Music & Simchas: The Jewish War On Music

(As featured in the 5 Towns Jewish Times,  11/15/18)
By Gershon Veroba

Music holds a very odd position with the Jewish community. Both feared and worshipped in the more orthodox and chassidic circles, Jews often maintain a strange relationship with music. On one hand it is considered a holy conduit at the shabbos table or in Shul, bestowing what you would think is a respectable position in Jewish life. However, many of those same people consider it a waste of time to create a dedicated music program in school, other than teaching a song or two to the children for differing reasons. They also fear its power, criticizing and even prohibiting musical styles and audiences seemingly not within the proper sphere.

Music In schools: Not for us? Why?
In yeshiva, the 1st, 2nd and 3rd graders may need a song for a play or assembly, the 4th and 5th graders learn the song either to perform in a choir or simply to kill a half hour while their regular teachers take a break. 6th, 7th and 8th graders? Well, if you can get their attention, you better have something exciting ready to keep them engaged. 

As a teacher, I shared cartoons with my students, discussing how Carl Stalling of Warner Brothers or Scott Bradley of MGM used their genius to tell a story and maximize emotion in a 7-10 minute span of entertainment. They learned the history of how those cartoons preceded the big movie in theaters, how Stalling invented the “click-track” and how he used rhythm as a grid to the movie action. Fascination, discussion and engagement followed, the time flew and they wondered why they wasted so much time previously learning useless songs they didn’t like.  So did I.

Meanwhile, after hours, the yeshiva’s custodians kept on ripping down the decorative music notes and instrument posters I hung up for atmosphere and discussion. State testing ejected us from my larger classroom to a different room downstairs with a broken piano, no electrical outlets, uncomfortable bench seating and an echo seemingly imported from the Swiss Alps. I didn’t even need the piano since the kids and myself were expecting to watch the Houston Symphony Young People’s Concert video we were looking forward to. Kids loved those videos and we talked about them afterward, discussing the colors and moods of the classical music or even movie soundtracks they heard.

In short, the yeshiva saw the music teacher as a glorified baby sitter, but the kids got the opportunity, for instance, to be assigned one or two Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoons for the week to discuss what you heard in the music. How cool is that?

Meanwhile, public schools go on trips to musical events, learn basic music reading and have band practice for parades and the big game. It’s how so many of the musicians I know learned their instrument. For the Salute to Israel parade, we hire non-Jewish schools or professionals for bands, instead of our own.  The few yeshiva parents that saw value in it, often came to me for private lesson referrals, but those were the few. It just wasn’t a “thing.”  Music wasn’t much more than the radio in the car or MP3’s and free downloads. No involvement or understanding. Those days are not gone and we still suffer today.

The religious road block
Not long ago, the tragic and permanent damage of the “takanas”, edicts and teachings from rabbis who mostly knew little about the culture they were condemning, approached music like gun control. They declared bans on bands of a certain size, music of certain styles (which they were entirely unqualified to define) and yet left it allowable to hire singers for thousands more, badchanim (chassidish comedians) and extra musicians for mitzvah dances that went on for hours, inviting guest lists of hundreds, without any regard to family or friendship. The ripple effect changed the band business permanently, depriving musicians, Jewish and not, of making a living that had previously worked fine. The music was the bad guy.

The shocking irony is when people with that outlook say “the music makes the wedding.” Suddenly, music has value, unless they really believe that shouting out passages of tehillim and gemara will make people dance even without musical notes or instruments. Over time, I came to understand that music contained so much volatility, that it was either “you’re with us or you’re against us.” 

If the music didn’t serve a specifically holy purpose, it was wrong. Songs about life and feelings were a waste of time, unless it reflected a mitzvah or talmudic parable. Happiness was also rarely conveyed without contrasting it to tragedy and suffering.

Only recently have we seen more religious people of all ages opening their minds to broad styles of music and seriously learning an instrument. The bandstand that has long been the home of less-religious Jews and non-Jews because most orthodox simply didn’t have those priorities. Facing the fear has resulted in new revolutions in Jewish music. Yarmulkas, beards and peyus are becoming regular sights on serious bandstands and these musicians are not slouches by any means. Still, a rare sight outside of weddings and Jewish videos.

Lyrics! We’ve never been allowed by religious leaders to compose lyrics in Hebrew, know as holy language. I was threatened and had plates thrown at me for singing at some weddings without the right accent. Hebrew? Don’t even think about it. The lyrics that were accepted could only be from prayer and Torah. Since the phrases are fixed and done, you needed to find whatever natural rhythm they suggested to create a melody. Fitting it into decent melodies or vice-versa often required mis-pronunciation and repetition. The word “oy” changed its role from emotional expression to syllabic filler, used to make it fit by force, rather than by artistic lyrical flow.

Now, relatively open minds have allowed composed Hebrew lyrics, though the audience still unconsciously keeps their minds only slightly ajar because they want to  check first who sings them. Famous Chassidism or yeshivish singers still get the advantage, providing more acceptable pronunciation and context, but we’re making progress.

The band business: Getting a better rap?
Of course, I’m in the band business and I try to pour as much of my musical life as I can into each gig I play. As I’ve explained here before, my experience is what makes my product and that has taken a lot of work to perfect. The life of a Jewish musician implied lower income, bad influences from “da goyim,” music that that had no value if not connected directly to holiness by involving Torah or prayer, not worth distracting from “better” priorities in life. 

This added to a disrespect all musicians have experienced. A quick version of an old joke: Arriving at the gates of heaven, a bunch of musicians individually approach to request entry. The jazz trumpet player admits a dark past but uncompromised dedication to his instrument and creativity…”Welcome, sir, right this way.” The concert pianist walks up, cites his many performances to royalty and fine audiences around the world… “Honored to have you, come in.” The wedding musician approaches and begins to describe his life, but gets interrupted, “I’m sorry…you’re with the band?”  “Yes, I am…” “OK…The kitchen entrance is around that corner. Move away from the door, please. Next…?”

