Music as Spiritual Practice: A Conversation

April 1, 2014
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Aryeh Bernstein: Joey, you’ve put maniacal energy not only into making music, but also into teaching laypeople to make spiritual music. Why is music so important to our spiritual lives?

Joey Weisenberg: Music teaches us how to listen — if we let it. It is through careful listening that we learn how to get “in tune” with the people, spaces, and spiritual energies around us. Moses was the last prophet to see the divine face-to-face, but we are all given opportunities to hear the divine voice — both through the loud, shofar-like sound of God that overpowers us and through the “still, small voice” that speaks to us with nuance and subtlety. It is through intentional listening, our tradition teaches, that we are able to close our eyes and better hear the unity that underlies all of creation, “Sh’ma Yisrael…” And it is through singing that we return the breath of life to the Creator in praise and gratitude, “Nishmat kol chai…”

 

Aryeh Bernstein: Is music a spiritual path for everyone? Can everyone access that unity and breath of life through music? What if I’m tone-deaf?

Joey Weisenberg: When our hearts are opened through music, we are more vulnerable, but we are also more receptive to insight. Indeed, traditionally, before opening the ark to read the Torah, we sing together, “Tiftach libi b’oraita,” asking that our hearts be opened up along with the ark. When we close the ark, we sing more, hoping that that process of “opening” would have allowed us to receive the wisdom that can lead us toward the paths of peace, “…netivotecha shalom…”

Opening the heart is the process of becoming curious, of wondering what might come next, of discovering and then softening the boundaries of our beings. Music helps that story of wonder unfold. For most people, turning away from cynicism, quieting discomfort (and their iPhones), and allowing insight to enter is more difficult.

 

Aryeh Bernstein: Including insight about who we may be. Singing different kinds of music that evoke different emotions pushes me to inhabit a wider range of my emotional potential. If I sing joy and pain, and so on, I tap into who I might be in those experiences and become a more empathetic version of myself.

Joey Weisenberg: Yes, musical art is hearing one’s self while also hearing the intricacies of everyone else. We then blend those divergent sounds into a cohesive whole. It’s a constant process of reaching deeper inside and farther outside at the same time.

 

Aryeh Bernstein: You’re a virtuoso professional musician, yet you direct your musical creativity largely toward laypeople. How do you translate that expertise for people who have no training?

Joey Weisenberg: I’m intrigued with how a group of people in a room can spontaneously create music together. When I’m asked to perform, I generally reset the theater or synagogue so that I can sit offstage and out of the spotlight. I am trying to get as close as possible to all the singers and more directly in contact with the communal energy. The room and the people become the performance, and the performer is inconspicuously nurturing the collective’s creative process.

Musical training, at its best, includes learning to be more sensitive to what’s happening at the periphery of the experience — making the periphery central. Many laypeople have no training in playing instruments, but they have developed a sense of menschlichkeit and wisdom, and they have become virtuosos at listening to their surroundings and responding — often better than many professional musicians.

 

Aryeh Bernstein: Does it makes sense to talk about different genres — niggunim, opera, punk, reggae, hip-hop, R&B, and chain gang freedom songs — in the same conversation?  When you talk about the relationship between music and spirit, do you mean specific types of music?

Joey Weisenberg: A culture’s music tells the story of the strivings and ideals of its people. Music may be ordered or chaotic, fixed or spontaneous, danceable or sit-able. But all music can be intriguing and powerful if approached with curiosity and openness. I grew up hearing my mother playing Bach on the piano, my father playing flamenco guitar, and the chazan singing in shul — but the first music that I ever really noticed was blues, when I was 11 years old and heard James Cotton’s wailing harmonica.  Different types of music open up different parts of us.  All music — indeed, all of life — has a spiritual story to tell, and we just need to find it.

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Aryeh Bernstein, a Chicago native, lives in Jerusalem, where he teaches Torah at Yeshivat Talpiot’s TAKUM beit midrash for human rights. He has taught at Drisha, the Hartman High School, and Mechon Hadar, as well as at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin, where he co-founded and directed the Northwoods Kollel. He is an editor-translator for the Koren English edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud and an editor-at-large of Jewschool.com. He is on the development team for Open Quorum, a project of Jewish Public Media, which sponsors the Sermon Slam series. In 2011, he independently released a hip-hop album, “A Roomful of Ottomans.”

Joey Weisenberg, creative director of the Hadar Center for Communal Jewish Music, is the author of Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer. A singer and composer based in New York, he has performed and recorded internationally with dozens of bands, and he travels widely as a “musician-in-residence” to provide workshops that create “spontaneous Jewish choirs.” He is the music director and ba’al tefillah (prayer leader) at Brooklyn’s oldest synagogue, the Kane Street Synagogue. He can be reached at joeyweisenberg.com.

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