Band Members Ride Klezmer Into a Whole New Region of Sound

The students tuned violins, cellos and guitars. They assembled trombones and saxophones as they milled about the room. They plucked and tooted on their instruments, individually warming up for what awaited them that particular Sunday morning. But when teacher Rachel Lemisch entered the room, she gathered the disparate players together in a way that made clear that this was a group that not only worked together efficiently, but with style.

The 15 students make up the Kool Klez Band, formed through one of the extracurricular music classes sponsored by the Western Branch of the Jewish Community High School of Gratz College and held at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr.

The band, in its second year, was an immediate hit. Annually, JCHS gives its 115 students surveys as to what they'd like to be exposed to in the future, and two years ago, klezmer music made the list, according to Debra Lipenta, the school's student-life coordinator.

JCHS found Lemisch — a trombonist, New England Conservatory graduate and accomplished klezmer musician herself — to teach the class, and so the band was born. The students quickly embraced the new style, though many had never played anything like it before.

'Freedom in It'

These budding young musicians have a very short window of time to indulge in their art form: only 45 minutes a week. From 11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. every Sunday, the class gets to practice the klezmer arrangements, said the school's director, Renée Goldfarb.

And although this is the first foray into klezmer for many of them, that hasn't stopped them from diving right in.

"I had heard about klezmer music before, but I had never played it," said 15-year-old violinist Abby Emerson. "There's a lot more freedom in it, but it's a lot more complicated."

In her previous ensembles, she was just one instrument in an entire string section, she said. With the klezmer band, her violin not only provides accompaniment, but has to step up and rival the horns, guitar and other powerful sounds.

Marc Krawitz, a 17-year-old trombonist, latched onto the format of klezmer music, he said, which reminded him of his own experiences in jazz. But he noted that klezmer retains a remarkably distinct sound.

"It takes some of the jazz elements and puts them into a unique style," he described. "The thing about klezmer music is that it's really recognizable."

Like jazz, musicians dabbling in klezmer only get a lead sheet, which just has the song's melody, explained Lemisch. "The music can sound a whole bunch of different ways," she said. During the class, she broke down the newest song for her students, assigning some to accompaniment, some to melody, and some in a call-and-response set-up.

"With this music, it's an aural tradition," she said. She had to teach the students how to interpret chords and "play things that aren't on the page." With their newfound freedom, the students often take the lead in the arrangements of songs, as well as improvise their own parts.

"They're motivated in whatever they do," said Lemisch of her charges. She saw that they were diligent learners and very talented.

"I realized that I could teach them really quickly," she said.

And these young people have adapted to their new roles. When some don't show up for practice, others pick up their parts. Students familiar with playing rhythm switch to melody, while the melody makers fill-in with backup rhythms.

For 14-year-old clarinetist Talia Gottesman, playing klezmer is light years away from the classical training she's been taught and become accustomed to. What she enjoys most, she relayed, is the visceral quality of the music.

"There's more to the music than just notes," acknowledged Gottesman. "It's how it feels. The music comes off the page and is in you."



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