Blog #8: April Blog
Finally! It's spring in New York. I've heard birds chirping on my way to HUC in recent weeks, trees are budding, and I've switched my closet to pastels and peep-toed shoes. As much as the nicer weather and evidence of rebirth puts a spring in my step, it seems to accelerate the momentum at HUC even more. Between Pesach break and the impending end-of-year festivities every moment of my day propels me closer and closer to the end of my third year of cantorial school.
The weeks directly preceding Passover break were also filled with exciting and positive experiences. First, my classmate Jamie Marx organized a Composer's Showcase at school - an opportunity for faculty and students to perform their own compositions. We gathered in the Chapel, dimly lit for the occasion, on Thursday evening after a long week of class to celebrate one another's creativity. We spend so much of our days at HUC immersed in the material of the great masters of Jewish music, that we don't always acknowledge that we may very well be among the creators of tomorrow's repertoire. For me, the evening was quite magical, not only due to the warmth and community tangible in the room, but also because I had the opportunity to perform one of my own pieces that was co-written with another classmate, Josh Breitzer.
Later that very weekend, HUC held the second of the year's national open houses. I'm always excited to come to the building at Mercer and West Fourth on a Sunday. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it is always with a sense of occasion. I spent Sunday evening meeting prospective students, answering their questions about everything from the Year-in-Israel Program to life in New York to what our student pulpit work entails. The open house guests attending class and programming at school the following day, as well. I was really impressed with all of the prospective students that I met and was pleased to be able to share a little taste of HUC with a group of people who dream to be here in a few years, just as I did.
For my family, Pesach break consisted of a lot of driving as we attempted to visit with all of the important people in our lives over the holiday. My husband and I drove to his family's first night seder in Northern Virginia and then drove to Charlotte, NC in time for second night seder at the synagogue where I used to work. Even though Matt and I spent more time in the car than we did with any one group of people (at least it felt like we spent more time in the car!), it was a gift that we were able to take those days at our leisure and visit people who mean so much to us. Our days are so often filled with running from one commitment to the next, it was wonderful to let our Passover commitment be simply spending time with one another and with our friends and family.
I write this blog on the eve of the last week of school. I'm refueled from some days off and ready to prepare for exams and all of the work of concluding another year. As Pesach, the Season of our Redemption, and spring fill my days with the sense of renewal and hope for the future, the academic year winds to a close - an ending that is so infused with the newness of being closer than ever before to my goal - to become a cantor.
Posted by Mary at 2:07 PM/AM
Blog #7: March Blog
One of the most significant components to cantorial training is student pulpit work. School of Sacred Music students are permitted to have a student pulpit beginning in the second year of study, once we arrive in New York for the four U.S. years of the program. We are required to work two of those four years and one of those two years must be at a pulpit where the student is the sole "cantorial presence." Most students have a pulpit during all four of their years at HUC-NY, not only for the income, but also because it is a crucial and fulfilling part of the learning process.
The placement process for cantorial student pulpits is highly structured. Placement Day in New York feels an awful lot like "speed-dating," and consists of a performance audition from all participating students that is followed by students moving from interview to interview with synagogue search committees. During the Year-in-Israel, students create an audition DVD and have phone interviews with search committees.
Cantorial student jobs come in all different shapes and sizes. Some pulpits are monthly and often reached by plane. At monthly pulpits, students arrive Friday before services and leave Sunday afternoon, leading services, teaching, and maybe offering a special program over the course of the weekend. Other pulpits are bi-weekly and are usually reachable by car or train and the students who serve those pulpits may live close enough to stay at home on the weekends when the work or may have to stay overnight at their jobs. The third type of job is the weekly pulpit. These are local jobs where students serve either 10 or 15 hours each week.
Now, in my third year, I've served two student pulpits, both on a weekly basis. In my second year, I worked at Union Temple of Brooklyn, a long-standing 15-hour weekly pulpit. At Union I lead services along with Rabbi Linda Henry Goodman every Friday and Saturday, Festival and Holy Day. I also did some work in the religious school and with the synagogue's music program.
