Teaching composers in a group setting is a fascinating process. These staunch individualists are at first wary of any didactic experience that lumps them together with other creative souls. They sit quietly, observing (casing the joint) and, only after deciding that the territory is safe enough for them to open up and expose their vulnerabilities, do they come alive and make the group a vital, pulsating learning laboratory. In the process, ironically, each individual becomes more of who they individually aspire to be.
Last night's Max Helfman Institute meeting at Cantor Phil Baron's home was such a breakthrough meeting. At the point of nearly completing their sacred musical settings of Kabbalat and Maariv Shabbat prayers, psalms, and hymns, each presented their works, discussed the particular text and the process behind its musical setting and were open for the peer reactions. There were all kinds of comments flying around. All were supportive, the group generously pitched in as a chorus to perform each other's work's vocals and many offered creative alternative suggestions for compositional solutions.
Issues that continue to be pointed out and emphasized are the need for correct text accentuation and stress, a traditional knowingness, compelling presence, and progressive coloration to each text setting, honed musical craft, and the courage to explore and create a musical approach that has not been offered before.
The group has also blossomed on a social basis. A new bride was congratulated, members of the group who have been recuperating from illnesses were welcomed, and a young conductor about to stand before an orchestra was wished well.
As I play last evening's progress over in my mind, I am heartened by the advancement this group has made creatively and professionally. I believe Max Helfman, whose example we emulate, would have been thrilled at how well these writers are growing into skilled synagogue composers. It was a truly exciting get together.