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.

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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.

Announcing the Philadelphia Sher Project!

If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably aware that Philly’s got an eclectic and vibrant music scene.  You also probably know that the Philadelphia area is home to a diverse and active Jewish community.  The two intersect in Philly’s long history as home to a unique brand of klezmer, the contemporary term for Eastern European Jewish folk music.

The sher is an Eastern European social dance for four couples–a cousin to the Western European quadrille and the American square dance.  This dance, and an accompanying set of tunes, were brought over by Jewish immigrants from what was then the Russian empire in the early 1900’s.  Philly quickly developed its own unique set of tunes, the Philadelphia sher medley, to go along with the dance, which was extremely popular in the Jewish community for many years.  (Other American cities, such as New York and Chicago, also developed their own sher medleys.)

By the late 1960s, the sher wasn’t as popular as it once was; the Jewish community had more or less moved on to Israeli dancing and American pop music.  Though it hasn’t been as visible in recent decades, the sher has still been played and danced at Jewish summer camps and klezmer-revival events like KlezKamp.

The Simcha Band of West Philly’s Reconstructionist synagogue, Kol Tzedek, is spearheading a project to bring this lively dance and melody back to regular performance in the Philly Jewish community.  Check out the full description of the project’s methods and goals here.

This blog will contain news about events at which the sher will be played; video and audio clips of performances; info on the history of the sher and klezmer in Philadelphia; and educational resources for all who are interested.  You can subscribe via email by clicking the button in the upper right-hand corner.  Check back soon for some audio updates from Chanukah 2009 and the introduction of new bloggers!