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Teaching Cantillation to Bnai-Mitzvah Students in the Digital Age

Amber Gitter Educator
Amber Gitter, Online Educator

Just recently, one of my Bat-Mitzvah students was practicing her dramatic Torah portion with me. In her third verse, she chanted the Hebrew word for ‘cursed’ four times in nearly consecutive order, with a Zakeif Gadol trope. The Zakeif Gadol trope is a striking trope, a cascade of musical notes that sounds like an exclamation point. Wheit appeared four times, couldn’t help but look more closely at the text to learn what part of the story the trope was pointing to in the Torah. 

When Bnai Mitzvah students embark on the journey of learning their Torah portions, analyzing and explaining trope patterns can give an added layer of understanding and connecting with the text. It used to be that students learned the melody of their Torah portion off of a recording, rarely even noticing the patterns within the melody. After all, learning trope is challenging. Imagine – there are about 26 common trope symbols, and there are 41 common trope families. Yikes!

But learning about trope and discovering the relationship between trope and text happens easily when using Trope Trainer’s color-coded software programTrope trainer assigns each melody family a distinct color.  Every time that trope sequence appears, the words are highlighted in the appointed color, red, yellow, green, and so on.  This system makes it easy for students to start to notice and identify the melodies that are repeating throughout their Torah portion

I learned about Trope Trainer from Dr. David Spiegler, who has been a B’nai Mitzvah tutor for the Adventure Judaism Congregationfor over 15 years. David explains, “When we teach trope to students, they’re basically learning a new language. They’ve already learned to read Hebrew; now they’re learning a language within a language, a musical language. We need to make this as easy and stress-free as we can” 

Engaging congregations through the use of trope melodies is not new.  Long ago, in Jewish communities of antiquity, a member of the community would stand in the front of the congregation and use hand signals to signal a specific trope family to the sacred Hebrew text. This custom guided the congregation to chant the sacred text in unison. Now, in the digital ageteaching and learning to chant Torah has changed significantly, but the fundamental idea of identifying recurring trope sequences to make the melodies easily accessible remains the same. 

Dr. Spiegler further explains, “One of the nice things about color-coding with trope families is that since kids know colors, there’s an instant familiarity. Torah might be new, but they know colors! This reduces the feeling of anxiety that accompanies learning something new.”

Students who are visual or auditory learners thrive with this color-coded system, and because colors are easier to spot than symbols, students can readily engage. Their anxiety dissipates, while their excitement grows. 

What a joy it is to guide student’s discovery of the world of Torah chanting!  Time after time, new students arrive at their lessons feeling apprehensive and intimidated or sometimes reluctant or bored. Through this color-coded trope system, they discover that chanting Torah is a learnable skill filled with fun and intrigue. The look on their faces when they “get it” is priceless, as is their feeling of accomplishment when they are called to the Torah as a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah and chant in front of family and friends. What an honor it is to accompany them on this path!  

To learn more about the Adventure Judaism technique for training bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah students, please visit https://www.adventurerabbi.org/education/hebrew-tutoring/.

About Amber Gitter

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