Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Davening Do's

A few weeks back, I posted what turned out to be a popular comment destination for this blog — my list of top davening pet peeves. Now that I've let you all know (some of) what I think goes wrong, I thought I'd post about what I think goes right. What are some of the practices of a good shaliah tzibbur (prayer leader)?

Note that, as in my previous post, I'm directing most of my comments towards leaders in certain types of congregations. Specifically, those where the leader and congregation mostly go through the service together, and there is singing. Many of them will be irrelevant to congregations where the entire service is mumbled as individuals, and the sha"tz's role is minimal.

A good sha"tz:

Leads the congregation

Firstly, and, naturally, this means that the leader must be loud enough for the entire congregation to hear. A low-voiced sha"tz is overpowered by the congregation. It occasionally leads to awkward pauses where the congregation waits and listens carefully, trying to figure out what their leader is doing. Secondly, this means that the sha"tz should be thinking one step ahead of where he/she is. It's usually not good when the congregation has to wait for the leader to figure out what he/she is doing next.

Reads the congregation

At the same time, a good sha"tz should be aware of how the congregation is reacting to his/her leading. If the congregation seems to be in to singing, then more singing is appropriate. If it's past everyone's dinner or lunchtime, it's time to start mumbling. Alternatively, if the congregation is all staring blankly at upside-down siddurim or the wall, the service should be more interactive.

Chooses tunes carefully

Choice of tunes is a compromise. If one chooses tunes that are used by the congregation week after week, one knows that the congregation will be familiar with them and even those who aren't as comfortable in Hebrew will be able to sing along. On the other hand, the same tunes repeated regularly is an invitation to boredom. So, a sha"tz might try to introduce new tunes. The danger is that the congregation will not be able to learn quickly enough, will lose the sense of familiarity with the service, or will not follow along. I think that it's reasonable for a good sha"tz to choose a small fraction of new tunes per week, and leave the rest as what the congregation would be familiar with. That way, the congregation can maintain both interest and familiarity. In a related note, a good leader ...

Gains the confidence of the congregation

This is especially important while going through parts of the service with which the congregation is not familiar (such as new tunes). It is tempting to start off, realize the congregation is not following, and quickly switch to something with which the congregation is familiar. The congregation will immediately pick up on the familiar, but, will lose confidence in the leader. The next time he/she tries a new tune, they will be reluctant to follow along because it would be expected that the leader will change it when nobody follows along.


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The best time to introduce unfamiliar tunes is some time before the congregation will need to know them. Starting it as a niggun earlier in the service works (if the congregation is into that sort of thing) or maybe just teaching it at Friday night dinner for use on Saturday morning. If there are a few people who know it well, one can seed the congregation with those people, making sure that they are well distributed and not all sitting in a cluster.
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