I’m writing this in suburban Denver having just performed a concert where it seems like I knew every other person in the audience. The Jewish Experience pulled off one of those rare gatherings of people from all local synagogues and denominations, cleverly organized outdoors in a sunny park, thereby avoiding any one group’s fiefdom. There was no need to bring my own band; I recruited a variety of talented local friends who have my set wired and added a pair of extraordinary Latin percussionists who volunteered their time to express their support for the Jewish community. Since I’ve played the mile high city at least once a year for the past two decades and my alma mater, University of Colorado, Boulder is close by, I feel a sense of homecoming every time I return. I opted to extend the trip a few more days to hike, visit friends and stroll downtown Boulder. What a thrill to enjoy perfect blue sky days on the trail, relive memories on campus and visit the “youngsters” that now inhabit my fraternity house. I enjoyed meals with old pals, jammed with the hippies on the Pearl Street Mall and lodged in a creative friend’s imaginative canyon home.
One morning I chose to sleep in, pray leisurely and to do some much needed yoga. My regimen becomes even more crucial when I am enduring cramped airline seats and beds of varying quality on the road. Colorado was my third tour stop of the week, and it was long past time for me to get on the mat. As I did my downward dog, crescent and pigeon poses, I was listening to a touching album by one of my favorite singer-songwriter-bassists Richard Page. The music filled me with inexplicable, indescribable joy. I anticipated every phrase and sang unabashedly in my friend’s empty home. What is it about this album that makes me so happy? I could say the same about so many of the thousands of CDs that I have in my collection. Why do they have such an impact on my psyche? How is it possible to know every beat and every lyric? Why is music so directly connected to my sense of well being? How is it that these ephemeral sound waves can transform my morning workout from drudgery to a celebration?
Here’s what I came up with on that sweet, sweaty morning. I believe that familiar music graces certain neural templates in our memory. The first time we hear any given piece, the sound traces a path in our brain much like grooves on an LP. The next time we hear those notes we have a vague memory of where the rhythms fall. And by the tenth or hundredth time that we hear that same music, every lyric, each kick drum and hi hat, every guitar lick and violin flourish, all the counterpoint and harmony oozes like dripping honey along that ever deepening synaptic path. I concluded that the music that we love really is a part of us; the joy that we feel upon repeat listening is perhaps because in an out-of-control world our favorite albums remain predictable, reassuring and comforting.
We have a limited window of opportunity to establish deep connections with those genres we consider to be OUR music. Our brains are more malleable when we are young. Just as it’s easier for kids to learn a foreign language or to pick up a new accent, the same is certainly true when learning a musical instrument or building repertoire. It seems that those neural receptors calcify with age and the musical input we receive from birth until we’re in our early twenties is more profoundly engraved in our gray matter. For the rest of our lives, new music that we hear tends to pale in comparison. Much like when high school seniors view incoming ninth graders with disdain and claim the student body is quickly going downhill, we grow intolerant of the latest hits. In fact, by our mid-twenties we tend to recoil in horror to the latest “noise” on the radio. Now that I’ve hit my fifties it takes a really amazing album to penetrate my consciousness. I do listen to Top 40 radio to stay current for my studio work and to humor my kids who switch it on as soon as we’re in the car. Keeping up with the trends is essential in my business; in the immortal words of John Lennon, “Either you grow with music or music outgrows you.” Another reason that we may find it a challenge to incorporate new music later in life is because we have so much input filling our brains by adulthood that there’s less cranial storage space for new stimuli to make an impression. For this reason I strategically fed my unsuspecting children a steady diet of musical heroes from rock to jazz to classical and I experience unbounded mirth when they call me from college to rave about a “new” discovery from the seventies.
Many feel that music is anecdotal, not central to crucial issues in life. But do we want to live in a world where the arts are left out of our children’s STEM-based education? I teach jazz ensemble in our local high school and I have found that most of our neighborhood kids get to ninth grade without any hands-on music experience whatsoever, no memories of instrument lessons or choral performances. Music is liquid math! Reggae band Steel Pulse said it best: “Life without music…I can’t go!” I’d like to argue that music is one of the best media for the dissemination of universal values. Music has at its core an element of truth that is cross-cultural and international. That’s why a hit in LA can also rise up the charts in countries around the globe. That’s why the movie scores that allow one to have emotional engagement and thereby suspend disbelief serve their purpose worldwide. Imagine a cheer at a baseball game, like that major arpeggio causing fans to scream, “Charge!” Contrast that with the suspenseful two notes of the Jaws theme; you hear them and start worrying about sharks, even on dry land. We can describe a tune as happy or sad, suspenseful or romantic regardless of where we were born.
Music is the glue that binds generations and unites the nations. I remember a U2 concert several years ago when during the messianic-flavored song One, a message appeared on the gigantic video screen for the fans of all ages to take out their cell phones. Within moments the arena was bathed in a surreal Android glow as the audience swayed with the moving piece. Then we were instructed to text our names to a certain number. Immediately the room went dark but everyone’s face lit up as they quickly texted. Then at the climax of the song while 20,000 people were jumping ecstatically singing “One love, one blood, one life” in unison, our projected names cascaded like alphabetic confetti across the stadium walls. I still get the chills thinking about it. We are currently witnessing the explosion in popularity of the multi-day music festival. Our youth are discovering oneness, peace and lovingkindness not in places of worship but in carefully manicured settings where music is the common language and catalyst for unity.
