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Four Ways Improvisational Music Helps Me Appreciate Chassidus

Four Ways Improvisational Music Helps Me Appreciate Chassidus


I’m not sure how many people who became attracted to the chassidic way of life as teens and young adults spent their youth following the Grateful Dead, Phish, or whatever their particular taste in improvisational music might have been. But I do wish I had a dollar for every one of them. Somehow, their summers in RVs and muddy festival campgrounds, listening to transcendental guitar and bass lines, helped prepare them to one day travel the windy pathways of Chassidus.

Chassidus has its own tradition of awesome music and song. Undoubtedly, it is chassidic melody that is the most conducive complement to the study of Chassidus and to the implementation of its teachings in daily life. In my band, Chillent, we improvise with chassidic music too. Listen to this rendition of Al Tira:

Before you get the wrong idea, let me explain what I mean by “improvisational” music. In its usual sense, the word “improvise” might mean “make it up as you go along,” but that is not what I’m referring to here. To the skilled musician, “improvisation” is a discipline to be learned and practiced, an art to be honed and carefully cultivated. Perhaps more than anything else, improvisation is about a set of intricate relationships: between the music and each individual musician; between each musician and the other musicians he or she is playing with; between the collective jam and the new/old music that they are continually (re)creating.

Also, when I talk about “improvisation,” I am not talking about a specific type of music, but about the way the music is played—an approach that combines disciplined receptivity with personal creativity, requiring the musician to submit to a greater whole, merge with it, and give it new voice while preserving its authenticity.

I began immersing myself in chassidic texts back when I was in college. Within those cascades of Hebrew letters, which at first looked like funny shapes pointing in the wrong direction, I slowly discovered a conceptual framework that completely changed the way I viewed the world and other human beings. But it isn’t just the profound ideas that continue to blow me away. The very composition of a chassidic discourse—its structure and flow, the way you approach it, enter it and experience it—seems perfectly calculated to inspire exhilaration and self-transcendence simultaneously.

I love learning Chassidus, and I love playing music. When I learn, or when I play or jam with my band, I’m often struck by the similarities between these two disciplines and the way they seem to mirror each other—with a similarly exhilarating, meaningful and transformative impact. The best way for me to explain what I mean by this, and to explain how this works, is by sharing my observation that a chassidic discourse has all the elements of a great improvisational jam session:

1. “The Head”

This is the thematic part of a song that is not played improvisationally, but sets up everything to come, including tempo, chord progression and the overall feeling of the tune. It’s the recognizable melody that makes you say, “Hey! I know that song!” It’s the solid ground on which to build the improvisation that follows.

In a chassidic discourse (maamar), the opening line is known as the dibbur ha-mat’chil, and it is usually a passage from a canonical text like the Torah, the Talmud or the Zohar. The first paragraph invokes a series of existing discussions and themes related to this passage, and asks a series of questions that have been similarly asked and answered many times before. This opening sets the tone and outlines the motifs that will be explored in depth—with great originality, virtuosity and individuality—in the following paragraphs.

One particularly spectacular example of this is the series of chassidic discourses that begin with the words Basi le-gani (“I came to my garden”) from King Solomon’s Song of Songs. This was the title of the last maamar published by the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, before he passed away in 1950. A year later—and in each consecutive year for the next four decades—the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, began his discourse with the same words, quoting his predecessor’s explanations verbatim before illuminating them with stunning conceptual originality, and in a striking style unique to him.

2. “Receiving”

In an improvisational setting, there’s something transcendent that happens when a musician stops thinking about the notes he is playing, and instead allows the entire collective to flow through him. Scientists have studied this, using electroencephalography to measure the brain activity of improvisational musicians, and found that their brains waves actually synchronize, so that they can mirror the actions of the other group members in their own performance. Let me repeat that. Their brainwaves literally synchronize.

When this happens in a good session, the jam takes on a life of its own. This ability to improvise in synchrony and somehow know where unplanned changes are going to happen can take place only if everybody listens to everyone else. When everybody is in a state of receiving, it’s as if the instruments know what to say on their own. The moment one of the players shifts his focus to his own playing, the magic is lost. At that moment, the music becomes earthbound.

For the Rebbe, saying a maamar was preceded by a deeply meditative preparatory melody, called a niggun, which was sung by the assembled chassidim. The Rebbe would close his eyes, and then deliver the discourse in an even singsong tone that was far removed from his usual animated manner. He wouldn’t look around the room and engage the audience, as he would during his more informal talks, called sichot.

When he would say a maamar, it seemed that the Rebbe was firmly attached Above, “receiving” new chassidic insight from a more supernal realm. He would wind a handkerchief tightly around his hand, as if to retain some connection to the earthly realm into which he was drawing this new revelation. Like an FM radio (to invoke a more familiar example), the Rebbe was transmitting without interference. The Rebbe was engaged in a paradoxical process of self-effacement, so that his self became a conduit for the supernal flow he was tapped into.

