Many new changes and a new interview

Please look around the site and check out the changes we’ve made over the past few days, including:

1) Posting an interview with Susan Watts on the “History” page

2) Posting a group interview with attendees at the Stiffel Senior Center Yiddish group, also on the “History” page

3) Cleaning up the “Audio” and “Video” pages to make them easier to navigate

4) Updating the “Events” page

Check back over the next few weeks for more updates!


New video: Kol Tzedek’s Chanukah party

Owing to a perfect storm of technical difficulties, this post has been a long time in coming–but check out the videos of the kickoff of the community side of the Philly Sher Project at Kol Tzedek‘s Chanukah party on December 13, 2009.  The first clip shows the community lighting Chanukah candles, saying blessings and singing traditional songs.  The second and third clips show Naomi Segal teaching the sher; the fourth and fifth clips show the community dancing the sher to the sounds of the Kol Tzedek Klezmer All-Stars featuring Susan and Elaine Hoffman Watts.  You can see all of the clips on our video page.  Thanks to Kol Tzedek member Greg Scruggs for manning the video camera.

Come dance the sher at Kol Tzedek’s Purim extravaganza!

Kol Tzedek’s annual Purim party will be taking place at 5 pm on Saturday, February 27, 2010 at the Calvary Center for Culture and Community, 48th Street and Baltimore Avenue.  The Klezmer All-Stars will be doing a shortened version of the sher around 6 pm.  Come for our multilingual megillah reading, costumes, food, games and, of course, great klezmer!

Sheet music posted

I’ve recently re-input the score of the sher given to me by Susan Watts and posted both the lead sheet and individual instrumental parts (violin, clarinet in Bb, trombone) on the sheet music page.  I hope to put together a violin sekund and piano part, as well as a simplified bass instrument part, soon.

First oral history interview: Naomi Segal

Check out our new and improved “History of the sher” page!  Naomi Segal, Kol Tzedek’s resident dance expert, talks about learning the sher at Camp Galil in Bucks County and Jewish life in Philly and Israel.

Philadelphia Sher Project featured in Kehillah newsletter!

The Philadelphia Sher Project was featured in the Kehillah of Center City (Philadelphia)’s newsletter last week.  Check it out below.  Here’s the Kehillah’s web site for more info.

Kehillah of Center City Funds the Musical Initiatives Project at Congregation Kol Tzedek

Thanks to a grant from Federation’s Kehillah of Center City, the Philadelphia sher, a klezmer song and dance, is making a comeback!

Meredith Aska McBride, University of Pennsylvania senior, is an active participant Kol Tzedek’s Philadelphia Sher Project. McBride has been taking lessons with the eminent klezmer trumpeter Susan Watts, whose family has deep roots in the Philadelphia Jewish music scene. Along with the Kol Tzedek Simcha Band, McBride learned to play the sher, a klezmer song with deep roots in the city, but known by very few people today.

Last month, the group performed with renowned drummer Elaine Hoffman Watts, (Susan’s mom). Congregant Naomi Segal, who danced the sher as a child, taught the dance to concert attendees. “People had a great time dancing and the band certainly had a great time playing,” said McBride.

“Without Federation’s grant the Philadelphia sher would remain a hidden treasure,” noted Kol Tzedek’s rabbi, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann. She added, “Our Musical Initiatives Program aims to educate Jews about this rich spiritual and cultural legacy and to integrate music into the fabric of community life.”

The $2,250 grant funded Kol Tzedek’s Musical Initiatives Program, which includes two projects. The Davening Leaders Program trains 5-10 community members to become proficient prayer leaders, and the Philadelphia Sher Project aims to return this klezmer song and dance to active use. Community members will participate in the project through research, performance and education.

Federation’s Department of Jewish Life and Learning has seven Kehillot–community outreach arms–which foster collaboration among community institutions and provide a venue for interaction and cooperation.

Each Kehillah allocates Community Partnership Grants within its geographic area, like the one given to the Musical Initiatives Program. For more information on these grants and how to apply, contact Rabbi Shira Stutman at or 215.832.0856.

For additional information about the Kehillah of Center City and its grants, contact Susan Stanek at or 215.832.0597.

