In our role as educators we are constantly searching for ways to engage our students in the learning process, to offer them tools for their personal growth both as individuals and as members of society.
Our educational approach must include music. The ultimate goal, which reaches beyond the school years, must be for us to “sing together.” Over two centuries ago, the Vilna Gaon, whose teachings emphasized Jewish study and scholarship, said that peace and redemption can only come through achdut Yisrael, unity of the Jewish people. According to the Vilna Gaon, the only way for us to achieve achdut is by singing together.
The unique way that people process music opens up new pathways to understanding. Beyond the words of a song, which attract the listeners and connect them to the message, there is an additional power inherent in a melody which can access deeper parts of our minds and hearts. What can this power do for us? Music allows us to experience ourselves first and foremost as members of this large orchestra called klal Yisrael. Can we play together? Are we listening to each other? Can I appreciate the harmony which you bring to the arena?
The “power of music” is more than a cliché.
Music is healing. Music brings us to a place of caring and a willingness to share; a place beyond the limits of language. This is an exemplary way of expressing ahavat Yisrael, love for my fellow Jew.
Music is bridging. Careful listening to music can serve as a gateway for learning how to listen to each other in a more complete way that goes beyond words. Deep listening is an important skill in building empathy. Even more so today, with texting as the preferred method of communication among youth, the kind of listening that music education develops is vital for cultivating healthy relationships among peers.
Music brings us together. Music serves as a vehicle for uniting people who may otherwise have very different mindsets and opinions. This for example, is one of the lessons we learn from harmony. Two people can sing two totally different notes and yet sound perfect together. This is the key to creating achdut Yisrael, Jewish unity.
When learning is combined with music, the student’s experience is branded onto his/her heart to remain there as a source of joy, connection and knowledge for future growth. When we learn to truly listen, we hear both the surface information and the deeper underlying meaning of the melody. Thus, I listen both to others, and more importantly, to myself. If I learn how to properly and humbly love myself, this gives me a basis for learning to love and care about you. Ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha, Ani Hashem—You should love your friend like yourself, I am God: I must first learn how to love myself so that I can appreciate what loving is about and how it feels. Then I can properly teach myself how to love you. Music and listening offer us the chance to open ourselves up to the application of this critical Jewish teaching.
So how does one begin to introduce these deep concepts of learning life’s lessons through music?
Following are some workshop ideas and techniques which promote the goals of internalizing Judaism through music, creating harmony, understanding “the other” and bridging the gaps which exist in Jewish society.
• Offer students the tools to express themselves by composing a new song together. Engage in a process to encourage listening to one another. This promotes trust and the ability to work together as a team. Examine Jewish sources regarding the topic of the lyrics which the students are using for their new song. Allow them to express their feelings on the topic and share their personal reactions to the sources.
• Use Jewish life and ritual specifically to teach listening skills. Why am I commanded to “listen” to the shofar? Why is this basic God-given miracle of hearing such an important force in my life? What is the importance of hearing a friend? What is the difference between hearing words and hearing sounds? Once again, students explore resonant sources, including quotes from Tanakh such as “be silent and hear” (Devarim 27:9) and “Shema Yisrael” (Devarim 6:4). The use of melodies and singing together are great triggers to get students thinking about what they just “heard.”
• The study of music can also help students recognize the importance of being a part of something greater than themselves, being a part of the “klal,” the Jewish community in general. And it can be a great tool to develop connections with the concept of a Jewish homeland, the Land of Israel. For example, in the study of the works of accomplished Israeli composers, students can come to appreciate the composers’ love for their homeland, the expression of their Jewish identity found in their lyrics and their views of Israeli lifestyle and culture.
When I started to sing in professional musical ensembles I was blessed to learn from a seasoned veteran Hollywood musician. He taught me that the key to playing in a band is to know that “less is more.” In other words, sacrifice yourself for the good of the whole. May we all be blessed to share this important lesson with our students using music as the teaching tool for the lessons of Jewish life.