Sometimes, I get to work with the community in the early stages, actually collaborating with them in some way to spark the creative juices.
Case in point, and really, how it all began: During my first June teaching music and prayer at a large synagogue day camp in Kansas, I created the camp siddur (prayerbook) and forgot to put in the Aleinu prayer. When I was asked about it, I had to think fast! So I said, "We're going to create one together during camp." The rabbi was impressed and excited. Thankfully, the kids were into it and readily contributed ideas during our morning time together. By the end of the first week I'd written a new setting of Aleinu that we sing every summer at camp, and which the synagogue community sometimes sings together in evening services as well.
Every year I write something new for the campers to learn and sing, usually either dealing with a theme from the liturgy (we begin each day with 30 minutes of prayer and song), or with a lesson from the theme for that summer.
I generally don't even start writing the song until I've been at camp for a few days and have had time to talk with the campers and get their input on the theme. So these songs are written pretty quickly. I've been lucky so far in that every year the kids like what I write for them. I hope to continue the streak this summer.
Another case in point, building on the idea of collaborating that I developed at camp: I invite synagogue I'll be visiting in the future to select a prayer or theme that they use regularly. Before I compose a note of music, I ask the community to gather written thoughts -- essays, poems, even short phrases or single words -- about the chosen theme or text, and to send them to me in a packet so I can work with their raw material, ultimately distilling their thoughts and ideas into singable lyrics and then setting them to music.
Last year, I did this with the religious school of Temple Sinai in Houston, and the result was a new setting of Ufros Aleinu that I taught the kids during a Shabbaton visit there.
Each of these large sheets was literally covered with small sticky-notes containing words or short phrases, collected from religious school students, their parents, and members of the synagogue board and sisterhood. I received the package in the mail, and hung the five large sheets on the wall in my studio. Every day for about two and a half weeks, I'd pour some coffee, go into the studio and spend some time just looking at the words and sitting in silence. Towards the end of this time I began crafting a chorus. I sent a rough recording of it to the Education director, who loved it.
I took another two-plus weeks hanging out with the words and then created verses, which I then set to music that would compliment and connect back to the chorus.
The end result is a new setting -- an understanding, really -- of the Ashrei prayer, one that can be sung and accessed by all ages. I've sent them this video so they can begin learning it, and I can't wait until we can sing it all together.
If this sounds cool to you, let's talk about putting together an artist residency that includes some pre-visit songwriting and learning together. Please check out the videos above (and show them to someone at your synagogue or camp who helps decide when to bring in musical guests) and then we can talk about your community's vision. I'd love to be able to help you realize it.
Shavua tov -- a good week!