This year I have a 10-hour weekly pulpit at Temple Israel of New Rochelle. At TINR, I am not the sole cantorial presence, as I was at Union, but a chazzan sheini - an assistant cantor serving under Cantor Erik Contzius. This year's job requires far less service leading and centers mostly on education: seventh graders, family education, high-school students, and adult ed. Currently, I am planning a four-week adult education course on liberal liturgy, focusing on the prayer books of the Reform movement over the last one hundred years. I am excited to continue to work at TINR next year in an expanded, 15-hour position that will add teaching religious school music and some additional bima time.
I think that student pulpits are crucial to learning the skills of a cantor. It's one thing to learn lots of repertoire but another thing altogether to learn to work with professionals in the field to create real, live worship for congregants. The student pulpit is where one hones the skills to lead worship for communities whose Jewish involvement, demographics, and worship aesthetics can be quite diverse. It is where one negotiates the boundaries between the professional and the personal, the public and the private. It's where one truly learns to synthesize all of the information taught at the College-Institute, learning all of the nuances of congregational life and beginning to understand the gifts that the student cantor's unique and developing skill set brings to a community. Furthermore, it is where a student gains the confidence and experience to become a professional.
Posted by Mary at 2:07 PM/AM
Blog #6: February Blog
Wednesday is a very special day for the School of Sacred Music. Every Wednesday at 10:45 the SSM faculty and student body assemble in the Chapel to hear a musical presentation by one or more students. Most weeks of the school year, two practica are presented. These are approximately twenty-minute presentations offered by two students from the second, third, or fourth year classes. On other weeks, one member of the fifth year class will present a senior recital, for 45 minutes to an hour. I want to devote this month's blog to exploring the practicum process and tell you about my experiences.
The official purpose of a practicum is two-fold: to give students an opportunity to gain deep knowledge of a specific body of music and to give students continued performance opportunities at the school. An SSM student will present four practica during their time at HUC, one per semester from the second-half of the second year through the first-half of the fourth year. Practicum assignments generally fall into three categories: Reform, traditional, and programmatic. Examples of each type of assignment could be "Yizkor Service using Mishkan T'filah," "Shabbat Shacharit through L'dor Vador," and "The Music of A.W. Binder," respectively. Students work with a coach, a member of the SSM faculty or a cantor from the area employed by the school, to choose and learn music for their program.
As a second-semester third year, I have already completed three of my four practica. For me, preparing a practicum has become one of the most rewarding parts of my experience at HUC. It is so exciting to get the list of the year's assignments, see where your name is, and wonder where you are going to find that music or what interesting pieces you will discover once you start digging around or talking to people about your topic. So often, our weeks are filled with new repertoire to learn for our classes or music that you've agreed to sing in someone else's practicum or recital; it's really wonderful to be able to focus closely on the project that you've been assigned and to get to deeply learn the music you've selected.
Working on my three assignments taught me three very different and important lessons. My first practicum was "Shabbat Shacharit through the K'dushah using Mishkan T'filah," a Reform practicum. The other student assigned to my day was given the remainder of the Shabbat morning service and he and I managed to collaborate significantly on the project. Although collaboration was not required of us, it helped us to push one another to do our best. My second practicum was "Traditional Pesach First Day, L'dor Vador through Hallel." I was very excited to have a traditional practicum: a capella and with the appropriate nusach or prayer modes. During that process I learned a great deal of discipline and self-reliance.
My most recent practicum was, by far, the most involved of the three. For this practicum assignment, I was assigned a partner to work with throughout the process. My partner and I were also given the SSM Choir to help us bring "The Music of Ernest Bloch" to life. The choir learned selections of Bloch's "Sacred Service," while my partner and I learned the cantor solos, and also three of Bloch's French Psalms. Bloch's music was not only very sophisticated, but the Psalms pushed me to explore singing in French, something I had never done before. I think that I grew from preparing that practicum more than from any other singular music project I've yet undertaken.
I hear the practicum assignments are ready for next year. I wonder what my next project will be? If you are planning on visiting HUC, try to join us on a Wednesday!