My best clients are those who respect music, even love it, seeing it as an all-important source of expression, celebration, inspiration, emotion of all extremes, able to convey it all, often in ways you can never duplicate through any other method. You can benefit by listening or playing. Even if you don’t consider yourself able to play an instrument, you can respond to music in ways many musicians may admire. The possibilities are endless.

My message I ask you to revisit you love for music and in encouraging your family to do the same. Whether you already love music or don’t care, music has an infinite amount of love to return. If you listen to the radio and enjoy certain kinds of music, then you are already on your way and should to pay attention to its potential value in your life.  If you see it as dangerous tool, which many religious people do, that does not mean you should avoid it, like so many have.  Find a way for it to serve you, your family and your world in your own way. Like gun control, it’s not the instrument, it’s what you do with it.

Please post comments on this article at facebook.com/gmajorevents or at www.blog.veroba.net.
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Gershon Veroba has lived in the 5 Towns/Far Rockaway area for most of his life. A producer, songwriter, musician and singer since childhood,  Gershon has been featured by most major wedding bands since the 1970’s. As a solo artist, he’s performed on stage and in the studio with virtually all the top Jewish performers. He has produced & appeared on over a hundred albums, including over a dozen of his own and in stage appearances around the world.

GV’s company, G-Major Events, provides full event planning and music services for personal & corporate occasions. It is a division of his production company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp, providing audio and video production and performance training.

He served as owner & editor-in-chief of the 5 Towns’ first Jewish Community Magazine until 1995 and is now a contributing writer for 5TJT.   Visit gmajorevents.com for information, videos & social media. For more on Gershon, visit www.veroba.net.

Music & Simchas – “Why Is It So Loud?”

(As featured in the 5 Towns Jewish Times,  11/1/18)
By Gershon Veroba

Unlike much of the music business, this question has unfortunately not changed at all over the years. Very often, impatience and anger is the reaction to loud and noisy sounds, which has actual scientific support, since sounds above certain levels can physically result in accelerated heart rate, raised blood pressure and other biological changes.

Accomplishing good sound is not always simple, so both guests and performers need to acquire some understanding from each other. I have watched many bandleaders try their best to please people, but I’ve also seen some that didn’t care enough. Since people tend to jump on the negative more than the positive, many treat the band as an opponent before they even hear them.

The Civil War of Music
The expectation of dangerously loud music is nothing new. Clients continue to hire bands they fully expect to be loud, so much so that they hand out earplugs in pretty little baskets. In my opinion, this is not charming, it’s ludicrous.

I’m always amazed to see a client hire a band they are positive will deliver bad sound, while there are so many great bands that care.

Bands like these foster resentment and distrust from guests and potential clients.  As a result, it makes it harder for me to fully earn trust from a client who is interested in our work.

Even after being hired, innate distrust causes clients to often arm themselves against a perceived “musical abuse,”  questioning musician choices, making conclusive decisions from trends and rumors or by reducing band size, which ironically can increase sound problems, as I will explain shortly.

Recently, a client called me from a large wedding where a large band was apparently performing very loudly, though there was a sound company. Of course, I wasn’t there to see the actual problem, but the bottom line was that he was angry. He said he escaped to the lobby with a headache and he called me to reassure him that this would not happen at his daughter’s upcoming wedding. 

I actually have a cousin who’s so fed up with loud music he enjoys antagonizing the band as soon as he walks in the room by walking up and showing them his earplugs. No “looking forward to hearing you” or anything, just the earplugs. He also has hearing problems, which often include frequency imbalances that make certain instruments and music very irritating to the listener. Unfortunately, some listeners are poised to blame it all on the band, rather than on the sensitivities of their hearing condition.

As a musician, I wear earplugs because I’m always inside the band and on a constant basis. People can benefit from this as well. If you work in the city or around construction, travel mass transit, attend shows, listen to music in the car or on headphones, then your ears deserve a rest, even when the band is within acceptable sound boundaries.

This is an issue that requires understanding on both sides. A band certainly has to bring the skills necessary to operate the sound through the PA (Public Address) system with all today’s digital options that enhance the sound so people can enjoy the music. A PA that is improperly operated can result in sound that irritates or even scares people, since hearing loss is a clear issue. For the most part, the responsibility for proper sound is on the band’s shoulders.

Volume may not be the problem.
Now, wait… Hear me out. This is where the core of the misunderstandings occur. For most events with bands of up to 6 or 7 musicians, the bandleader has most often been the sound engineer. A very hard job, since he’s already playing his instrument, choosing songs, leading the band and helping manage the event. Now he’s running the PA system as well. When a sound complaint comes, I’ve watched less-technically-able bandleaders in the past either tell musicians to play softer (not easily done) or they immediately lower the overall volume slider on the PA, only to find the sound is still not good. Pretty soon the band has been lowered so much, we can hear the guests’ feet hitting the dance floor.

When the sound is “killing” you, it is most likely the tone that is the actual problem, not the volume.

Tone is controlled by an equalizer (“EQ”), which is simply an elaborate tone control. Your stereo has “bass” and “treble” knobs,  which is 2 “bands” of tone control. Others have 3, 10, 15, 31 or more, targeting more precise frequencies (see photo for a quick lesson).  Knowing how to use an EQ and detecting which frequencies are affecting the sound requires certain  listening skills, technical knowledge and experience.

Most people can’t tell why the sound isn’t good, nor should they. It’s what we’re paid to do as professionals, but even some musicians can’t tell what’s making the music sound “off.”  When the violin sounds like a siren, when the vocalist feels like he’s screaming in your ear, when the bass drum hurts your stomach or if the bass notes are making your head hum, lowering the volume may not solve much.

Special effects are not always cool.
Another culprit is often an over-use of the reverb (echo) or delay (repeating) effects. Some instrumentalists, leaders and vocalists insist on it to making them sound more polished and impressive, but if those effects are not customized properly, their sound can often linger too long, causing notes to collide with each other, clouding up the music. This can be very irritating on the brain when a person naturally wants to dance, sing or listen along, but cannot because the song has become audiologically “blurred.” When you hear people say “this isn’t music, it’s noise,” they probably have no idea how technically correct they are.

