Yes, you too can learn how to become a klezmer musician. You too can enjoy all of the fame, wealth, and groupies which are the natural right of this status (though how much this amounts to is a question you shouldn't ask.)
What is klezmer??
Short answer: Fiddler On the Roof type of music.
Long answer: "Klezmer" -- from the Hebrew klay (instrument) and zemer (music) -- is a Yiddish word which describes a particular style of Jewish music originating centuries ago as wedding melodies in the little towns (shtetlach) of Eastern Europe. Jews immigrating to the United States brought this music with them, with several brilliant musicians such as Dave Taras and Naftule Brandwein developing the genre. In the second half of the twentieth century many American Jews, wanting to be seen as "real Americans," abandoned much of their culture. The Yiddish language was precipitously falling towards extinction, and Klezmer music was considered "too Jewish." However, in the 1970's, after having become virtually extinct, a remarkable revival began in the United States. Two of the first bands were the Klezmorim with their "East Side Wedding", and the highly polished Klezmer Conservatory Band with "Yiddishe Renaissance." By now, virtually every major American city is home to at least one klezmer ensemble.
If you play an instrument, it isn't hard to learn klezmer. Enthusiasm is more important than talent, though talent doesn't hurt either. (This is not like the person who, after an accident, asked, "Hey doc, can I play the piano when my hand heals." The doctor said, "Sure." The person said, "Great. I've never played a note in my life.)
Be born Jewish. This is helpful but not essential (as Don Byron, a superb black klezmer clarinet player, so beautifully demonstrates).
This is essential -- you have to listen to a lot of klezmer music. There is no way you can overdo this part. The more you listen, the more the music will seep into your soul, ready to come out through your fingers and lips. I recommend bands like the Klezmorim (East Side Wedding), the Klezmer Conservatory Band (though they are too polished for my tastes), Maxwell Street Klezmer Band, Kapelye, Shirim (Angels and Horseradish) and -- most of all -- the superb CDs by Yitzhok Perlman entitled "In the Fiddler's House" and "Live In the Fiddler's House." I do not recommend Giora Feidman, a popular Israeli clarinetist whose music is much too smooth to be authentic klezmer.
Pick up your instrument and play. It's best to play with others. Advertise in temple newsletters and JCCs, but also ask every Jew you know if they play a musical instrument and are interested. (If you're going to be a klezmer, you shouldn't be shy.)
Some people are more comfortable playing from sheet music. The true masters sneer at this, saying you can no more learn klezmer from a book than you can learn to make love from a book. The Klezmaniacs -- truth to tell -- are not masters, and we do use sheet music. "The Kammen Folios" (numbers 1 and 9 -- don't ask what happened to 2 through 8) have good arrangements for various instruments. Also, "The Complete Klezmer" by Henry Saposnik is good. There are others. Forgive another commercial link here, but you can get at least some of these books (and recordings) from Taras Publications at http://www.jewishmusic.com. Do a search for the folder or CD you want, and they will probably have it. Also, you can hear some excellent Real Audio clips here. Finally, below are links to a few midi files which will give you an idea of some of the pieces which we play. These sound like computer generated music because that is what they are. But at least you can hear what the tunes sound like. Moreover, you can download the files, and if you have a music composition program like Finale or Cakewalk, print them out, and even edit them to your own taste.
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Any questions -- just ask ZVI THE FIDDLER who will be happy to help you start your own band.
Revised Jan 2018