My favorite place to practice chanting Torah…

… is the beach.

I did this when I was preparing for my Bat Mitzvah service, and I’ve been doing it again with the portion I’ll be chanting on Yom Kippur morning.

Stinson Beach / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Stinson Beach is long, wide and mostly empty, even on weekends. It takes me 45 minutes to walk to the end, and then another 45 to walk back. I take my iPod with our cantor’s recording of my portion, and I walk along and listen and chant. None of the other beach walkers seems to notice or care, and it’s much safer than the other place I practice chanting — in the car.

Don’t even ask about that. One of these days I will rear-end someone, and when the officer eyes me suspiciously and asks if I was texting while driving, I’ll say “Of course not. I was chanting.”

Learning to chant a Torah portion is different from anything else I do in my daily life.  It involves spoken sounds rather than written words. It’s not intellectual or analytical. There’s no tangible, material goal like there is in writing a news story or cooking a meal or planting zucchini.

It’s harder than simply learning to sing in a foreign language. When I listen to pop songs in Hebrew or French or Spanish — the foreign languages I sort of know — the choruses tend to stick in my head. They repeat, they rhyme, they use familiar daily sentence structures. All of that makes them easy to remember.

Fog and sun / Photo by Becca Schuchat

With Torah, the grammar is often archaic and convoluted. (For instance, the Torah typically uses future tense when it means past tense. Why? I’m sure there’s a historico-linguistic reason, but no one has told me.) There are weird sentence constructions, and obscure words like “ephod” that don’t exactly pop up in daily conversation.

The melody shifts back and forth at random between minor and major keys. There are no patterns of repeated melodies, no rhymes, no ABAB CDCD verses and choruses. It would be a lot easier if God had hired Woody Guthrie and the Torah read, “This land is your land, this land is my land, from the Jezreel Valley to the Jerusalem highlands.”

To be fair, there is the skeleton of a system.  A limited number of melodic phrases are used again and again in chanting Torah, and there are symbols to represent those phrases (cantillation). Sometimes the melodic phrases even correspond in a systematic way with certain points in the text, like the ends of verses.

But it’s still a lot less systematic and structured than modern pop songs or western classical music or the various bits of poetry we all had to memorize in grade school. And for a relative beginner like me, it remains pretty inscrutable. So I turn on my iPod, listen to the cantor, and imitate what she does. Phrase by phrase, line by line. I look for familiar words and am ecstatic when a difficult, unfamiliar word turns out to share a root with a word I already know. Those words are like rafts in the middle of a long, exhausting swim.

Andie at Stinson / Photo by Becca Schuchat

Between the Torah portion I learned for my Bat Mitzvah service, the one I learned for a service in July, and my current Yom Kippur portion, I’ve now done this enough that I can see a pattern in how I approach it.

Phase 1: Feel overwhelmed. (“How am I going to learn all that?”)

Phase 2: Take it one phrase at a time.

Phase 3: Get enough phrases down that I can chant a verse or two without getting stymied.

Phase 4: Learn enough verses to realize I am almost done. Yay!

That last phase is the one I’m in now, having learned five of six verses pretty securely. At this point it becomes fun. I find myself humming the melody without thinking about it. I can go back to some of the more troublesome lines and make sure  the phrasing and notes are exactly right. I can start to think about the meaning of the words while I chant them rather than just worrying about what the next word/note should be.

It occurs to me that this, in a very abbreviated way, is the same process as revising my novel. I’m in the overwhelmed/one-step-at-a-time phase with that right now. I still haven’t worked out my problems with the middle of the manuscript. It just occurred to me this morning that I may need to completely overhaul the ending. I hope sooner or later to reach  the point I’m at with my Torah portion — where the big, blunt work is done and I can relax and focus on making the phrasing just right.

Huh. What was that I was saying about this having nothing in common with the rest of my life?

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3 Responses to “My favorite place to practice chanting Torah…”

  1. bratschegirl Says:

    I love chanting. I’ve been doing it for a bit more than 10 years now. One thing I’ve brought to it from my professional (musical) life is that, often, I learn the end first. I had a music teacher tell me to do that. The idea is that, particularly in a long and difficult passage, you get tired as you go through it, and it’s better to be going into progressively more familiar territory than progressively less familiar stuff. So, I learn the last verse, sometimes starting with the last individual clause if it’s a long verse, and then the next to last, and so on.

    I’ve grown particularly fond of Haftarah trope. Never yet had occasion to learn High Holiday, although I can still practically do from memory the entire aliyah that my daughter did on Rosh Hashanah morning the year after her bat mitzvah.

    Enough procrastinating… chanting maftir this Shabbat.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Wow! That’s an intriguing idea about learning the end first. I’m curious about what it’s like to approach this with a professional musical background — since my only musical background was some childhood piano that never really penetrated to any meaningful level.

      What do you do professionally? How does it affect the way you approach chanting — for instance, do you mentally envision musical notes for a passage, or maybe even write it out in musical notation?

      • bratschegirl Says:

        My online nickname reveals what I do professionally… “bratsche” is German for “viola,” which is what I play for a living. Being accustomed to taking funny-looking black squiggles on the page and turning them into tunes made learning to chant not such a huge leap.

        II don’t actually see the whole thing as if it was written out in musical notation. I “read” the cantillation symbols as if I were reading music, knowing that this symbol means that sequence of notes… but I learned all of that from seeing all the tropes and combinations written out in musical notation on sheets I got from the cantor as well as a couple of book-and-CD sets that URJ Press puts out. I also do think very much in terms of both what the sequence of intervals is for each trope, and what the interval is between the ending note of one and the beginning note of the next.

        My biggest challenge is having a relatively small Hebrew vocabulary, which means that in a lot of cases I’m just memorizing a sequence of sounds that don’t particularly have meaning for me. It goes much faster when I at least can recognize the words as words, whether or not I actually know what they mean.

        The other thing that’s still a challenge for me is keeping the different trope “systems” separate from each other. It’s kind of like Torah trope is treble clef and Haftarah is bass clef; the same symbol appears, but it means something different in terms of notes. Even now I worry about mixing them up, so much so that when I’m chanting Haftarah for a service I actually won’t follow along with the Torah reading just before, lest I start associating the symbols with the wrong series of pitches.

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