When technology takes control
Clients and musicians have done their best to benefit financially from newer technologies providing large sound with fewer instruments, but that comes at a price. I’ve used the word “skill” and “experience” a lot and for good reason. We use these attributes the best we can to satisfy our clients and their guests, while their general confidence in technology’s ability to compensate for a band’s shortcomings actually makes the job more difficult, so
if we are good at what we do and we work a little harder, the music survives. 

Clients need to understand a basic fact when planning a band. The size of the hall, the type of music planned and the amount of people in the audience requires a band of a certain size. This provides a natural presence that requires only a little help from technology to enhance the the instruments enough to circulate it through the room. This is why it’s called “sound reinforcement,” since it simply reinforces the sound that’s already there. It’s also why the big bands of the 40’s and 50’s sounded so great even with minimal amplification.

My observation is that problems often begin once the band’s optimal size is reduced.

I understand that we can’t all afford to have the full sized band we wish for, but if the recommended size of your band is eight, you cannot make a 6-piece band sound like 8 without some kind of help. When the band’s proper size is compromised, so is its natural presence and the sound it was originally intending to provide. To compensate for the missing sound, we add artificial amplification with the PA. This increases the need for artificial volume and tone control. The more the sound is amplified, the more crucial that control becomes.  On our bandstand, guitar amps are placed on tilt stands so the sound hits the player ears before the guests’, so if it’s too loud, he’ll be the first to know. Without the tilt stand, the guitar player can’t sense the sound he’s sending to the guests, unless he has ears in his knees.

In the last 50 years, the influence of rock and pop music has brought more originality, expression and excitement to Jewish music, but with that came the growing role of amplification. Before that, acoustic (non-electric) guitars, basses and keyboards didn’t require it and drums were rarely given more than one or two microphones, if any.

Increased control over amplification is why you see more professional sound companies at weddings today. Their engineers are proficient at studio-level parametric equalizers, multi-band compressors, delay, reverb, microphone placement, in-ear monitoring systems for all musicians, multi-track recording, 32 to 50+ channel sound mixers and more, supervised every minute with iPads for remote adjustment as room activities and crowd flow changes. This provides full time control and accurate sound, even at lower volumes. It also has the potential to register on the Richter scale, so with power comes responsibility and that requires experience, consideration and customer preferences..

For a drum set alone, a sound company configures as many as 10 microphones to control and tailor the drums for concert and studio standard sound.

Each horn, violin, voice, keyboard and guitar get a channel. If you pay attention, you may even catch a band that has no amplifiers. This happens when the decision is made to plug everyone into the main sound system, so every instrument can be controlled from one place. This method still has its opponents, like guitarists, who often rely on their favorite amplifier to accurately deliver their performance and the guitar’s unique sound in a way the PA system may not be able to duplicate.

With increased control comes increased chaos.
Skilled sound engineers can only work with they are told and what they are given. Even in a large band with mic’d drums, I have often shut down microphones on the guitar amp and on the trumpets because the natural sound was sufficient.
Using judgement for each instrument is essential. Many pickup devices violinists use for connecting to the PA sound like nails on a chalkboard, so we set up regular microphones. Setup is at least 3 hours before the event, so sound can be tested per instrument.

Some of my best customers were impressed more by well-controlled sound than our musical performance, which is a bit disappointing, but sensible. I’d like my artistry to be appreciated, but “it’s all in the delivery.”

Many people come prepared to hate the band because of a previous band experience, which is a mistake. You are more in control than you may realize. Whether shopping or listening, take the time to discuss their views on music and sound control.  They need to be able to identify with your sensibilities, as well as the concern for your guests, who you know best.

If you’ve enjoyed the band’s sound before, then they certainly have proven the ability to control it. If you didn’t like the sound, you can ask them about it. If the response in unsatisfactory, you can always hire someone else who will give you your money’s worth. 🎶
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Gershon Veroba has lived in the 5 Towns/Far Rockaway area for most of his life. A producer, songwriter, musician and singer since childhood,  Gershon has been featured by most major wedding bands since the 1970’s. As a solo artist, he’s performed on stage and in the studio with virtually all the top Jewish performers. He has produced & appeared on over a hundred albums, including over a dozen of his own and in stage appearances around the world.
GV’s company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp, provides audio and video production worldwide, vocal training and now features G-Major Events, an event planning and music company for personal & corporate occasions.
He served as owner & editor-in-chief of the 5 Towns’ first Jewish Community Magazine until 1995 and is now a contributing writer for 5TJT.   Visit gmajorevents.com for information, videos & social media. For more on Gershon, visit www.veroba.net.

Music & Simchas – Hiring A Band, Part II: 7 Big Myths & One Big Truth

(As featured in the 5 Towns Jewish Times,  10/18/18)
By Gershon Veroba

Last time I mentioned some realities and misconceptions people have when shopping for a band. Many of these perspectives apply to hiring just about any wedding professional since, as I say constantly, your event is different and it should be.

Finding the perfect comparison of musical quality from band to band can be a waste of time, since most bands are good and most people don’t really know why. The style, experience and service behind the music are what serve you, so it can make or break the entire music program at your event. Hiring the wrong people and ignoring the right ones happens more than you realize. I’ve heard them for years from people who said, “if I knew better, I would have hired that photographer or that band or that caterer.” The myths are the first stages in long term mistakes, certainly in the music business. These are just a few:

Myth #1: “All bands are the same”
Yes and no. One overall thing to remember…

Most of the major bands you’ve seen and heard of over the years, recently or otherwise, are all good. All of them.

From one to the other, they may not have the same sound, the same customer service or priorities, broader or narrower repertoires, or they may have a more or less consistent group of musicians, but they have the ability and New York area musician-power to make quality music. So, you probably don’t need to know whether they’re “good” or not. They probably are. The question is how well the musicians are matched to each other and how well that band is prepared and matched to the event. That goes beyond just musical talent.

Orchestras can sound similarly good or bad to the average non-musician, but each has their own sound, often intentionally.  Consistency makes a difference, though. You’d like to know the band you heard is the band you hired, and that’s not simply that exact group of musicians, but how it’s operated. The drummer or guitarist may differ, but the product should be similar each time.

