My High Holidays Learning Experience

As you know from my last post, I find the High Holidays challenging. This blog is supposed to tell you something about my experience going through cantorial school and I so I want to be open about some of the specific challenges this year.

This year was musically challenging. In cantorial school there are two types of people: those with a strong music background who want to use that in service of the Jewish prayer; and those with a strong background in Jewish prayer who want to get their leading skills up to a professional level. To be clear, these aren’t rival groups; we’re great colleagues because we’re all trying to get to the same place, but for each of us there are different skills we need to develop to get there.

While I’m squarely in the second category (lots of Jewish prayer experience, trying to level up as a musician) I found myself working in a choir with musicians who had more formal training and experience than I did, and getting left behind in following the music. I felt a little bit like the second grader who is learning to decode and insists they can read all of Harry Potter.

As a prayer leader, I have two types of experiences: great experiences, and great learning experiences. I’m not just throwing out euphemisms to say that this was one of the latter: I have a much clearer picture of where I need to go and what I need to do to get there, in terms of work and getting feedback from my colleagues. And unlike the second grader mentioned above, I have the learning and study skills (I’m actually have material from my current education class about how humans learn open in another window!) to work on it.

Before and after Yom Kippur we wish each other an easy or meaningful fast, as we have greetings for other days, as we say “how are you?” and expect the answer to be “fine” (or better). This positivity has a purpose–I know I always feel a little better myself when I answer “how are you?” with an enthusiastic “great!”–and I think there’s also a time for acknowledging things aren’t always easy. Without that acknowledgement, we can’t ever support each other when things aren’t going well. That why I wanted to write this here. Yom Kippur, too, is a time to acknowledge our mistakes. And while I don’t think that needing to work on my sight reading is exactly a sin against God, or something that Yom Kippur atones for, it is a good time to refocus on what I need to work on professionally and academically in the coming year. Despite the liturgy, I don’t believe the gates are closed.

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