Thursday, May 24, 2018

How I Learn Jewish Songs

If you're at all like me, you spend a lot of time quietly hoping no one will notice that you're not singing along. 


via GIPHY

I'm not good at songs. Or singing. But I could be better, and I'm trying. Really only because now I feel an obligation to teach my children to be the little FFBs they are.

My problem is words. I'm not a fast Hebrew reader even when I can move at my own pace, much less with the pressure of a tune or other people to keep up with. Even after about 15 years in the Jewish community, I just don't know that many songs from memory, whether in davening or at the Shabbos table. Sure, I know tunes and can hum along with the best of 'em, and I might know (or think I know) some words here and there. I even know some songs, like Shalom Aleichem (and most songs on the radio), yet cannot sing them unless I'm singing with other people. I literally cannot remember the words except during the act of singing. What's up with that, brain??

But there's hope! I've been using a multimedia approach to tackle songs, ostensibly for the purpose of teaching these songs to my toddler. She rarely sings along, and when she does, she mangles the words as much as I ever have. But she's got time. She'll learn eventually, and I could use the education too.

Here's my approach, and maybe it (or something similar) will help you too.

Step 1: Pick a song. 

Any song. But only one. Pick one you'll use frequently. Personally, I started with Adon Olam and thought that was a great choice. Modeh Ani is a very short and simple one. Shalom Aleichem would be another useful one, as would Eishet Chayil. Learn it well before moving on to another song. The only exception would be realizing mid-learning that you need to learn a holiday song (aka, my last-minute panic at realizing my toddler would now be the youngest talking person at the Pesach seder).

How long does this take? 

Depends on your brain, your consistency, the song, your past experience with the song, and your current exposure to learning the song. In other words, I can't tell you. Modeh Ani took me about 3 days; I knew the words but not the tune. Adon Olam took for about two months; I knew the tune but not the words. Chanting V'Ahavta (from the Shema) has taken at least two months so far because my voice doesn't want to cooperate with the chant. The Four Questions took about two weeks. I'll keep plodding along, adding a new song here and there. We have a lifetime to learn, and this is one of the easier, least pressured, and fun things to learn!

Step 2: Locate a YouTube video of it that works for your brain and learning style and sing along with it 1-3 times a day until you know it really well. 

Especially in the early days, I find only one hearing leaves me feeling like I'd just started getting my feet under me. I usually do at least a second sing-along, but I don't do more than three. We have lives to live. And your brain needs time to process. Come back tomorrow for another round. Feel free to move to one time a day once you feel like you have your sea legs.

I get distracted by music videos and prefer having the words in front of me, with it indicating where they are in the song. I've found two accounts particularly helpful. One is Hebrew-only: Brian Shamash. The other is both transliteration and Hebrew: Prayer-eoke by The YouTube Rabbi (it's kol isha, sung by a woman, if that's something you do).

In the beginning, you may find that you're singing only a word here and there. That's fine. You'll gain a little more each day. You'll be behind the song, you won't hit the notes right, you'll start to say the wrong word. It'll come together. But it may take a while. As I said, I began with Adon Olam, and I used the video for about 6 weeks, maybe a little more.

On Shabbat, sing what you know without the use of YouTube if you're shomer Shabbat. If you don't remember any, that's ok. You can try singing it from written lyrics if that helps. If it's not going to work, skip it. Practicing 6 days a week and not the seventh isn't going to hamper your progress appreciably.

A nota bene: If this is a prayer, sing it as you will sing it in davening. Don't worry about substituting Elokim or Hashem. This is for your education. If this makes you uncomfortable, talk with your rabbi about it. Personally, I cannot learn something with substitutions, and that's even a machloket in my home. My husband is really good with substitutions, so he does them when teaching our toddler something, the Shema for instance. From my perspective, I prefer teaching her exactly as I want her to say it. Anecdotes seem to suggest that this is common and either method works eventually, but I don't understand it. Maybe that's just my brain.

Step 2.5: If you're learning with transliteration, switch to the Hebrew text as soon as you think you can. 

Step 3: ???

Step 4: PROFIT!!1!

Sorry, I couldn't resist. You should know by now that I love memes.


via GIPHY


Step 3: Once you know the tune and words well, switch to singing from a written copy.

Find a written copy of the Hebrew text, bookmark it somehow, and keep it handy for your daily practice. I recently discovered book darts and love them!

For all our music practice, I'm really enjoying the book The Complete Jewish Songbook for Children. Obviously, it's intended for children, but I think it's a great resource for anyone. It has transliteration, Hebrew text, and an English translation. (Obviously, take all English translations with a grain of salt, especially when we're talking about poetry.) And it's all in just one spot, which is a real convenience.



I bought it used without the CD, but I think it's worth the full price. I don't say that about many books. Based on how I understood the Amazon reviews, the CD only includes snippets of songs, not the full song. They suggested YouTube anyway, but it sounded like there was a specific account that had made the songs specifically for this book. I haven't located anything like that.

But it's a scary-looking book to me, as a non-musically-inclined person. It's really a book of sheet music. Don't let that stop you.



(You can see my book dart in the first photo.)

It was published by the reform movement, back when it was the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. But I don't think movement affects the content of the book. Some tunes are more used in different movements, but several songs do have different tunes included.

Step 4: Start looking up from the page sometimes.

Not gonna lie, I discovered this step with the "help" of the into-everything toddler. It's kind of like a mini "test" of whether I can remember the next line. I always keep my finger approximately where we are so that I can easily jump back in when I look back at the page.

Step 5: You deserve a cookie!

Because now you know that song well enough to get by in any situation I can think of.


Here are some of the YouTube videos I've used so far:

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