Bands put together hastily for each gig with little or no previously-developed team method will not have defined a particular sound, so if you liked them last night, you may be wondering why they sounded so horrible 3 months ago.

This inconsistency frequently shows up in other things like sound control, preparation, repertoire, appearance and certainly in excitement. Major bands aren’t impervious to these, but at least they have the personal and experience to avoid it, if they wish to. That’s where trust is required, but I’ll get to that in a moment…

Myth #2: “First ask how much they charge.”
All bands have the same basic expenses for the same booking, so any price differences between bands are usually adjustable. Simply put, there is no price yet until you determine the many factors involved in your event: Musicians, singer, sound system, etc. My personal advice to prospective clients is always to determine first if it’s the band you want, then you can invest time with them about your event and determining an acceptable price. If that price doesn’t work for you, changing bands is probably not the best solution. You have the band you want, so ask them to restructure a few things to create further savings and coming closer to your budget. Chances are, starting over with another with Band-Y would result in a different configuration you could have gotten with Band-X, if you only asked. Be honest with them and they’ll probably work with you until your happy.

Myth #3-A: “YouTube is the way to shop for a band.”
Fact is, video is a way to hear how a band sounds on a video. Videos taken with smartphones, for example, have a tiny, one-microphone sound of a band and the room it’s in, echo, dancing feet, crowd noises and all. This can give you a quick snapshot of the fun, the jam & the dance at that moment, but not an accurate idea of what that band will do for you in the big picture. It simply doesn’t capture enough of the true sound and excitement experienced in-person for you to judge their value to your event. Smartphone posts get some great response, but they rarely generate new clients. I love the ones I have, but it doesn’t present us properly to strangers without their seeing other more structured videos we made or having actually been there.

Many of my videos and my band’s videos are professionally shot and edited. There…I said it. 

Polished, professional videos are created with the sound taken directly from the sound equipment, edited professionally, repairing mistakes in the playing or singing and adding accurate-but-simulated echo (or “reverb”), to make it sound live and natural. Let’s understand one thing here…If the band isn’t good, all that studio work is going to make the video less natural because they had to add so much artificial.

The questions are, can you tell the difference and have you really gotten a true idea of how they will sound at your event?  The hall, the crowd, the bandleader, the sound company (if there is one), the musical preferences of the client, the particular musicians, the general “vibe” of that evening, etc. Duplicating it may be difficult, if not impossible. You may not even know if there was a written arrangement and a rehearsal in preparation for the video you watched.

Speaking for my band and most of the major bands out there, if the video truly sounds natural and good, it’s because we were good to begin with and we just polished it up for you, but it’s still may not be what the band will realistically sound like at your particular event. It’s like judging an actor’s personality by his performance on a TV show. You can say you like that actor and would like to see him again, but you don’t really know him. 

Myth #4: “The band can invite you to one of their gigs.”
Visiting a stranger’s event to hear a band is usually a bad idea. The parties and music are rarely similar enough to compare, people are never welcome to show up a stranger’s event and I would never invite a client to yours. If I’m doing my job, I would be too busy to go out and consult with that client in any effective way and, even if we played any of the music they’re interested in, they’d have to wait for it, it may never happen, listening from a lobby or entrance won’t help and the awkwardness of being at a stranger’s event ruins it further.

There’s no doubt that the live experience is the best, but for a wedding band there is so much more context you need in order to judge.  Even if you were one of the party’s invited guests, in the room, eating and dancing with that music, you still may have a limited understanding of how that band served the hosts, but at least you can ask them later. 

Myth #5 “I want the same wedding they had.”
No you don’t. Your nephew had a great wedding with great food, a great location, great band and the photos came out beautiful, so why not just do that for your daughter’s wedding? You can certainly contact the vendors you saw that night, caterer, band, etc. If they did a great job for them, they could probably do it for you, but that’s where the similarities may end. Different lives, friends, camps, schools and worlds lead to different budgets, tastes and guest lists. If it comes out similar, that’s a cool story, but the party should be all yours.

Differences are a good thing. Tastes in music, color, food, or even flowers will make it unique.

After thousands of weddings, I’ve seen plenty of customers begin with someone else’s ideas and end up disappointed those ideas won’t work for them.  Sometimes it doesn’t work, but by then it’s too late. 

If you feel the wedding was great, then consult with any or all of the professionals that you think made it work. Better yet, ask the hosts.  They may tell you that guy was great but they wouldn’t hire that other guy again. Good pros know other good pros, so ask them for referrals and ask them to justify them. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Myth #6: “I want to know which musicians I’m getting.”
It’s a band, not a buffet. You don’t know the names of some of the finest musicians in bands today. You hired this band for a reason, so why question them? A truly great wedding orchestra is assembled using criteria most clients will not understand, even those who understand music.  For many bands, some musicians are the best choices, even when others may seem more skilled in some way. Also, if the drummer comes down with the flu, you don’t need to be involved in replacing him. That’s what your band is paid for, simply to keep the music as planned. A well-chosen band that you can trust will know to replace that drummer with someone similarly impressive, reliable, and familiar with the their way of doing things.

One strong factor you want maintained is the musicians’ compatibility with the musical team, knowing the leader’s style and signals, any unique arrangements they’ve gathered over time, camaraderie on the bandstand, familiarity with the repertoire, ability to switch styles, etc. Otherwise, why else are you hiring them? If you can’t trust the band to assemble the most compatible set of musicians and perform precisely for what your event needs, you shouldn’t be hiring them.

Of course, if there’s a particular violin player or guitarist you’ve seen and liked in a different band, then I encourage you to inquire about that player. Even if he isn’t a regular member of the band you’re hiring, you’ve given them an understanding of what you like. They now have a choice of hiring that musician for you or getting one with similar or even better abilities that will give you what you want and maybe more.