But the work of receiving isn’t just for the Rebbe; it’s also for all of us who want to receive something that transcends our own finite selves. To study a maamar is to make sure we understand what’s actually being said. We must constantly be wary of plugging in our own interpretation based on our own biases and pre-existing frames of reference. If we ever think, “I know this already,” that’s the biggest sign that we’re doing it wrong. Cultivating a willingness to listen and to get beyond self-imposed preconceptions is hard work. But it is also immensely rewarding, opening us up to entirely new conceptual vistas, transforming us as individuals, and enabling us to better relate to other people and to the many-hued perspectives they bring to the table.

3. “Soloing”

Although there is a huge collective component to most improvisational music, there is also a focus on the expressiveness and technical mastery of each individual musician. When one player is soloing, the others “lie back” and focus on taking a supportive role while the soloist develops his idea. Although the soloist is given a great deal of freedom to express himself, he must remain within strictly defined parameters set up during “the head.” The greatness of a soloist is in his ability to find multiples means of expressive improvisation within this tightly defined framework, displaying knowledge of the musical tradition by quoting or referencing well-known phrases and melodies from other songs, even as he gives new expression to his own musical voice. Another component of soloing is knowing when to “take the horn out of your mouth”—developing the sensitivity and finesse to say much in as little as possible, and leaving space for other jam partners to tell their own musical stories.

In terms of Chassidus, one aspect I equate with soloing is the way a maamar weaves together quotations and themes from the whole tradition of chassidic learning—which also includes Tanach, Talmud, Midrash and classical Kabbalistic texts—into something that’s strikingly new and innovative. Familiar quotations from well-known sources get flipped on their heads when juxtaposed with one another, and opposing perspectives collide to form new syntheses.

As students and teachers of Chassidus, people inevitably draw upon their own knowledge base and frame of reference to explain complex concepts to themselves and to others. That’s how people make sense of everything they encounter. It’s essential that we “solo,” that we integrate Chassidus into our own lives and use it to reframe our own way of seeing and living in the world. But it is equally essential that we don’t fall into the trap of letting personal biases and preconceptions steer us away from the central purpose and message of the maamar. It’s essential that in interjecting our own voice, we don’t obscure the original point that the maamar is making.

However innovative we are in our own thinking and development of the ideas and themes that emerge—using our personal knowledge and skills to emphasize, articulate, communicate, amplify and build—we must always stay within the framework that the maamar is setting up. The true skill of “soloing” is to make sure that we are getting and channeling what the maamar is actually saying, and that Chassidus itself stays the star.

4. “There are no mistakes”

One of improvisational music’s central tenets is that nobody ever makes a “mistake” in his playing. If one of the musicians does accidentally play a “wrong note,” the other musicians use that as an opportunity to take the music into new and unforeseen territory. In fact, it’s often the accidents that lead to new discoveries. The moment the other musicians intervene to correct a “mistake” is the moment when the ball gets dropped. Instead of reacting negatively to unforeseen situations, a good musician embraces them, so that the listeners won’t even know that something has gone wrong.

Chassidus similarly teaches us that everything that happens is orchestrated by hashgachah pratit—Divine Providence. Every moment of time is a brand-new note in the flow of existence, specifically designed as a unique opportunity in the grand scheme of creation. A person is always in the right moment at the right time. But it is up to us to make the best of it. Sometimes we may encounter people and situations that don’t resonate with our preferred inner rhythms, and on many occasions we make mistakes ourselves. But we should look at these as Divinely prescribed opportunities, not as inconveniences.

We need to stay tuned to the broad flow of hashgachah pratit, and welcome the sudden, unforeseen twists along the way. We need to be able to see beyond the smallness of our own perceptions and aspirations. We need to be willing to participate, to catch the ball and innovate, so that the grand jam flows onward, and ever upward.

Sruli Broocker is an animator, illustrator, producer, director and harmonica player. He currently works at Shmidio, plays with Chillent and teaches at Tzohar Seminary for Chassidus and the Arts.
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Chavi September 1, 2016

This is totally brilliant!
Thank you so much for drawing these parallels and insights.
Great 'synchronized brainwaves ' music! :) Reply

Anonymous Nyc August 4, 2016

Please send more Nice feel Reply

Yaakov Meiyer Beitar elite, Israel July 17, 2016

The nature of music is transformation. The soul, the mind, the body, all transformative with potential growth. Holiness is no different. The Rebbeim were no different. Would they listen to this, absolutely! Did they have time or desire is another story, but transforming holiness and engaging in it's subtleties, that was and still is the point. The niggun called, 'shamil,' for example is a niggun known to be composed by a tribal leader that lived in Russia’s Caucasian Mountains, is one such example.
All that however, is besides the point! The article written by Rabbi Broocker was discussing a parallel between improvisation in music and the mechanisms of a Chassidic meditation, both of which draw strength by using structure to harness and give light to dissociative patterns in order to evolve and morph into a new stream of consciousness.
Well done Sruli! Great jam! Love you and miss you! Reply

