The very beginning
December 07, 2006
We face one another in Bob's small office. In my hands I hold a single sheet of paper on which are printed the first dozen or so trop markings: their written names (each featuring the diacritical melodic marker above or below the word), then a column of blank spaces with the markings filled in, and then the first handful of verses in the book of Bereshit.
Bob sings the first few symbols for me: merkha, tip'kha, et-nachta; merkha, tip'kha, sof-pasuk. Then we sing them together. Then I sing them for him. And again. And again. When we move on to the first lines of Genesis, he stops me from trying words and melody at the same time. Instead I read each word, identify its melodic marker by name, and then sing the notes that go with it. After a few times through, he finally lets me try chanting the first few words. The sung phrase flows off my tongue. I want to bounce up and down with glee.
I first learned trop -- the traditional system of cantillation -- at my parents' breakfast table, from a South African woman named Sarah, more than eighteen years ago. Immediately after I became bat mitzvah, we moved to the Reform congregation in town, where the Torah-reading minhag (custom) is not to chant but rather to read the text in an interlinear fashion, translating each phrase from Hebrew into English so that the congregation can immediately understand what they're hearing. This is my current congregation's minhag, too. When I read Torah in shul, that is what I do. (Except on the High Holidays, though that's another story.)
Learning to read Torah in this way has been a real blessing for me. It has spurred me in my studies of Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. I love unpacking the words, what they mean and what they connote. But I've known for a long time that I wanted to have the ability to leyn -- to chant Torah according to the traditional trop system -- in my liturgical toolbox, too. No one in my program has given me a hard time about not yet knowing this, but it feels increasingly like a basic skill I ought to have, even if it's not one my home community uses on a regular basis. So here I am, doing my best to embrace beginner's mind again.
(One of the upsides of taking Jewish learning seriously: one is never too far from beginner's mind. There's always something to begin learning. I suspect this is good for me.)
Trop is its own paradigm for recording music. The logic is entirely unlike the system of lines and dots on staff paper with which so many vocalists and instrumentalists (myself included) are comfortable. Each trop symbol connotes a set of chanted notes, but many of them change in conjunction with the other symbols near them, which means that meaning arises in context. The melodic phrases fit, and sometimes inform, the syntax of the text. (For instance, the symbol called et nachta denotes the end of a clause or phrase: helpful both as a singing tool, and in parsing a long sentence.) Some hear the musical phrases as a kind of commentary on the text, shaping the way we understand the words.
It's incredibly cool, and I'm happy that I'm (re)learning it the old-fashioned way, aurally and orally from a teacher rather than a book. I can't really think about the vast road that lies ahead -- mastering the trop for chanting Torah; then the trop for chanting Haftarah (selections from the Prophets); then the trop for the each of the megillot; then the trop for the special poetry sections, and so on -- because the sheer amount I don't yet know overwhelms me. For now, I'll do my homework (practicing the symbols I learned today until I can chant them easily, without having to think first), and be glad I've begun.
(If chanting Torah is something that interests you, by the by, and you're not already reading On Chanting, by all means, subscribe immediately! Today, predictably, I'm especially charmed -- and inspired -- by Alto Artist's dozen or so posts tagged learning to chant...)