Act first, think later, that’s my philosophy. Which obviously isn’t the best idea if you don’t like getting splashed in the face by reality. Take the time I woke up hundreds of miles from home and wondered why on earth I had signed up for a backpacking camp in California. On one occasion, however, my willingness to take the plunge spiraled into a turning point in my musical career…
It was the most anticipation I had ever felt before on a Motzei Shabbos. Mind you, most Motzei Shabboses aren’t too hard to top by me. But even so, this week was pretty exciting. There was a musical kumsitz scheduled, and I had been asked to play guitar. A famous singer from the Jewish musical world would be joining us. Was I nervous? Oh yeah.
It wasn’t that I had never picked up a guitar before. I was pretty good—better, I knew, than some guys in my yeshiva (who had been playing longer than me, ahem). But a worm of doubt lurked in my mind, suggesting that I was missing something crucial to playing in this venue without real preparation.
Fast forward about forty five minutes. Now I was playing in the middle of a large audience. Playing is probably the wrong word. Awkwardly-holding-my-guitar-hoping-no-one-was-looking -at-me is more like it. Thankfully, a piano player was also present and attention wasn’t entirely on me. But that didn’t stop me from feeling supremely uncomfortable. For one simple reason:
“I didn’t know how to play a single one of this guy’s songs.
I was reading out of my songbook, a battered white binder containing all the chord sheets I had amassed in my few months of strumming. I had down a lot of the songs we sang in yeshiva, the main ones of those days. Our guest singer, however, seemed totally out of touch with my modern-day musical fancies. He was an old-timer, with a plethora of songs from the “good old days”, which spelled my despair.
Two things helped me save face. One was a friend of mine who had mercy and approached the singer with my song list. I breathed a sigh of relief as he started “Ko Amar”, and I played the chords out of my song book. Second was when a more experienced musician showed up and obligingly accepted my guitar for the remainder of the performance.
I came out of that night, though, with a clear picture of what I needed to learn. I had to be better prepared next time. I had to have a chance under such circumstances, to know how to hold my own. I needed to learn more about the ins and outs of the music I was playing.
“It wasn’t just about knowing the chords, it was about knowing why those were the chords, why there were different keys and what it all meant.”
I set out with this goal in mind. It wasn’t just about knowing the chords, it was about knowing why those were the chords, why there were different keys and what it all meant. It was a puzzle to me at first, but as time went by I picked up one clue after another. I began to see the bigger picture and my kumsitz playing improved.
As I played by more kumsitzes, I learned more about what can go wrong and what to be prepared for. I developed techniques for playing at a kumsitz, got to know the guitar a little better, too. But most of all, I learned about the chords.
The chords to any song are the bread and butter of any kumsitz strummer, of course. I learned how the chords work in tandem with each other. I picked up a good amount of information that would help me play in many settings, even without preparation-how to pick up the key of a song, how match the mood, how to predict the next chord in a progression.
Which brings me to now…
Because what struck me about all this information was… it was so learn-able. It wasn’t hard to grasp, it wasn’t rocket science. And there was such a great relief that I had from finally having questions answered. What determines a chord’s minor or major status? Why was I taught a chord for all the letters except B? Why wasn’t I taught a G minor?
“It was such a shame to me that most of the information they needed was so simple…”
The answer to these and other questions brought me savage relief. Looking around, I saw many people struggling with the same issues that I had at one point. It was such a shame to me that most of the information they needed was so simple, but they just had never learned it. A goal was born. I wanted to find a way to make kumsitz playing easier, to improve the lot of the Jewish musical novice.
This website is an attempt to realize that goal. Use our chords, look at the patterns, and always feel free to reach out for help. And watch as your knowledge slowly leads you on the path to improvement.
Because you can do it. It’s not as hard as you think.
Take it from me.