Myth #7: “The singer should be hired before anybody, even the band.”
This is a fairly new trend that was almost unheard of just a decade or two ago. I find it fascinating and usually unnecessary. It is, however, what people are doing, like a Jewish tradition that somehow caught on centuries ago but we don’t remember why. This trend has actually cost people more money and cut the budgets for the band, because they thought they had to grab the famous singers before someone else did and the money it cost forced them to cut the size of the band.  

There are more talented singers on the wedding circuit today than ever before. It’s a buyer’s market, so why are people giving me lists of singers they want unconditionally, while most of those singers have no similarity in style or sound? Are they right for the event or for just a few exciting moments? Is this a concert or a wedding? Also, if you make a big deal out of the superstar, where will your guests be during the dancing?

Don’t get me wrong. Most great singers, superstar or not, know exactly how to keep a party moving and make the most for the host, but the question is why do they focus the wedding plans on the singer so much if there’s a broad choice?

Very often, the bride and groom are people who can’t fathom that they can be the center of attention without having a backup celebrity to amuse their guests. Or, sometimes the wedding is simply not enough and they want something special. Make sure you know if and why this is priority for you.

Many amazing young singers who have decided not to invest 10’s or 100’s of thousands into albums and PR, yet they rival the best and most famous. Many are simply developing their larger careers, so catch them while they’re cheap! 

If you can afford the superstar, of course, go ahead, but don’t sacrifice important portions of your music budget to do so.  A great singer with a great band is also a crucial requirement, so find your band first and let them help you choose the best singer.  Most performers are independent, so matching them with your band shouldn’t be a problem if the band is established and experienced.

TRUTH: Trust experience, reputation and comfort, not trends.
Many people don’t realize that some of the hardest work an orchestra does for it’s client happens way before the event itself. Preparing lists and schedules, hand-in-hand with the clients, then compiling them into eye-friendly materials the bandleader uses as his guide for the evening.

It’s an entire skill not only answer clients’ questions, but to help them to ask the right ones. so the most accurate request lists can be compiled, discussing not only songs and artists, but additional styles to cover dinner and ceremony plus to be compatible with the instrumentation they’ve hired. 

I almost beg my customers to call me whenever they need answers and that there’s no such thing as a silly question. That’s not just a cliché, by the way. I constantly hear “I have a silly question…”  Then, when I hear the question, it’s usually not silly at all.

When deciding on a band, remember to follow your heart, n: There are enough highly-qualified and reputable people out there, so trust your instincts when it comes to whether they care enough about you and whether they instill confidence in you, that you feel they are truly the experts at what they do and you can rely on them completely. 

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Gershon Veroba has lived in the 5 Towns/Far Rockaway area for over 30 years. A composer, producer, musician and singer since childhood,  Gershon has been featured by most most major wedding bands since 1980. As a solo artist, he’s performed on stage and in the studio with the most popular Jewish performers. He has produced & appeared on over a hundred albums, including over a dozen of his own, in concerts and festivals in around the world.  His company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp., provides music and video production services worldwide, now featuring G-Major Events, a music and event planning company for weddings and other personal occasions.

He was the owner & editor-in-chief of the original Jewish Community Magazine until 1995 and is now a contributing writer for 5TJT.   Visit gmajorevents.com for information, videos & social media. For more on Gershon, visit www.veroba.net.

Music & Simchas: The Evolution – What Happened To Jewish Music?

(As featured in the 5 Towns Jewish Times,  9/21/18)

by Gershon Veroba

I grew up in an atmosphere of musical extremes. Both my parents were career wedding performers, my mother specializing in opera & Yiddish, while my father was a chazzan, working with Yossele Rosenblatt until he was 16. Dad’s experience and knowledge in Jewish music very difficult to question.

Ironically, the talent he had that I tried to emulate and became a unique characteristic of my music actually contributed to our artistic differences.  His ability to improvise in his davening, keeping it constantly fresh from week to week while perfectly maintaining the nusach, inspired me to develop a broad flexibility in musical taste that Dad would not approve of.  Years later, similar conflicts in style would irreversibly change both Jewish music and shul davening in the decades to follow.   

Having little choice in being born into the era of TV, Broadway, pop and rock, I came to believe that the immense influence these musical extremes had on me was a rare occurrence in religious Jewish life.

A few decades before, Chazzanus, a genre based on minyanim and mass participation, would eventually watch its audiences turn to newer genres fed by individual experience, styles from the diaspora and eventually the new land of Israel.

On the lower end of the ticket-price spectrum, the poor Jewish musicians developed Klezmer street music from the chulent of Jewish influences and moods, creating a sound also uniquely similar to it’s geographic origins but appropriate to us.  Add to that the role of chazzanus and nusach as a weekly reminder of the sound of tefila. In the end, it all fit into our self-identification.   

Is Jewish Music Jewish Music?
The fact that many of the Chassidic zemiros from previous centuries were often based on secular music of the time has always been debated, but the result actually created great Jewish music.  The “blood money” of goyishe music from those regions was frequently “laundered” in liturgy, emotion, history and hope by the talented ears of so many chassidic teams like those in Modzitz, Lubavitch, Munkatch, Ger, Vishnitz, etc. 

As years went passed and the past got foggier, it became more difficult to trace what kind of music is considered “inherently Jewish” and yet people still felt it was necessary to question it. The religiously-protective became suspicious as styles began to sound familiar, but still there was dignity in that music and it came to blend well with the Jewish experience. It blesses simchas and the shabbos table, with crowds singing together and making unquestionable mental connections with their eyes closed, unaware that 19th Century composers like Julius Fučík, probably influenced that nigun. 

When the phonograph came into vogue, supplying the world with new melodies, it was only a matter of time before the influence of secular structures affected Jews, zemiros and prayer. Classical music was now even more available to the rabbonim, depending on whether or not they owned a Victrola. With it, they could maintain the 19th century in the 20th. Chazzanus started to become immortalized on 78rpm records and, in the late 40’s Israel would eventually follow. Next decade, Carlebach, next, Rabbi’s Sons, etc. Now we’re cooking.