Sruli Broocker July 15, 2016

I hear ya, bro! Love to hear more about the music you're making. Reply

Anonymous UK July 15, 2016

What I meant to say is that there is nothing wrong with what you are doing, however would a truly holy person-any of our great Gedolim/Rebbe's listen to this music, the answer is no because they have spent their lives immersed in purity and have no attachement to what is being expressed in the blues jazz reggae etc their struggles are expressed in the niggunim that they 'composed' which is why there is no comparable in the the non Jewish world. We who were exposed/grew up in western culture have lower struggles so the music has more meaning to us, we identify with it, it is meaningful to us but to those on a higher level it is unrefined. The Besht came to a relative in a dream having come back to this world to perform a miracle and commented that had he known how unrefined the world had become that he may not have done so - this was 250 odd years ago, how much more so now! Put it this way I'd rather have a Jewish style/theme L da Vici on my wall than a Jewish style/theme Picasso. Reply

Anonymous UK July 15, 2016

Yes everything is a manifestation of HaShem but somethings we stay away from, I have yet to see pig listed on a kosher menu. Music is somewhat different and unless written for avoda zora or atonal in nature it is muttar to listen to so if it elevates you and helps in your avodas HaShem then great however if one understand the root of the blues, jazz, reggae etc then one understands that they are expresssions stemming from impure sources and represent liberations of impure souls from their particular socio, economic, political and spiritual struggles, so for these people the music enlightened them - see the first chapters in Tanya to understand the distinction. Whilst some niggunim etc were non Jewish in origin they either were originally from pure sources and were adapted by non Jews or they came from a time when people were more elevated and the music contained loftier ideas which were then taken and purified by holy people for us how grew up with impure western influnces ... Reply

Suri katz Brooklyn July 14, 2016

Love it I got totally swept up in your music. I would live to hear more Reply

Chani UK via July 14, 2016

How wonderful! Kol hakavod :) Reply

Zev NY July 14, 2016

BT Deadhead here Thanks to my dad, I grew up listening to the Grateful Dead's live shows. Unfortunately, I'm too young to have ever seen the band in person (Jerry died on 8/9/95, just one day before my second birthday), though I have seen all of the reincarnations and various cover bands over the years.

Pretty sure the Dead's approach to and style of music somehow played a roll in pushing me towards Chabad rather than other forms of yiddishkeit.

Anyway, just remember that "you ain't gonna learn what you don't wanna know," and "in the end there's just a song." Reply

Anonymous Nyc July 14, 2016

Nice playing By

As an aside the real name of the sung is utzo eitzo - which speaks of how Hashem destroys the plans of our enemies.

Liked the playing- as a musician I could appreciate a lot of the stuff going on there - although some of the improvisation sounded like it was either planned out you guys got lucky!

Anyways good job and please post more!

P.s. Would have loved to hear the harmonica more! In my iPhone or sounded quite faint. I assume that's you😉

Zalman Reply

Sruli Broocker Pittsburgh July 13, 2016

Sorry you're not into it because you feel that blues, jazz, reggae, etc are "not holy."

Of course we know from Chassidus that everything that exists is holy in the sense that everything has a G-dly spark inside of it to give it existence - and therefore even "profane" forms of music do have holiness inside of them.

Based on conversations I had with Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh at various lectures he's given - we are supposed to adopt stylings from other musical cultures and apply them to a Jewish milieu.

Look forward to hearing your music! Reply

Anonymous UK July 13, 2016

Very interesting but what a shame that like many western musicians you have brought African pentatonics into a music where they have no place, for the root of genuine Jewish music is holy - it was either written by holy people for holy uses or adapted by them for holy uses whereas blues, jazz, reggae etc has its roots in the profane, because the people who wrote it were profane, it may have elevated them but their lives and thouhts were not holy. It's interesting to note that sadly too many of today's so called Chassidic/frum musicans and singing stars simply do not understand this, which is why their music is shallow, hollow and 'pop' in the sense that it is disposable and of little worth, music that expresses nothing; it's sad that much of traditional non-Jewish folk music never mind classical music supersedes it but that it where we are holding nowadays. On a positive note,excuse the pun, there is music of quality to be found on try all the traditional melodies and niggunim Reply

Sruli Broocker July 11, 2016

Thank you so much! I really can't take full credit for this - Rabbi Eli Rubin and I discussed these ideas at length and he provided the editorial finesse to make this worthy. Reply

Marlon Sobol July 11, 2016

Beautifully written article! One of the best I've read on chabad.or concerning music.It is clear you have humbly immersed yourself in both worlds! May you be blessed to continually grow in chassidis and music as well as continue to make these connections and so gracefully articulate them! Sincerely, Moshe Reply

M. Diane Queens, NY July 11, 2016

This is a fantastic article This is an incredible, well-organized and detailed article. I will read it a few more times. There is so much information in here that addresses ideas I have been thinking about for more than a year - but dealing improvised (abstract or 'free style') visual art growing out of meditations upon some aspect of G-d's Creative Power or Energy. Your writing is marvelous. It has helped me organize my thoughts and ideas more. I was calling what came out of the arm while doing this by another term but actually, what I was describing is what results from Divine Providence on an individual level, as you say. Really, you have helped me tremendously by re-energizing my thinking on this and pointing it in just a little different direction. Thank you so much! By the way, your music is great. I will be looking for more of it on the Internet (or the IoT - whatever it's called these days!) Reply

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