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I have trouble picking up tunes, and therefore I have never been able to catch how to lein. I have listened to a few Torah reading tutorial tapes, listened to the Chabad cantillation tune many time, and even did some informal sessions with some of my friends. However, I always seem to fail. I can sing very familiar songs, but I can't figure out why I have never picked up the Chabad trop after so many years of listening to Torah Reading.

Are there any Chabad Torah Reading tutors or just people with some experience that can give some advice on how to help people who have trouble picking up tunes learn how to lein?

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  • 3
    Check with your local baal korei
    – Dani
    Apr 9, 2021 at 20:26
  • This might be more of a music question than a MY question. Ask musical tutors how to make picking up a tune easier.
    – N.T.
    Apr 9, 2021 at 23:20
  • Can you please add some clarity of what tradition of Torah reading you're looking to learn?
    – Aaron
    Apr 9, 2021 at 23:31
  • Chabad tradition in particular
    – user6781
    Apr 11, 2021 at 4:15
  • @NT While experts in musical performance could probably offer helpful insight with respect to this question, I am certain that the particular issue of familiarization with a cantillation system is a) a very niche topic in the musical performance world, and b) a very, very familiar topic to people who practice Torah reading and other Jewish cantillation performances, which is not at all a niche interest group among experts on Judaism. Therefore, I think that Mi Yodeya is both a worthy target on SE for this question and the ideal one. Of course, a parallel question on Music.SE could be cool.
    – Isaac Moses
    Apr 12, 2021 at 18:46

5 Answers 5

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To the already excellent answers I'd like to add my own take. Mainly out of personal experience, but also out of experiences shared with me. It is not clear to me from your question how you have approached leining so far. But applying a trope to text and memorizing both for leining is a pretty advanced skill. A bar mitzwah can spend months learning an aliyah or more just by hearing the portion leined with trope and commiting it to memore, but this amount of focused practice is not really scalable to actual leining.

My advice is to start from humble beginnings, a long road that will be short. I will assume for my answer that hebrew might also be a barrier to leining, but if this is not the case, this will help speeding along the steps. The problem is not that you can't commit the trope to memory. From your description it seems you have skipped steps that would have made committing to memory much easier.

TL;DR: start with knowing the cantilliation marks, know their tune by themselves, and gradually apply this to whatever you are leining or learning about leining.

Step 1: Find a resource

If the specific trope is important to you, then it helps to find someone who knows the trope or find a good online resource for that specific trope. That would be step 1.

sidenote: Although not a 'step 1' thing, this (re)source will be important to you from step 4 onward. There are a lot of special rules and circumstances that can pop up now and again, which are not visible in the cantilliation marks, or are almost never mentioned in more general introductury texts about trope. To name some specific examples to the Dutch trope, most of which are probably pretty universal in some variant or another:

  • The basic melody of the sof pasuk (full stop) ends with bending down low note. But whenever Hashem's name is the final word of the sentence the sof pasuk melody needs to stay high, or bend towards a high note
  • The community of the Hague has a different (fourth) aliyah break then the community of Amsterdam.
  • There might be special melodies required at some parts
  • Some parts (such as the 'curses') need to be leined silently yet audible.

Step 2: learn the ta'amim with trope.

Once you have someone or another resource that gives you acces to the trope, try to familiarize yourself with the way the trope is used. You have done this part if I read your question correctly: you have heard the trope applied. Listen to it with a new focus: every tradition has some variation, and you will often find specific rules or embellishments unique to that trope, or to the baal koreh. Don't be afraid to make the trope yours. Maybe the way you've heard it just isn't 'you'. Sometimes a little superficial change can help make it more natural to you and easier to reproduce. If you know a baal koreh, or you hear a recording that leins a trope in a musically advanced way: don't be afraid to simplify it.

Also, don't fall into the trap of learning the trope by committing to memory every 'melody' for a grouping of ta'amim. Most of these memories are little more than the melodies of the individual ta'amim in sequence. Depending on your trope there might be some combinations you need to know, such as the kadma-zakef_katon combined on one (hyphenated) word, but these will become apparant when you have a recording available. For me, these long lists of 'groupings melodies' were incredibly demotivational. After deciding to not even try to learn them I have not missed out. Every once in a while i check whether I'm missing something and so far I haven't really found a unique melody in a grouping that I couldn't also produce just be knowing the basic melody of each individual ta'am.

Word of caution: mind the 'munach'. This is the only ta'am that is truly contextual. If you are practicing from a ta'am 'set' the munach will be included wherever its melody is adapated to serve the accompanying ta'am. When you start leining develop an ear for the munach when you hear other people leining. With experience you will develop a musical feeling for how to play with the munach.

Step 3: Musical grammar before music.