By the time I was born, songs with an emphasis on melody, simplicity and often a certain level of adherence to a style had evolved from from so many places, yet based on our common faith. We defined the music as “Jewish,” but the reasons were gray varied, often undefined and often inconsistent from person to person, from chassidic to non-affiliated. This gray area would last for generations and, while it still exists, is on shaky ground. Today’s world doesn’t like gray areas.

We’re The Ones That Changed It
Even the ingeniously simplistic melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, that suddenly refilled our repertoire in over 40 years ago were based on these limitations. People objected more to Shlomo’s and his free thinking than his songs, which were too simple to truly criticize. For Shlomo, that was fine, since he didn’t like complexity.

Why do these things change? New musical influences in the street? Lack of interest in learning musical instruments or reading notes at home? Avoiding word repetition? One definite problem had always been the centuries-old problem of Judaica shops, the only source for physical Jewish recordings and located only in cities of major population. Today, even online, shops that even bother to carry CDs know that high cost of manufacturing for so few buyers promises little profit, so only top sellers are favored on shelves and the public gets to see only a fraction of the music actually created.

Another interesting problem inherent to religious Jewish life can be that we hear harmony at the shabbos table, which is the only other accompanying music, since there’s no guitar or band. Hear it enough and you can forget which was the harmony and which was the melody. Over a few years in school, weddings, camp and other homes, the composer hears hundreds of people singing his song…but wrong.  What can he do? I’ve experienced it myself and heard other composers say, “oh, well…At least people are singing my song, even though that’s not how I wanted them to sing it. I’ll just put that kind of thing in my next song.”

Reb Shlomo did not think this way because he felt Hashem gave him these melodies to care for and share properly, just like children, which is literally what they were to him. “They were given to me by the ribonoi shel oilam,” he said to me. “Please tell them not to sing it like this, Gershon, they’re mamish killing my babies.” Changing even a note or two, interrupted the original flow of that melody, so he watched the destined purpose get interrupted, breaking the trance like the snap of a hypnotist’s finger.  The simple and often circular nature of his songs were part of the magic, often getting stronger the more you repeat it, chanting you into that holy zone so powerful, the experience has changed people’s lives. 

We can’t even blame the people who sing those songs incorrectly today, it’s how they learned it. They’re shocked when I show them the original, but many do recognize what’s been missing and they feel it’s affect when they try it, without any need for understanding music.

The Evolution Today
Jewish music has has always varied in entertainment quality, but more recently we have seen some great, unprecedented changes. To attract the younger audiences as strongly as before, the music needed to freshen up.   New songs are now reflecting more open minds, more developed talent and great technologies to make them more accessible. The current Jewish hits have broader music influences, but the composers still take lessons learned from old Jewish songs we still use today.

As the 1970’s rolled along, rock and disco styles permeated Jewish music into the 90’s. Now, Jewish music has finally won its freedom to lyricize lyric and accept broader musical influences, especially since CD sales have fallen and adults are less keen than their children to attempt the “complicated” process of downloading.

Original lyrics in Yiddish have always been accepted as a kosher alternative, but now the holy language of Hebrew has been given more rabbinical room. This allows the music to be composed freely as the words can be changed, something you can’t really do as easily with Tanach.

People have actually changed the old songs, anyway, due to changing tastes. They can’t help it… Moshe Shur’s cheerful “Sameach T’samach”, our standard “Od Yishoma,” Shlomo’s “Nigun Neshama,” “Shifchi” and “Mileyim Ziv,” the Gerer “Lecha Dodi,” Ohr Chodosh’s “Bilvovi”… We could be here all day.  None of these songs are being sung the same, because you are not the same.

What Inspires Us To Join In
Whether we wish to believe it or not, our uses for music have changed as much as our sources. Sure, shabbos and yom tov still forces us to rely on songs with a definitive, attractive melody, but simple enough so we can all sing along. There is no sheet music at the shabbos table to keep it consistently correct and not everyone is a musician, so who’s going to point out mistakes? Sure there’s always “that one guy,” but we tell him to chill out.

Group singing is our band. Even when the band plays at the wedding, the guys singing are off on their own anyway. And why? It’s not just a song, it’s what we’re singing about. In the case of Jewish music, it usually goes hand-in-hand with the words that have great, established ancient value that addresses our core, the reason we’re singing at the moment to begin with…Torah, Tfilah and life itself.

Over the years, there were periods I was quite worried. Still am in some ways, but I believe the new artists and composers have learned from many aspects of the older music, past audiences, their responses and their habits in listening and singing.

As a musician and performer, it’s a constant, exciting challenge to keep up with the material and standards of the dozens of bands and artists the are out there. These great bands have helped so many of us grow musically, honed our instrumental skill, responsibly expanded our listening with less fear and have provided invaluable lessons in compassion, patience, courtesy, reality and professionalism. 

Keeping It Israel
An interesting punchline to this interesting timeline is that, no matter how gray the area has been for what makes songs or music Jewish, if musicians have the right experience and sense of balance from the past, then fusing the old and the new works while still keeping it Jewish. If your product sounded Jewish before, then you can use that same vibe inside you to blend it with the new songs.

I like to think of it as an accent from the old country. If you’re not a speech therapist or a linguistic anthropologist, you can’t easily explain your accent or expressive nuances, but you can still tell it’s coming from you and your home. New Yorkers alone can certainly attest to that, but it applies all over, different countries, different generations…It comes across when they speak to you. Just like you can tell when you hear your favorite singer, there’s that “something” that makes that same song just right for you.

I spent many years recording and singing revised copies of songs from secular and Jewish worlds and I’ve been given songs I regret singing because they didn’t serve a purpose stronger than “hey, these words can fit.”  Just because the words were from tehillim, or said something shabbos, torah or mashiach, doesn’t magically make it useful.