New audio: December 13 Chanukah party

And now, the pièce de résistance that you’ve all been waiting for–recordings of our first performance of the sher at Kol Tzedek‘s annual Chanukah party are up!

The first clip is of the band warming up (including special guests Susan and Elaine Hoffman Watts and Dan Blacksberg).  What I find most interesting about this clip is how two groups of people who aren’t used to playing together (i.e., Susan, Elaine and Dan, and the Simcha Band) find out ways to integrate sound, personnel, and equipment fairly rapidly.

The second clip is a recording of our Chanukah blessings and songs.  The whole assembled congregation joins in and contributes what they can musically (whether improvised on an instrument, or vocally), which I think is a nice metaphor for how Kol Tzedek works.

In the third clip, founding member Naomi Segal teaches everyone how to dance the sher.  I like how she combines straightforward instruction with jokes and personal interpretations of each step.  Furthermore, she adapts the dance to the needs of the community at the time–encouraging small children to sit on their parents’ shoulders and “silly moves.”

The fourth clip is of the “real deal”–the full performance of the sher with band and dancers.  We sounded good and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.  We came a long way from our September 22 lesson!

New audio: November 29 rehearsal

There’s some new audio up of the Simcha Band’s November 29 rehearsal.  In it, Sherri Cohen and I (Meredith) work through the sher with our flute/sax player Jon Grabelle Herrmann.  What I find most interesting about this is Sherri’s and my attempts to explain to Jon what Susan explained to us, especially about the finer points of the style we’re trying to achieve.

New audio: October 27 lesson

I’ve just posted a bunch of new audio clips, this time of the Simcha Band’s October 27 lesson with Susan Watts.  Susan worked more intensively with us this time on learning how to play in the proper style.  We already had most of the notes down by this time, and since our ultimate goal was to perform the sher in a way that would make sense in a klezmer dance setting, we needed some help understanding exactly how we should sound and how all the dance steps fit with the music.

I find the clips labeled “Playthrough of tune 2 and some stylistic modifications” and “Tunes 3 and 4 and ‘simpler is better’ discussion” particularly interesting.  You can get a good sense of the progress we’ve made by this point (or haven’t made), but you can also get a sense for how Susan conceptualizes the sher, and the subtle ways in which klezmer style can be changed and personalized within set limits.

Despite the fact that I (Meredith Aska McBride) sound comically “classical” in the clips labeled “Susan and Meredith discuss vibrato” and “Susan working with Meredith on violin technique,” I still think they’re worth a listen if you’re interested in comparing and contrasting classical vs. klezmer style.  Susan is quite explicit about the ways I should think about my klezmer playing and how that differs from my typical style, and I think that the ways I try to negotiate this stylistic transition are sort of interesting.

New audio: September 22, 2009 lesson

I’ve just posted a few audio clips from the Kol Tzedek Simcha Band’s lesson with Susan Watts on September 22, 2009.  This was my first encounter ever with playing the sher, and trombonist Sherri Cohen’s first time playing it in a while.

The first recording in the list (labeled “Sightreading the first tune of the sher”) makes our musical backgrounds pretty obvious.  For example, while I am able to read the music pretty well in terms of pitch and rhythm, I clearly have no real concept of how to translate the klezmer style I’ve heard in recordings to my instrument (violin).

I grew up playing primarily classical music and a little bit of Irish fiddle, and it shows: I play everything as closely as possible to what is written on the sheet music in front of me, and use typical classical techniques such as vibrating on every note.  By our final playthrough, I’m doing marginally better, but still struggling with understanding what constitutes tasteful klezmer style.

Sherri, on the other hand, is facing a different set of musical challenges.  She is a very good trombonist whose primary experience is in school bands.  She has attended KlezKamp and played in Kol Tzedek’s klezmer band for a few years.  Therefore, she has a better grasp of the style and is able to improvise–she can look at a lead sheet and figure things out on her feet better than I can.  However, she’s not quite as comfortable with sightreading.

Susan, of course, knows exactly what she’s doing, has a distinctive voice on her instrument (trumpet), and tries various teaching techniques to explain to me and Sherri how we should approach performing in a new style.  Listen to a few of the clips and see how we progress throughout the lesson.  We sound much better–if not great!–by the clip titled “Final playthrough” than we did in the first clip.  And Susan has quite a few words of musical wisdom embedded in each track.