabbat service. When I am under the weather, her wisdom and insight prevent me from slipping into self-pity or despair. When I don’t take care of my equipment, my instrument, she gently (or not so gently) chides me. When I hesitate to explore new musical genres, she encourages my risk taking. Everything is fair game for me to learn and try out, from jazz to R&B, musical theater, opera, oratorio and – yes – Shabbat, Festival and High Holy Day settings. Even though Hebrew and Jewish prayer are truly foreign to her, her insights are brilliant and spot-on. As I sing, she follows the music and my transliterations and translations. We have a win-win relationship: she learns Torah and Jewish prayer texts, and I learn how to shape the texts vocally.

I am blessed that she took me on as a student and grateful for her guidance, wisdom and ability to hear and see even the most subtle vocal issues.

The day that I – with great hubris and arrogance – think I have nothing to learn from my coach is the day I should hang up my cleats. And so I will continue to do my daily training exercises and extend my vocal limits.


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