I found one thing to be true: If the music and the words have a good reason to be matched, the song will work because it gave you something you didn’t have before. If, on the other hand, you force incompatible elements together, providing nothing appropriate or constructive as Jewish-related entertainment, then I don’t see the point. If you did it because the original song was cool and it goes nowhere in Yiddish, you might as well just buy the original, since it has little or no Jewish value.  The same goes for the wrong Jewish song for the wrong part of davening. If the music from “that song” doesn’t work with Kel Adon, then you’re singing a different song during Kel Adon, which brings up halachic issues as well, but I digress…

Jewish music contains a purpose, which to promote or reflect something in Jewish life, whether it’s prayer, comedy, dancing, history, profound issues in our lives or communities, something definitively Jewish. It’s for this reason that I believe people are waking up to the fact that it’s shouldn’t simply be the exact music, notes, instruments or even underlying musical influences that define this song as Jewish or not. It’s the treatment, phrasing, playing, arrangement and timing when it’s presented to you. Very simply, what comes out is more definitive than what goes in. If the message of the lyric — it could be Hebrew, English, Yiddish holy or not— is appropriate to the purpose of Jewish life, meaning, inspiration and spirit, then you’re doing fine.

Next time: “Hiring A Band: Keep The Right Priorities”


Gershon Veroba has lived in the 5 Towns/Far Rockaway area for over 30 years. A composer, producer, musician and singer since childhood,  Gershon has been featured by most most major wedding bands since 1980. As a solo artist, he’s performed on stage and in the studio with the most popular Jewish performers. He has produced & appeared on over a hundred albums, including over a dozen of his own, in concerts and festivals in around the world, including the annual Rockami shows in Jerusalem until 2012. His company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp., provides music and video production services worldwide, now featuring G-Major Events, an orchestra and event planning company for weddings and other personal occasions.

He was the owner & editor-in-chief of the original Jewish Community Magazine until 1995 and is now a contributing writer for 5TJT.   Visit gmajorevents.com for information, videos & social media. For more on Gershon, visit www.veroba.net.

The State of the Music – Reflecting on last few months & the last few years…

So, now that times have changed (and they really have), I see that people have become more receptive to musical styles and influences I was criticized for years ago. What happened?

The real question may be “what didn’t happen.” Jewish music has frequently been caught standing still and, in many ways it still is. Either they can’t “up their game” or, in some case, may not be interested in change. I’ve watched many take the easy way out, pay arrangers, composers and producers to create the illusion of more talent than there is and hope for a hit. I’ve watched many great songs and productions crash and burn and I’ve watched great talent go to waste with second rate productions.

For good or bad, many productions have gone from elaborate large orchestras to hip programming and digital synthesis, sometimes a mix of both.  My last album included both and, while I’m proud I applied the right choices for each individual song, whether 12-piece string section, 3 French Horns (“2-hoo turtle doves…”) and flutes with acoustic bass, piano, guitar and drums, or 100% computerized with voice sampling and R&B Marvin Gaye-inspired rhythms, the album felt like a journey with different textures and colors.

I’ll be forever glad I did it. I question whether the majority of the buying audience truly cares, but they may simply not have the ability. I do, though.

Lyrics! Where do I begin? Hebrew lyrics in a song for a religious audience? Unheard of! Today, original Hebrew lyrics have become as accepted as Yiddish. Hebrew is considered the holy language, so it was avoided in common lyric. Yiddish? Not so holy, so go ahead.

Original lyrics make it possible to form melody and words more freely in order to fit, pronounce comfortably, express more colorfully and make a higher quality song that’s more attractive, intuitive and enjoyable. Unheard of years ago.

Watch GV’s video of Megama’s “Up To Jerusalem” (separate window)

Moshe Yess and Shalom Levine formed Megama, touring as bearded curiosities with amazing talent from a past life. Moshe’s folk, rock & country talent from his non-religious days as a studio guitarist allowed him to combine his ingenious Chet Atkins level playing with his bluegrass lyric cleverness. Shalom, a student of viola legend Pablo Casals, kept the music arrangement simple but on point, along with their comic ability… The act had such impact that Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, encouraged Megama to perform concerts even during the omer & 3 weeks periods.

He felt they were inspiring others around the world to journey as far as they had to Orthodoxy. They were also pretty inexpensive, certainly cheaper than Diaspora Yeshiva Band. They were just 2 guys, 2 instruments, they came with their own PA system and they were rehearsed to perfection.

I became friends with Shalom & Moshe and they stayed at my place when in town. We identified with each other’s music, but I was considered simply a rebel, going in the wrong direction, since I was already born orthodox. I didn’t have the beard (not that large, anyway), I wasn’t considered a baal tshuvah, so what business did I have peddling with this kind of stuff? I became the “goy of Jewish Music.” It was cool for the goyish guy to sing frum songs, but not for the frum kid to sing goyish songs. What the audience was grabbing and what I was doing was fun, skilled and natural, but I was shunned for it.
What was “goyish?” An interesting discussion we had a while ago. Check it out.

GV’s Music Page  (separate window)

More times than I could count, I was told that my reputation of composing and performing English words, secular melodies and allowing mainstream influences to drive my music kept me from being booked on the frum stage and selling in the sforim stores.

Mean and nasty? Sure. But unfortunately, they spoke the truth. The biggest composers, producers and performers quoted the Jewish music rule book: “You put more than one English song on an album, it won’t sell.”

English has increased now on religious albums, even in multiple tracks. I still see a problem in the use of decent poetic imagery and language flow, an inherent struggle for religious writers whose upbringing avoided mainstream song writing…Perhaps we’ll talk about that another day.

I can now take my own experience and judge from there. I’m walking the walk.

Yitzy Berry in Sach Hakol Studios, Jerusalem, conducting the orchestra on “Bayom Hahu”

I look back on how Yitzy Berry & Eli Klein did such an amazing job on the album version of Simcha Kranczer’s “Bayom Hahu,” working the orchestra exactly as I wanted it immortalized on the album. Interestingly, when I made the á capella version of that song to please the people who wanted that kind of production during sefiras ha’omer and the 3 weeks approaching Tish’a B’Av, it was received better than I had ever imagined. It was fun to make and I did it all on my own in a couple of days (thanks also to Ari Goldwag’s appearance by phone video). Basing the arrangement on the original, I just sang track-on-track until it worked.