Posted by Mary at 11:25 AM
Blog #5: January Blog
I am writing my January blog on Erev Spring Semester, perched between a magnificent break and what I hope will be an exciting and fulfilling semester, in the amorphous space between something that has concluded and something that is yet to come. My semester break was very much in three parts: a trip to Dallas, another trip to Charlotte, and the hard work of practicum preparation.
The day after our last exam was turned in, the day after we reached the halfway point of Cantorial school, the SSM class of 2011 boarded planes bound for Dallas so that we could celebrate Carla and David's wedding. In my first post to Blog HUC, I wrote about the "Reform Bakkashot" that we held in honor of our classmate David's upcoming wedding, and they are finally married! Most of us spent five days in Dallas, rejoicing with bride and groom, at many beautiful and meaningful wedding events. Truly, this wedding was the first life-cycle event that my entire class celebrated together. We each offered one (or two) of the Sheva B'rachot under the chuppah, including a choral insert, and after the breaking of the glass, we sang the triumphant and majestic Lewendowski Psalm 150. Even though I've participated in quite a few weddings over the past few years, this one was quite unique since it seemed to mark a moment in my own life cycle as well. For bride and groom, the event marked the beginning of a new chapter, but for me standing alongside all of my class mates, six other cantorial students halfway through their education under the chuppah, the moment was a testament to the support that we offer one another as we travel this path.
Not long after returning from Dallas, I made a trip to Charlotte, North Carolina, a practice that has become a tradition during my Winter Breaks at HUC. As much as all of life's experiences have set me on the path to the cantorate, the three years that I spent in Charlotte before entering HUC truly propelled me into the field. I travel to Charlotte a number of times during the year to recharge my batteries in this community that is very much my "professional home." My life in Charlotte was almost entirely focused on my path to the cantorate, tirelessly building the experience and awareness that would one day lead me to HUC. My hands were constantly busied in the work of helping congregants create Jewish meaning in their lives, whether teaching b'nei mitzvah students or leading services at the assisted living center across the road. My time there was motivated by a sense of purpose that fueled the challenges that I encountered in my daily work. Here in New York, between schoolwork, commuting, part-time pulpits, and our families it is easy to lose sight of the forest through the trees, or remembering why you want to serve the Jewish people as you tick through your to-do list. For me, my desire to succeed and to learn, albeit serving the end of the cantorate that I envision for myself, can sometimes obscure what was once a tangible sense of purpose. So, I go to Charlotte when I can so that I can touch the people and the places that I credit with giving me the tools to become a Jewish professional.
The final part of my break was fully consumed with my upcoming practicum on the music of Ernest Bloch. Along with my partner, Lev, we will be presenting selections from the Sacred Services and three French Psalms. I've mentioned practica in earlier months, but will devote next month's article to my experiences with practica at HUC and the upcoming Bloch practicum in particular. In the meantime, I'll continue to navigate this wondrous space between dreaming of being a cantor and actually becoming one.
Posted by Mary at 10:15 AM
Blog #4: December Blog
Friend and future colleague
One of my favorite things to do at HUC is to pray in a community of students and faculty, future and leading rabbis, cantors, and educators. The prayer community at HUC simultaneously blends innovative music and worship leading styles with more traditional and comfortable models of prayer so that we, as students, can grow and develop service-leading styles and techniques that will serve us as we begin our careers. The articulated purpose of t'fillah at HUC is really two-fold: to offer a laboratory to experiment and also to provide our community of dedicated, educated liberal Jews with a space for daily prayer.
Morning services are held daily at HUC-NY and are always lead by a student cantor and student rabbi, and sometimes by a student educator, as well. The faculty assigns the t'fillah leaders, who are responsible for leading one week of t'fillah at school. Additional students read Torah on Mondays and Thursdays and serve as the gabbai for the Torah service, usually offering a Mi Shebeirach for healing, as well.
