In the Beginning – and Beginning Again

A Cantorial Soloist’s personal account of reclaiming her voice for the bimah.

by Rowna Sutin Soloist for Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh, PA

A few months ago, I was asked to write an article about singing from the Bimah. I began to reminisce about how I got here, and how I plan to stay where I am. The following is my story:

In 1999 I was asked by Mimi Lerner, a former member of the Guild of Temple Musicians, of blessed memory, if I would like to share some of her duties as cantorial soloist at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. Mimi and I were classmates at Queens College in NYC each majoring in vocal studies. After college, Mimi went on to have a glorious international career, whose highlights were singing at the Met in NY and at La Scala. I had pursued a career as well. I had sung with The Boston Lyric Opera Company, traveling opera companies, had regular church jobs, and did solo oratorio work. My voice category was, in general, a lyric soprano, but it also could have been listed as soubrette. I was Musetta in a production La Boheme, which really played to my strength.

In 1984 we moved to Brazil where it was hard to get work, and on returning to Boston, where I had had the coveted job as soloist with Emmanuel Church, I found that I had lost my place in line, and had to start all over. I decided right then and there to give up singing. What was the point? I was already 38 – how many years did I have left to portray cute young maids? So, from 1985 until 1999 I didn’t sing. Not in the shower. Not in the car. Not to my kids. It was over.

Now I was given this amazing opportunity. I asked Mimi to give me a little time to rework my voice before I had to audition for the Rabbi, She got me a few weeks – not enough time! Somehow, with a little practice, I was able to get my voice in auditionable condition and was hired to lead the musical portions of the services at Rodef. I had to start at the beginning to build a technique, and it took several years to get all the pieces in place, plus acquire knowledge about the Hebrew language, the meanings of the prayers, and find my own style to present all of this to the congregation.

My first practice sessions revealed the extent of my vocal problems, which were basically threefold: The worst was that I had a “hole” in my voice. (Special note – for those who are unfamiliar with the following of naming notes, middle C on the piano is called C4. A C the next octave up is C5. Below is C3.) From G4 to D5 I could not even find a note. My chest voice stopped at G4 and my head voice appeared at Eflat 5, but the in between notes would not come out. I decided that no matter what, I would not sing ANY notes but those. Somehow, I would just sing them, any way I could. I was able to access my head voice, and bring the notes down to the G4 and eventually, I was beginning to bring my head voice down lower. (As an aside, 11 years later, I can perform a Bflat 3 in head voice, a low note for a soprano.)

The repertoire I was given was all written in keys too low for me. Transposing them up was not an option for a variety of reasons. I had to sing in a centered place that was not natural for me. This was both bad and good, but mainly good. The bad part, was that the natural beauty of my voice, the bread and butter, was from D5 on up. But congregational singing doesn’t exist there. One of the last notes a congregation can comfortably sing is a D5. The lowering of the center of my voice began, and I had to work hard on getting a good head voice down low. The mixture of head and chest didn’t work. I had to develop a strong head voice.

The second vocal problem was quickly fixed. Now, I didn’t sound very operatic. I had lost the vibrato that came naturally to me in my youth, and my voice had a more “Broadway” or “folksy” sound. I decided that this could work, and elected not to remake my voice into the classical instrument it was before. I was content to have my voice sound more accessible to the congregants, but still have some refined sound to it. It is this approach I use today, and it works well for me. This was part of finding my own voice.

The third vocal problem began to show itself when I had to perform music that was written by composers who demanded solid technique from their singers. This technique was going to be more evident in solos pieces (anthems after the Rabbis’ sermons) and on Festivals and High Holy Days. There were runs to work on, transitions to smooth out, better breath control, and exacting pronunciation to evidence. The runs came back fairly quickly. But they did require time. I had to build up my breath support and slowly work on scales and vocal leaps. The following link is an audible example of the technical skills a trained sounding cantor will need for good solo work:

Another challenge is finding the right music that suits the individual cantor or cantorial soloist, when presenting a solo piece. For Rodef’s High Holy Days services, we use a lot of presentational music, and I try to find compositions that suit my style, meaning, not too classical, not too folksy, but rich in melody and musical variety

The texts of the prayers were another challenge that had to be dealt with in a variety of ways. Accents fall on the wrong syllables, depending on your dialects (Ashkenazic or Sephardic). Some are easily fixed, and others cannot be fixed without reworking the entire prayer. In those cases, I just sing what is written on the page. In a following series of articles I will address vocal issues using specific prayers and compositions to illustrate the problems and, hopefully, successful solutions.

Each cantorial soloist must find the right combination of vocal technique, and presentational skills. In addition, the ability to exhibit a firm understanding of the Hebrew texts will allow any singer to communicate properly with the congregation, thereby fulfilling what must be a “mitzvah” of doing a good deed.

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