Over the past few years, whenever I have heard someone be chazzan who should not have been allowed near the amud, I have mentally compiled my own list of rules for Chazzanut. I am releasing it for public consumption below, in the hopes of achieving better communal harmony throughout the Jewish world (pun intended).
- If you can’t sing…don’t – This applies to anyone who cannot hold a tune. The job of the chazzan is to lead davening. If you know how to sing, are able to start the tune well, have a loud enough voice to make yourself heard and are able to lead everyone throughout, than go for it. However, if the above sentence does not match your singing abilities, you are normally out of tune, have a sore throat, etc – don’t sing. Nobody wants to hear it.
- Don’t start too high – So you can sing. Congratulations. However, it is all for naught if you start Lecha Dodi so high that no one else can sing with you, and most of the men in the shul have to sing with their very very deep voices in order to sing along (know what I mean?). It sounds bad, and people did not come to hear you sing the high-parts solo. Some people just naturally sing high, and some people have normal voices, but start things too high on the spur of the moment. One piece of advice I have received is to take whatever key you are about to impulsively start the song in, and than go one full octave down (since many people, full of enthusiasm, will accidentally start too high and will be forced to either go on with the high voice and pretend that they meant to sing falsetto, or try to pull off the potentially embarrassing move-one-octave-lower-and-hope-that-no-one-notices maneuver). Something else that has worked for me is right before starting the song, to sing the end of the chorus (which is normally higher than main tune), and then start with the matching low tune to match the chorus.
- Only sing songs that you know – This should be obvious, but I have seen on more than one occasion a chazzan start a tune that they just don’t know. Just because you heard someone else sing it before does not mean that you know it. Not only that, but knowing the tune sufficiently well to hum it (or “neye-neye-neye” it) is not enough. You have to be able to properly match the words to the tune (without repeating words or totally messing up the grammatical structure – remember, David haMelech did not randomly insert periods into Tehillim). It is not fair to the congregation (nor is it smart) to sing the first line, than stop singing and hope that everyone else picks up the slack. More often than not, you will just be embarrassed.
- Clarify the Nusach and local customs beforehand – This is important everywhere, but you can get into more trouble in Israel than in the US. Many shuls in Israel do Ashkenaz some of the time and Sefard some of the time. Others (like the shul that I currently attend) are very particular about following one specific nusach and not deviating from this nusach (or the pronunciations of specific words) at all. If you are at all in doubt, ask the gabbai beforehand, or just don’t be chazzan until you have heard a local go through that particular service once before.
- Keep the pace – One of the things that I really can’t stand is when everyone within a 10 foot radius of the chazzan is singing at one pace, and everyone else is singing at another (faster or slower) pace. I always end up being 11 feet away, and caught in no-man’s land. There is no really good resolution for this situation. And it is the chazzan’s fault. He is supposed to be leading the prayer. Be a leader! If you don’t have a strong enough voice and the will to get everyone to follow your lead, you shouldn’t be up there (and if you don’t have a choice, than don’t sing – chant).
- Don’t waste time – In the halachot regarding prayer, one theme that keeps recurring is the importance of avoiding tirchah de’tziburra – putting a strain on the public. Also known as wasting people’s time. For those of us who daven three times a day in a minyan, we are putting in (at a minimum) around 8-10 hours every week in shul. That is fine, it goes with the territory. However, if my normal 35-40 minute shacharit davening turns into a 50 minute affair because the chazzan decided that he needed to have an extra-long silent Shemoneh Esrei while everyone else had already finished, I (and everyone else) will not be happy. Part of the job of the chazzan is to keep things moving at a nice pace – not so fast that people are unable to concentrate on what they are saying, but definitely not too slow. Know your crowd! If people are used to a 15 minute Pesukei d’Zimrah, than 20 minutes is usually not acceptable (and vice-versa). There is not commandment from the Torah to always do Carlebach for Friday night (I personally will not do Carlebach nusach unless the minyan requests it, or unless I am able to compensate in other areas to keep the overall service length the same as it would have been without Carlebach tunes). And above all, the chazzan should never keep everyone waiting with a long silent amida. (I remember when I was at Yeshivat haKotel, Rav Neventzal sh”lita was in aveilut and often led davening at the Ramban shul in the mornings. When he was not leading, he was almost always one of the last people in the room to finish his silent amidah prayers – and he made sure that the repetition did not wait for him. When he was leading, he was one of the first people to finish. No one every waited for him. He held that is was more important to daven more quickly than he was used to than it was to lengthen the service by even a few minutes. And if Rav Neventzal can handle that, than so can you).