back to basics

Written by  rabbi benjamin ehrenfeld

art-bassplayerDuring my senior year of high school, in preparation for my freshman year at the Berklee College of Music, I decided it was going to be very important for me to appreciate more complicated music.

I appreciated fast music already (I was a big thrash metal fan at the time), but I decided progressive metal, fusion Jazz, polyrhythmic everything, etc. were going to be key to my success at Berklee. By the end of my senior year of college I was listening to Iron and Wine, working on basic Motown bass lines, and singing “In the Jungle” with children on the oncology floor of Children’s Hospital. Much of the shift to “simpler” music had to do with my choice to get my degree in Music Therapy, as well as a shift in personal taste (though I still like some good fast prog occasionally). Nevertheless, there was a deeper meaning to it all.

One of my best bass guitar instructors (the instructor of the aforementioned Motown Bass Lines Lab…Yes, my school is awesome) once told us if people are attentive to what you’re playing as a bass player, you’re over playing (or poorly playing). If people are dancing, moving, and/or generally digging the feeling of the music and they can’t quite express why, you’ve done your job. This instructor had us spend the first two classes entirely on tone and perfecting steady single-note patterns. The last time I had done that was my first year of trumpet in the third grade and I was now in my last year of music college! As a bass player, and more generally as a music therapist, it took me four years to learn that the goal is not for people to hear me playing well; the goal is for people to find meaning in the music. This may sound “basic” but there is a certain amount of narcissism that can easily develop for professionals of any kind if they are not consistently brought back to the importance of the craft itself, and the importance of the other people who are supposed to benefit from their work.

The language of the Besorot, and Yeshua specifically, is not terribly complicated. There are deep and difficult realities dealt with but the presentation is often simple. Some of the truest things in this world are terribly simple. The difficulty is that simple things are not always easy and that is why simplicity takes practice too. I learned this in music; more and more I am finding it to be true in life. It can be a challenge to face the simple things we sometimes overlook or avoid. No one ever said the life of loving the Lord our God and our neighbor was going to be easy, but it’s rarely as complicated as we make it out to be. This is not to suggest things don’t ever get complicated, but we often make some things out to be complicated just so we can justify our avoidance. May we all appreciate complexity and simplicity on their own terms and never forget the basics!

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