The delicate art of chuppah music

By Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Binyamin Kagedan performs at a chuppah. Credit: Yuval Haber.

The hall has been booked, the dress fitted, the flowers selected, the food tasted, the photographer approved, the bands auditioned, the rings engraved, and the honeymoon suite reserved. With all the material components of the wedding in place, the focus now turns to the intangibles. What makes a Jewish wedding truly moving and memorable is not what is seen, but what is heard. The emotional tone of the ceremony won’t be set by the size of the bride’s bouquet, but by a heartfelt blessing, a unique vow, or a special song.

That’s where I come in.

A musician and singer by hobby, I have had the happy fortune of being asked to sing under the chuppah at the weddings of most of my best friends, as well as close family members. The Jewish wedding ceremony is rich in opportunities for powerful emotional expression, especially in its music. Songs about holy love punctuate and enliven each step of the process: the groom’s entrance, then the bride’s; the last of the seven blessings; the breaking of the glass. The quality and combination of the tunes used for these moments lend each and every chuppah a unique emotional texture.

Click photo to download. Caption: A chuppah in Jerusalem. Credit: Nikki Fenton.

I view my role in these weddings not just as cantor or entertainer, but as consultant. In order to create a “score” that channels the couple’s individual personality, I provide them with a range of options for each musical moment, and give ideas and tips on how to fit the music into the complex choreography of their chuppah. Some couples like the more elegiac melodies, while others prefer a more cheerful ambience. Some include pop music in their ceremony, others keep to the traditional Hebrew verse. Certain brides want guitar accompaniment, others request pure voice or prefer that I sing with the band they hired.  A few grooms will break the glass underfoot while I am still singing, “If I forget thee o Jerusalem,” but most will wait until after the last note, letting the sound of the shattering signal the eruption of “Mazal Tov!” from the crowd.

Chuppah music is an art, and like all good art, it comes together in the details. Attention to detail is essential to creating a seamless esthetic experience for the bride, groom, and assembled guests, and for my part, is a gesture of love and dedication toward the marrying couple. I begin rehearsing weeks before the event, nailing down the perfect tempo, finding the optimal key for my vocal range and making certain that I can comfortably hit the lowest and highest notes. When the specifics are set, I get in touch with the band leader to bring him or her up to speed. Come wedding day, I drag the keyboardist out of the smorgasbord to run through the set with me in person, just to be sure that nothing is left to chance.

There are few acts more gratifying than to enhance the sweetness of the wedding day for dear friends. I got to experience one of them recently, as I designed and performed (along with my new sister-in-law) the vocals for my own chuppah. Singing to my glowing bride as she circled around me seven times, I felt as though all the time and care I had put into every previous chuppah performance, all of the logistical and esthetic expertise I had accumulated, all of it was meant to prepare me for that moment, for her. And though the October weather was perfectly unseasonable, the hanging candles perfectly placed, and her dress perfectly tailored, it was the music that made the night so perfect.

Binyamin Kagedan has an MA in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He can be reached at bkagedan@gmail.com.

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Posted on December 31, 2013 and filed under Special Sections, Wedding.