Coaching: A Sacred Relationship
Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller ’87, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual and Professor of Cantorial Arts
Of the many contexts in which I have served on the HUC-JIR faculty, the role of cantorial coach has been particularly meaningful and gratifying. Each semester, I work with several students individually for a weekly “coaching.” The purpose of these lessons is to guide cantorial students in their ongoing musical, vocal, and liturgical training. Since the cantorial art is largely an oral tradition passed down from teacher to student involving idiomatic nuances of style, vocal color, musical and liturgical interpretation, and expression, each Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music (DFSSM) student is required to study individually with a coach each semester on the New York campus.
As a coach, I hope to provide students with a safe space to express themselves musically and spiritually while integrating the varied styles of Jewish music they will need to master as they develop their unique cantorial voice. I try to help them grow their skills and confidence as interpreters of sacred music and leaders of prayer.
This process differs with every student. Each comes to the school with unique abilities and training. The musical and vocal study in which we engage in our coaching sessions is often at the core of a student’s cantorial identity. Thus, the work can be quite personal and subjective. A student has a right to feel vulnerable when exploring their musical expression and singing style. To do my work effectively, I strive to become their trusted teacher. I listen, get to know them, and meet them where they are. In the context of a sacred relationship, a student and teacher can co-create a foundation of mutual respect and kavod, honor. Once we establish such a covenant, true learning begins. Feedback is given and received constructively, as it emanates from a place of kindness and care.
In any given lesson, the student might be preparing for their practicum(an annual presentation each student performs for the HUC DFSSM community), their Masters recital, working on material for an upcoming class or their student pulpit that Shabbat, or simply researching musical repertoire. At other times, a student might need to discuss an issue, whether concerning their student pulpit, schoolwork, or life in general. Such conversations can be as valuable to the student as their musical study. When they are able to talk through a challenging situation and ask difficult questions, a teacher can provide a wider lens of perspective. This counseling component of a coach’s role can contribute invaluably toward the clergy development aspect of a cantorial student’s training.
At the end of each semester, I hope that a student emerges from our work together feeling empowered to continue to develop not only their skills and artistry, but their love of learning, of singing sacred music, and of leading a congregation in prayer. Guiding students in this work has been profoundly meaningful for me as a member of the cantorial faculty. I cannot think of a higher privilege than supporting these students as they strive to become vessels of sacred expression.
Turn It Around
Text from Pirkei Avot Chapters 5 and 6
Music by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller ’87, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman Professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual and Professor of Cantorial Arts
Much wisdom have I learned from my teachers
More have I learned from my friends
From my students, from my students
Have I learned the most of all
Harbei lamad’ti mei-rabotai
U’mei-chaverai yoteir mei-rabotai
Yoteir mi-kulan, yoteir mi-kulan
Turn it and turn it and turn it
Turn it and turn it around
Everything is in it, everything is in it
Turn it and turn it around