First and foremost the ta'amim represent a grammatical tradition, and are the heart and soul of the language of the Torah. Make sure you understand how the trope serves to support the grammar. You don't have to start learning Hebrew grammar, rather start getting a basic understanding of the types of ta'amim and what their function is in a sentence. This helps tremendously because knowing which ta'amim need to be correctly leined and which ones don't require correction during leining will bring focus to your learning. Not every ta'am will draw equal focus and attention, and you can feel the flow of the ta'amim; how they are grouped, which ones are logical given the text, etc. Just understanding the ta'amim in a simple, basic way will help you memorize trope in a big way. If you are serious about leining, don't skip this step.

My first advice is to not start leining. If you have difficulty remembering melodies the best start in my opinion is to learn the trope without applying it to text. Many siddurim, chumashim, or trope website contain the list of cantilliation marks (ta'amim). If you have found your resource in step 1, and you've heard the trope used on text in step 2 you are ready to commit the basic trope to memory. Depending on your hardship with remembering melodies you could opt for two routes (A) repeat and repeat and repeat the trope for all the ta'amim, or (B) start repeating the most common and important ta'amim, and only add the less common and special ta'amim when you are comfortable with the 'normal' set. In the end it won't matter much what route you take as long as you take the route that keeps you motivated to continue.

For route A: find a list with all the ta'amim, such as http://bible.ort.org/books/cant4.asp

Just say the name of each ta'am at first. No melody. Just repeat all the ta'amim in order, by name until you can recognize each ta'am. Your teaching yourself a new alphabet basically, so this phase is necessary to learn to read the ta'amim.

If you can comfortably recognize each ta'am and identify it by name you can start adding melodies at your own pace. The link to bible.ort.org has helpful coloring that might aid in deciding how to 'chunk' your learning. The colors help identify the common grouping of these ta'amim. Don't worry too much about what that means. Hear the melody of each ta'am, pick a few you are comfortable repeating. And each day make some time to repeat the melodies of one group of ta'amim. If you feel comfortable expanding, because you feel you can produce the melody of one group without having to hear a recording, then feel free to do so.

Don't worry that this phase can take a while. It is very common that people need about two weeks of practice to memorize the tune of the whole ta'am set. Route A can take a month in total for some people. The great thing is that every hour spent on this step (either route A or B) will greatly help you make progress further down the road. Take your time and enjoy knowing the basic trope to the ta'amim.

For route B: Basically, route A with less pressure on the melody-recall

What helps is to understand that not all ta'amim are equal. The ta'amim that represents the stops and pauses, the Melachim (Kings) are critical. Fortunately, they are not that hard musically. The most prominent of these are the sof posuk (and of sentence), the etnachta (semicolon) and the zakef katon (comma). Just knowing these few will help you through a lot of text. Then you have what I would call the 'transitive' ta'amim, such as the kadma, mapach (shofar holech), etc. that are meant to connect one word with the subsequent word, and are very low on melody and are not to be emphasized as a standalone melody. Together the Melachim and the transitive are very very low on melody, and just getting these right in pacing (clear stops, clear transitions) will make you a great baal koreh. There are even some beginning baalei koreh that only apply trope to the Melachim and homogenize the rest, but even though I know this is halachically allowed I have never felt good about this. But: if this is an option that helps you stay on course: choose it.

The more embellished ta'amim have some space for personalization. I know people who make extra work on the melody of the segol or of the tlisha ketana, but within the same trope I also know some great baalei koreh who do these with a minimalistic melody. So my takeaway: as long as you focus on the critical ta'amim during leining, and your personal adaptation of the trope is sufficiently recognizable as that trope, then you are ready to scale your work up.

I cheat. Some melodies are easy to remember with a bit of knowledge: a shalshelet is basically a triple darga, so I just copy-paste a darga three times and there is my beautiful shalshelet. Just knowing this helped me because it was one ta'am I didn't really have to remember. Same with the karnei farah, which might have its own melody, but your Tikkun will probably explain that it is a combination of two common ta'amim, and that you just need to do them in the right order (tlisha ketana first, even though it is written at the end of the word).

In the beginning focus on the common ta'amim. If you have a hard time remembering the special ones: don't bother as of yet. Start leining aliyot that do not have these special ta'amim, or if you do encounter one: just learn to one special ta'am for the occasion. I never seem to get the mercha kefulah of the Torah-trope committed to memory. The rare occasion I need to know it I just relearn it for that occasion. As long as I know the basics it won't hamstring my other leining

Step 4: Choose your path: Haftarah or Torah

Many people I know would probably advise you to start learning Hebrew grammar, and leining specifics, but I like getting down in the trenches and building from there. Depending on your background there are two options that will help you prepare for Torah leining:

A: Lein Haftarah first. Okay, this requires going back to the first steps, because those same ta'amim need to be relearned with a new melody. Downside two is that haftarah Hebrew is (at least to me) more difficult than Torah Hebrew. The advantage is that you don't need to learn the text by heart (in most communities). You can spend one or two weeks practicing the Haftarah with trope, focus on the trope, and lein it to the congregation. In most communities, I've been in, so I assume yours is similar, lein or allow leining Haftarah from books that have both nekudot and cantillation marks (ta'amim). It is hard enough to read a text with musical grammar, so focusing on just learning to read in such a way can help to build a musical memory for text.