For me, leading t'fillah at HUC is one of the high points of my year. I really value the creative space that I am allowed at HUC, the opportunity to challenge myself to craft meaningful worship for such and educated community, and the good fortune to learn from the talented faculty who supervise school t'fillah. In fact, I am a member of the school's Worship Working Group, which takes leadership of special t'fillot throughout the school year, like at our opening kallah at Kutz Camp.
I was scheduled for my yearly t'fillah leading last week. My co-leaders, Melissa and Leah, and I met several weeks in advance to begin to formulate our ideas and I had a number of new musical ideas on the back burner for a month or more. Unfortunately, I came down with a massive sinus infection and laryngitis a few days before our t'fillah week began. I lost my voice completely, for the first time in my life, and wasn't able to speak for three days. Knowing that I wouldn't be well enough to sing the services that I'd worked so hard to plan, I called on my friend and classmate, Josh Breitzer, to step in. He graciously accepted and did quite a bit of the last minute planning that I had yet to do. Josh had been scheduled to chant Torah that Thursday, so another of our classmates, David Frommer, agreed to chant Torah in Josh's place so that he could concentrate on being the sh'liach tzibbur.
I returned to school halfway through the week of services and got to pray while my team led t'fillah on Wednesday and Thursday. As I experienced a t'fillah that I had helped to shape, I was moved to tears more than once. I was so deeply grateful for the team's flexibility and for Josh's willingness to take on the additional responsibility of filling my place at the end of the semester when he had finals and lots of other pressing engagements. As much as I wished that I could help to lead, my body wouldn't let me, and these wonderful schoolmates persevered, creating moving and meaningful worship that I was privileged to experience as part of the community.
As much as I try to vary the crux of my monthly blog entries, I do seem to always come back to the community of friends and future colleagues at HUC who very much sustain me. I write now, finals looming on the horizon and a bad bout of laryngitis mostly behind me, to assure you that at HUC you will find a community of students eager to offer their support, a community that you will run to support in return.
Wishing you a safe and healthy close to 2008!
My community of friends and future colleagues
Posted by Mary at 10:15 AM
Blog #3: November Blog
I've mentioned in previous posts that every School of Sacred Music student comes to HUC with different strengths and weaknesses and often with different educational backgrounds. In the SSM there is always a mix of students who studied music at the undergraduate or graduate levels and those students who studied other subjects in college, like Jewish Studies. I fall into the later category, having studied History and Jewish Studies as an undergraduate. While I have been involved in music my entire life, mostly musical theater and synagogue music, and have had various kinds of music lessons and classes since I was a child, I don't have that strong, academic music background that many of my classmates have.
In the months leading up to my audition and, after my acceptance, until I left for Israel, I worked very hard on my musicianship. I was more focused in my voice lessons than ever, took private lessons in sight singing, and even took piano lessons to formalize my self-taught piano skills. I was very apprehensive about how I would fit into a graduate program in sacred music and was determined to be the best that I could be. Once I got to the year in Israel program, I began to appreciate how much each had to grow in lots of different areas. What was important, I realized, was that I continue to work hard on the areas where I felt like I needed growth. After all, we were beginning a five-year graduate program; no one is supposed to be perfect at the start.
Now, nearing the halfway point of my education, I can say that I have continued to work towards becoming the best cantor that I can be. Some form of music theory is now offered in years one through three, with the option to continue for elective credit in the fourth and fifth years. Cantor Bruce Ruben, the director of the SSM, introduced the two-year music theory and sight singing course to the second and third year curricula for those students, like me, who benefit from continued skill building. I have found my work in the theory courses to be very rewarding and I am reaping the benefits daily as I observe the time that it takes me to learn music diminish.
Another opportunity that I've found at HUC to help me become the best musician that I can be is singing in choirs for other students' practica and recitals. Four times during the stateside component of the HUC-SSM, students are given a 20-minute musical assignment to complete in front of the student body and faculty. I plan to write about this in much greater detail in January, when I have my second practica of the year. Fifth-year students give recitals, typically 45 minutes to an hour in length, as part of the course-work fulfilling the requirements for Investiture. Often students will choose to have a choir made up of other students in their practica or recital. I always accept an offer to sing in a choir like this because I believe it pushes me to learn music faster and to face any lingering doubts that I may have of my own musicianship. I not only benefit from the challenge, but also I'm helping a friend and colleague to create the practicum or recital that they've envisioned.