The question is, what does it say, that the cheap version did so well? I think the answer isn’t technical, it’s statistical. Great song at the right time in the right form, not artistically as much as halachically…at least according to those who consider á capella to be an acceptable musical form for those “no instrumental music” periods.  Me? I just love making chords and building vocals.

I am constantly asked (no, really…I am…) if I’m happy with what I’ve done.

The past 15 years brought about a great shift in my quality and I had been patiently waiting for the audience to come out of their shells. Today, what I was criticized for years before has now become the norm and I’ve become “old school.” I’ll take that, I guess. It’s better than pretending I’m something I’m not. I’ve tried that and it doesn’t work.

That being said, as far as today’s audiences…Could I have put less effort and money into the “Ani Yisrael” album and few, if any would have seen or heard the difference?

Maybe, but it would not have been the same album, it’s a difference I would have seen and I wouldn’t feel the same about it as I do.

Now THIS is “American-Jewish Music.”

 

A bit hokey and badly-pronounced, but a rare and joyous use of Jewish music in a mixed forum…their hearts are in the right place…I hope.

Funny part is, I can’t stand “Hava Nagila.”

(Hey… Aren’t “Pancho & Juan” the motorcycle cops from “CHiPs?”)

Over Her Head: A reviewer mistakenly reviews my “Reach Out” album.

I’ll explain…
The following review came out in response to my “Reach Out” album in 2007, proudly containing some of the most complex songs I’ve ever written. This reviewer both loved and hated the album, even calling some of the English songs “hokey,” which is quite an ironic thing to say in Jewish music world about the only lyricist with an actual degree in English writing.
confusedwriter1.jpgApparently, anything she doesn’t understand must be “hokey.”  Sorry, ma’am… The English lyrics I write can’t always be as articulate, alliterate and profound as those you get on chassidic albums, which, by Jewish marketing rules, could not contain more than one English song or else it fails in the stores.

The Punchline…? The album she entered in the headline was “Variations,” which were 4 copy albums I made, many containing intentionally “hokey” material. That’s the nature of copies and parodies.  Curiously, that wasn’t the album she was reviewing! Go figure.

ON THE FRINGE—AL TZITZIT: Veroba Variations (CD review)

What’s Jewish Music’s problem? What’s ours?

My, my, my… we are in trouble, aren’t we?
From the point of view of gossip alone, the already shaky Jewish music “industry,” already under constant fire, is now being made an ever-growing target by the mostly ignorant, but loud critics of their own definition of “wrong.”

Uuggghhhh… Where to start?
I’m not going to attempt to address it in one sitting, because I’ve gotten all sorts of hate mail and support mail for my work over the years, saying this is not such a simple fight. It should, however, begin with certain necessary definitions and observations that I’d like to touch on first. The rest is up to you:

JEWISH vs. “GOYISH”
In short, if anyone is is hoping to link to specifically pure-bred Jewish sources of of Jewish music available in this last century, they will come up very short and disappointed, unless they accept some hard truths.

Musical composition of any major consequence, in general, has historically depended upon other musical influences to shape it into a unique mixture. Many of those mixtures, intentionally or not, can often closely resemble one of its actual sources, a style created for another purpose, or even something it had no knowledge of.

Saying that certain uses of an organ in a song, for example, with chord structure and actual choice of sound settings on the organ itself are reminiscent of non-Jewish religious music, is a fair statement. Saying that using an organ at all is therefore wrong, is not fair, anymore than using an electric guitar is wrong due to it’s connections to paganism’s role in metal or modern Christian music.

If the requirement for Jewish Music (an ambiguous term, to say the least) is to resemble nothing else but Jewish sources, then roughly 60-75% of music created for Jewish entertainment, nationalism and prayer in the last 60 years must be eliminated.

If you are among those who object to “non-Jewish” music, you must know how to answer the questions of “what is…” and “what can be…” before you criticize music intended to contribute to the global Jewish community.

Finally, the term “goyish” has, unfortunately become an overly-used term that remains undefined, while its derogatory nature satisfies their anger at the present shortcomings of the Jewish music industry, which has been destroyed by their ignorance and sanctimony.

Those who have learned to hate non-Jews feel that “goyish” is the worst thing something or someone Jewish can be. In fact, musical influences created or used mostly by non-Jews or non-religious Jews for music not related to prayer have become the #1 source of influence in Jewish music this past century.

The issue has come to surround the fascinatingly un-defined term “goyish,” rather than the more understood and respected term of “improper.” “Goyish” is a paranoid term, in my opinion, suggesting that some underlying purpose of the “improper” influence is for the underhanded infiltration of a religion that conflicts with ours.

I can say, with 35 years of intimate involvement with just about every dimension of the Jewish music field, that much of todays so-called yeshivish and chassidish music (not all, of course), including many of those being used on the bima (prayer pulpit) contains influences in it’s musical arrangements, composition, performance and even words that I feel are “improper,” but often for reasons that have little to do with the influence of conflicting religions.

You should continue to comment here, there and everywhere. This is not going away and it’s going to get worse.

The furor is now reaching new heights and pretty soon, if you don’t already think that Jewish music’s pickings are slim now, just watch what happens when you let it happen.

Leaving the subjective art of music to be judged by the black and white will not work and it will prevent the many different musical talents out there from contributing their art to Jewish life. Do you think Judaism needs music? I’ll leave that question open.

What IS Jewish Music?

I’m going to leave much of this answer to those responding.
My point here is to show the differing opinions out there and, certainly, share my own.

Whoa, baby, do I have my own…

I’m an American, born-and-bred, growing up on Beatles, cantorial, Walt Disney, zemiros, Dean Martin, Shlomo Carlebach, Peter, Paul and Mary, CSNY, EW&F, ELO, Marvin Gaye, Gerrer and Modzitzer, Sherwood Goffin, Ruach and Joni Mitchell… an often-depressing combination of cultures for a growing musician…and that’s just spanning one decade of almost five.

I made a career combining (!) many of these elements. Finding a balance is still an artistic and personal struggle, but it also involves dealing with the constantly-changing morays of Jewish audiences.

My next question should be “what is American Jewish music?” Answering that question (and arguing it, I expect) may very well involve responses to the first one.