For the Jewish People, religious life without music is unthinkable. We see music as the icing on the cake of creation. According to Jewish tradition, God is perpetually singing the world into being. Our Tanach (bible) is replete with epic songs that punctuate the narrative. Jubal, the inventor of the first instruments, is one of the few key characters mentioned in the first ten generations of mankind. Vast orchestras accompanied the service in the Temple. Our prophets of yore required music to enter a transcendent realm and hear God’s voice. Our patriarchs composed while in the fields with their livestock; our tradition maintains that King David was “hearing” their songs as he composed his Psalms.
I often wonder just where I get these songs that come to me almost nightly. Am I hearing remnants of biblical melodies in the ether? After an extended wedding ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem, I had the rare opportunity to spend an hour in yechidus (one on one) with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. For years I had served as his West Coast keyboardist and relished any time I was able to spend in his presence. Underneath the arch of the ruins of the Churva Synagogue he spoke of my music and how it moved him. He told me that I had a tremendous gift and a mamash (hugely) enormous responsibility to share it. He then warned me that I had to be prepared for when the Mashiach would come to me and say, “Sam, how did you know all my nigunim?!” Of course, Reb Shlomo always knew the right words to say…can you imagine a more powerful charge for a young composer? I was told that when he left this world at the tender age of 69, he was on an airplane bound for the next gig…with my Shira album in his Walkman.
When we sing our prayers we transform our worship from lethargy to ecstasy, from stasis to action and commitment. Find yourself a shul where they sing! The nusach or traditional melodies of prayer are so beautifully detailed that one could conceivably travel by time machine to any prayer service in history and know if it’s a weekday, Shabbat or a holiday, if it’s morning, afternoon or evening and if you wound up davening with Sephardim or Ashkenazim. Specific tropes accompany the public reading of our Torah and prophetic writings. We even have a melody for Torah study. The revelation of Torah to the millions assembled at Sinai was marked by an unprecedented concert spectacular featuring mass synethesia where we “heard” the sights and “saw” the sounds. For those who find the lack of fluency in Hebrew a barrier to Jewish prayer, the fact is that you just need to know “aye dee di di di.” In the past several hundred years we have inherited the rich tradition of Chassidic nigunim, or wordless melodies, gifts of tzadikim (righteous people) that allow for the deepest spiritual connections without lyrics getting in the way of the sentiment.
According to 16th century commentator, the Maharal of Prague, music serves the threefold purpose of the creation of mankind: to develop a connection with the divine in the form of prayer, to connect us with one another and to connect us with our own souls. The gift of music is one of the best examples of the majesty of our neshamot (souls); our ability to compose is a miracle that baffles evolutionists and physicists. Music allows us to perceive that the apex of achievement in life is soul achievement; that the essence of our existence is in spiritual expression rather than the physical. As an example, we don’t go to the symphony to hear horsehair scraping catgut! In other words, the physical realm may seem like all there is, but in truth it is the most elementary level of creation and exists to give structure to the spiritual. Another function of music is to give us a unique sense of the dimension of time in that music requires time to unfold and develop, one note requires the next to complete a musical phrase. We can only enjoy it in the present but it requires the past for context and draws us into a spectacular future. We also gain an appreciation of eternity through music; for example, the gifted classical composers were able to capture something from beyond, an accomplishment that never dies. After his stroke my father-in-law might be unable to remember our names or his birthday, but can sing along with all his favorite melodies.
One of the most exciting aspects of our current technological prowess is the fact that the music of the vast span of Jewish history is now available in the form of thousands of recordings, from cantorial to klezmer to folk to good ole’ rock and roll. Contemporary Jewish Music is experiencing a renaissance of unparalleled quality and quantity in every conceivable genre; check out oysongs.com to see the vast selection. Some folks can’t abide by my new settings of liturgy, preferring the “traditional” melodies. But I can point to King David who exhorts his progeny to engage in “shir chadash,” writing new music. New music gives us vitality and excitement and keeps our ritual from becoming stagnant. Whereas David’s son Solomon insisted that there is nothing new under the sun, clearly music emerges “above the sun,” in the realm of the supernatural. That said, all composers are influenced by those who have come before. I’m sometimes asked if I perform “originals” or “covers.” I reply that no one really writes originals; composition is a more accurate term since all composers stand on the shoulders of those who have preceded us. New music is crucial to the Jewish concept of redemption; the Talmud teaches that King Chizkiyahu was destined to be Mashiach (the messiah) but was deemed unworthy because he couldn’t sing. According to Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo: “Judaism can’t be passed on without a song and a smile.”
I remain grateful for my gifts and still marvel that I am earning a living in this field for which I am so passionate. The real credit goes to my wife who has to deal with the vicissitudes of a musician’s income! It is a tremendous privilege to create the music that is enjoyed in congregations and carpools wherever I travel. The best part of checking my email is seeing the occasional testimonial of how my songs may have touched a listener. Keep those emails coming! May God give me the strength to continue to play and sing and bring audiences together like I did on that sunny Sunday in Denver.