Finally, and most significantly since the last time I wrote, some times there are very special opportunities for HUC-SSM students to grow as musicians. At the end of October, I was invited to participate in a Master Class of Israeli art song taught by Israeli contralto Mira Zakai. The program was held at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue and six students participated, three from HUC and three from JTS. If you've never been to a master class before, it's kind of like having a coaching or a voice lesson, but in front of an audience. Highly skilled artists, like Mira Zakai, critique young artists, like me, on expression and performance of a selection. I really enjoyed the afternoon because I was given the opportunity to learn from an amazing singer, it's always nice to come together with our counterparts from JTS, and because I was pushed just a little bit further towards becoming the best cantor that I can be. The following week, there was another joint HUC-JTS master class on the music of Cantor Israel Alter, taught by Cantor Benjamin Maissner.
Music and Judaism are at the very heart of being a cantor and every day that I spend at HUC I am exploring the way these immense bodies of knowledge intersect. I learn more and more each day and sift through all that I acquire with the hopes of finding the tools to help my congregants infuse their lives with meaning.
Posted by Mary at 3:32 PM
Blog #2: October Blog
One of the most memorable parts of my year in Israel was going on "synagogue excursions" with Professor Eliyahu Schleifer. Throughout the year, Eli took our class to a number of different synagogues in Jerusalem to experience Shabbat worship with Jews from different parts of the world. We experienced different musical and liturgical traditions and very often spent the rest of the evening at someone's home enjoying a Shabbat meal. Perhaps the most unique of these excursions was when we visited the Aleppo synagogue at 3AM for Bakkashot. Bleary eyed, all seven of members of my class, along with Eli, sang and drank sweetened tea in the crowded Aleppo synagogue from the darkest hours of the night until wintry morning light glistened on the Jerusalem stone, participating in their tradition of reciting piyyutim, liturgical poems, throughout the night on Shabbat during winter. As the piyyutim gave way to Shabbat morning services, we walked a few short blocks to Jamie and Anna's apartment for bagels and juice. For me, it was the best kind of night - praying, singing interesting music, connecting to my Judaism in a new way, and all the while, being among the community of my class: Josh, Cheryl, Jamie, Melanie, David, and Lev.
This night was so memorable, that my classmate Jamie used it as inspiration to celebrate the upcoming wedding of another of our rank, David, to Carla, a rabbinic student in our year. On the Shabbat after Yom Kippur, Jamie organized a late night session of Jewish and popular music for David, fondly called Reform Bakkashot. We all gathered in the social hall of Jamie's student pulpit, guitars and drum in hand, to sing well past midnight. David was completely surprised and we were all so happy to spend a few hours in each other's company. Carla and David's wedding will be the fifth wedding of HUC students of which I've been privileged to be a part.
Earlier that evening, my husband and I hosted my class for dinner and ice cream cake to celebrate Josh's birthday. For the most part, we hadn't seen each other since before Rosh Hashanah since we were on vacation from school and busy serving our student pulpits for the holidays. With another High Holidays behind us, it was a great relief to socialize, celebrate, and unwind from one of the busiest times in our year. We shared our war stories, like how the elderly bima guest kept inadvertently muting the rabbi with the fancy volume controls in the arm of the cantor's chair during Yizkor, and enjoyed each other's company.
I love my classmates and sharing the HUC experience with them. We are four men and three women, music majors and history majors, guitar players and dancers. We bring a wealth of diverse experiences to everything that we do because before coming to HUC my classmates were: a social worker, working towards middle management, working in computers, managing apartments, a ski bum, and even an American member of the IDF. In our spare time, members of my class get passionate about the Food Network, record pop albums, study Alexander Technique, and watch lots of hockey. The life experiences that we bring to our Cantorial studies and work enriches all that we do and broadens the perspective of those around us.
