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How To Play Klezmer
Learn To Play Klezmer Music-The Art Of Klezmer
It is quite pretentious to pretend writing an article or an essay that will teach you "How To Play Klezmer".
There are no magic formula which will make you a klezmer player overnight. I will however throw some crumbs on the
way, that will hopefully put you in the right path. The klezmer is ambivalent, it can be pure joy and exultation,
it can be deep sorrow or gloomy distress, it is the reflect of a culture, a tradition, and it bears the burden of
the tormented history of the Jewish people.
When you play klezmer or every so-called "ethnic music" ( I don't like this term because it is reducing), you
are the spokesman, the ambassador of a whole culture. One may ask a naive question, is it mandatory to be Jewish to
play Klezmer, the answer is absolutely not, The same way, you don't have to be Spaniard to play Flamenco or French
to play Debussy. Once again, music and klezmer are universal language and once released in he air belong to the
mankind, not to a particular community.
The klezmer is an aural tradition, it was transmitted in the old days from generation to generation, from
fathers to sons, sometimes from grand-fathers to grand-sons. There was no written scores of the klezmorim
repertoire, just the memory of the musicians. The key is to listen and try to impregnate yourself with the soul of
the music, the mood, the inflections, chords changes, the harmony, the melody.
The melody is indeed the pillar that support the edifice of klezmer, the Hebrew term is nigun, the art of
klezmer is the art of nigun. Without a nice melody there is no klezmer. The melody is the story, when you play, you
tell people a story, with an introduction, a development, some variations on the main theme and finally a
conclusion. But the conclusion must not be the mere end of the story for the listener, it is rather the beginning
of a reflection.
The term of reflection has several meanings it refers to a thinking process, an introspection but also to the
fact that the audience is reflecting back to the musician, the music is not a monologue, it is a conversation, an
exchange. Playing music and particularly klezmer is an act of love between humans. As musicians and human being,
always bear that in mind when you play, it will improve the spiritual level of your musicality and
The silence is an important aspect of music, silence is music, listen to the silence, use the silence to produce
The art of klezmer is not a bunch of abstract techniques to learn and then to apply like a disciplined student.
When you begin to play klezmer forget about all the rules, the "laws" and try to feel and sing. If you cannot sing
it you can't play it. Klezmer is a language, an universal language, the process of learning klezmer must be
apprehended like any other language learning process. Listen, imitate, repeat and then interpret.
Although books and theory can be useful and enriching, listen to klezmer musicians is the only way to learn the
true core of the language. A good place to start is to listen to the the recordings of the great klezmer players of
the past, Dave Tarras, Naftule Brandwein, Shloymke
Beckerman, Abe Schwartz, Max Epstein and try to memorize the melodies or the accompaniment of the different parts
according to your instrument. Before blowing your horn, sing alone with the tune, mimicking the way the musician is
playing with the right accents, dynamics, articulation, ornamentation.
Sing, sing, sing!
The chant and cantillation of the Hazan (the cantor of the synagogue) have greatly influenced the klezmorim. I
cannot emphasize more the importance of the singing element in klezmer music, Giora Feidman says that you don't
play an instrument, you sing through it, the instrument is a mere amplifier of your inner voice.
Try to assimilate progressively, naturally, then when you master the blueprint, add your own touch, play the way
you feel, freely and effortlessly.
It is not necessary to be a virtuoso to play klezmer, although a sturdy classical education is a great help.
Klezmer is not showing off your brilliant techniques but sharing your inner voice and feelings.The klezmer like the
baroque music use what is called embellishment, ornamentation which "decorate" the melody. There is a tendency,
particularly for the beginners to exaggerate and overdo with a plethora of ornamental elements which kill the
melody. As we already pointed out, the melody is the foundation of the building, the ornamentation serve the
melody. Less is better.
The traditional Klezmer piece has an harmonic phrase structure and generally the piece is divided into several
sections, A-B-C-D, (from two to four sections), and from section to section there is a relative key change, major
to minor or vice versa.
After the masters of the past, listen to the more contemporary klezmer musicians, Giora Feidman , Andy Statman, David Krakauer, Margot Leverett,
Helmut Eisel, Kurt Bjorling, Joel Rubin, Itshak
Perelman, Alicia Svigals, Michael Alpert, Don Byron and many others.
Don't forget that originally and intrinsically klezmer is a dance music and even if nowadays klezmer is played
in concert halls, the dance element must be present. The Jewish society of Eastern Europe was ghettoized,
ethnically segregated and religious, in fact the only Jews who had a direct access to the outside world were the
klezmorim, who were traveling from town to town and were exposed to external cultural influences. The native
existing folk music (Romanian, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, German) had an impact on the
Jewish music, and on the other hand the klezmer has influenced the local music and folklore as well.
So broaden your scope of listening to more music styles, gypsy, oriental, jazz, blues, tango, rock, pop,
classical, every music is legitimate and is one piece of a universal language. There are the words of a global