One of the reasons that I decided to attend HUC was because I was in search of a very specialized peer group. Even though I was already working in the field as an assistant to a wonderful cantor, in many ways doing the job for which I am now training, I knew that I was missing a group of people with which to share the journey of becoming clergy. My hope is that after five years at HUC I will not be the same person as when I entered. I believe that to be the best clergy person that I can be that I should be pushed, challenged, and guided to new levels of growth as an individual, a Jew, and a musician. I came to HUC because I wanted to share this journey and to help and be helped by others along the way.
Nights like the one spent in the Aleppo Synagogue in Jerusalem or like the one a few weeks ago, celebrating two of my classmates, fuel my continued growth on the path to Investiture. I know that the relationships that I build in these years at HUC will sustain me and be important resources throughout my life and my career.
Posted by Mary at 2:21 PM
Blog #1: First Blog
Last summer, after returning from the Year In Israel Program, one of my classmates and I spent a morning exploring the neighborhood surrounding the HUC-JIR campus here in New York. We had coffee at the Israeli coffee shop, Aroma, a few blocks away at the intersection of Houston and Greene and played with the school supplies at one of my favorite stationary stores. I felt my heart race a little when we rounded the corner onto West Fourth from LaGuardia, because I knew that the large, sculptural menorah that adorns the HUC-JIR campus would soon come in to view.
As a New Jersey teenager, I'd walked past the building many times as my friends and I explored the Village. From around the time that I became a Bat Mitzvah, I knew that I wanted to be a cantor someday. Even though I grew up in New Jersey, the community in which I was raised was very small and only employed a cantor for the High Holy Days. I looked forward to the fall's gifts each year - new school supplies, apples, and hearing the cantor sing. As a teenager, I knew that inside this building, on the corner of Mercer and West Fourth, was a world of future Jewish professionals and that I wanted, desperately, to be one of them.
I took three years off after getting a BA in History and Jewish Studies at Rutgers. During that time, I worked at Temple Beth El in Charlotte, NC under the careful tutelage of Cantor Andrew Bernard. In Charlotte I learned, for the first time, what it really means to be a cantor. I learned that the contemporary cantor is called upon to do so much more than just to inspire little girls in the pews at the New Year. In addition to challenging congregants to engage in meaningful prayer through music and the liturgy, cantors are teachers of Judaism, role models, confidants, and pastoral care givers. I learned that cantors' skills must extend far beyond the heraldry of Rosh Hashanah music into the deepest recesses of the mundane, because every oneg conversation or V'ahavta chanted is an opportunity to engage in a moment of holiness. The more that I experienced the cantorate the more sure I became that my childhood dream must become a reality. So, my husband, Matt, and I prepared to move back to the Northeast, so that I could attend the School of Sacred Music of HUC-JIR.
Matt stayed in New York, working hard, while I spent ten months studying in Israel. The year was amazing, but being apart was difficult, and Matt and I did lots of flying back and forth. In Israel, my Hebrew improved significantly, and I began to fill in what seemed to be Swiss cheese holes in my Jewish and musical knowledge. It was amazing to see how much more learning I still had to do even though I'd lived my Jewish life, majored in Jewish studies, and studied with a mentor for three years before coming to school. Every day was filled with "aha moments;" suddenly things that I'd intuited or learned a long time ago came very clearly in to focus. The most amazing part of the Year In Israel, by far, was the opportunity to build a community of future colleagues.
Now I'm a third year Cantorial student. While my heart no longer races when I approach school in the mornings, I often have moments of great clarity when I realize that I've been on this path for a very long time and that this school and this career have been a part of me for as long as I can remember. I spend my days soaking up all of the music and knowledge that I can, trying to build relationships that will nourish my soul while at school and later down the line as a cantor in the field, and experiencing all of the Jewish life that the region has to offer. I am now as much a part of HUC-JIR, SSM as it has always been a part of me.
Wishing you all a shanah tovah um'tukah - a good and sweet New Year!
Posted by Mary at 2:33 PM