Once reading Haftarah becomes second nature, you will notice that memorizing Torah and its trope has its challenge reduced, because now 'reading' Torah will mean 'reading with trope'. The trope has become second nature and you can start tackling just remembering the parasha, instead of both the text and trope as completely separate elements. There will certainly be some separation that makes practicing Torah leining so challenging (and rewarding), but this is tackled in a later step.

B: Start with Torah. Some people like facing their challenges head-on. If you just want to lein Torah and focus on that, start with the Maftir. Usually, the maftir is also the one who leins Haftarah, so you can also opt to combine A and B. But: if you let your rabbi-gabbai-baál koreh know that you just want to lein the maftir portion, then there are ways to let you do that without also letting you do the haftarah.

Regardless of what you started with you will have to start doing Torah leining at some point. and the maftir is a good start. The maftir is usually between 3 to 5 verses, with only some maftir-portions considerably longer. In the beginning, even such a small portion can prove a challenge, so don't worry that if this is the case for you that it must indicate a failure on your part. Leining is just hard, especially if you didn't start young.

After the maftir has become too easy to be personally rewarding consider taking up the Shabbat-mincha portions. The first regular-aliyah is separated into three portions, and just scaling up to the cohen-portion can be a worthy challenge.

Step 5: Scaling up: portion size and knowledge-base.

If you have reached step 5, then you are probably so far on this road that you know what you need. For the sake of completion, there is only one tip that is sufficiently universal:

Learning Torah leining takes time. A lot of time. If you were leining and you forgot the tope midway, or the words escaped you: the only true solution for the next time is to spend more time. If you spent 40 hours memorizing the parasha and it wasn't enough, spend 50 hours.

That's it. The following tips help overcome problems with melody and text over time:

  • Understand the text: understanding the hebrew you are reading will help memorize the trope. Text you understand will reduce cognitive load and increase working memory capacity for committing and recalling melody to and from memory.
  • Understand biblical Hebrew grammar. Start with basic things that aid memorization. For example: knowing that words like 'lechem' become 'lachem' at the end of a (part-) sentence will greatly increase your ability to recall the word and ta'am. On the one hand knowing that the word requires a zakef katon or munach, means its not 'lachem', and conversely, just knowing that the word is 'lachem' will also help you recall that this word requires an etnachta or sof pasuk.
  • Don't postpone scaling up to full parshiot until you can do single aliyot flawlessly. For one: everyone makes mistakes once in a while; flawless performances are utopian. Secondly and more importantly: the type of practice that works for single aliyot does not scale up to multiple aliyot or full parshiot. Especially long parshiot are not easily repeated multiple times in full during one practice session. So if you stay practicing single aliyot you will not learn how to handle the big portions. At some point decide you know how to lein and just take the plunge. Take something manageable such as Nitzawim or Vayelech, or pick four aliyot of a larger parasha, and struggle through it. It will pay off.

Sorry for the long post.

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There are lots of Torah reading tutors, for almost every possible musical tradition. There are CDs, youtubes, and even programs you can buy. I have no idea what tradition you're looking for, but here's some things to keep in mind generally:

  1. If you aren't the most musical, then properly learning to read with grammatical rules should be your focus. You can work on the musical aspects later over the course of your lifetime.

  2. Not every tradition has the same melodies, some are more simple, others are more complex. You are not expected to sing perfectly as long as your pronunciation and pauses are done correctly.

  3. Having a teacher is always the best as there are lots of subtleties that get missed when you only practice with tapes or recordings.

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Dunno if this is the way, but there is a standard tune for the Ashkenazi trop, running through all the symbols. Munach zarka-aah, munach segol, munach, munach, revii... I've always seen the Bar Mitzvah boys begin by just learning that tune very well. Once you can sing it in your sleep, you can start attaching little pieces of it to what you read.

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  • The Ashkenazi trop. Is there anything such? Apr 12, 2021 at 16:36
  • He probably means the reform synthesis of the te'amim as synthesized by Binder
    – Aaron
    Apr 12, 2021 at 18:52
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I started to learn to lein the Torah (Ashkenazi, typical American, non-yeshivish, non-Chabad) before my bar mitzva from my mother, A"H. She started with the most basic, common trop-phrases (mercha-sof pasuk, then mercha-tipcha, then munach-etnachta), and then had me repeat that note, applied to its own name, and then applied in various contexts that appeared in my bar mitzva parsha. We kept practicing notes I'd already learned and progressively added more. At some point, a hired bar mitzva teacher took over and continued in the same manner, and into helping me learn and practice my parsha itself.

I've tried a more "natural language" method with my kids, starting almost as soon as they're able to read. I pick some verses from the weekly parsha, and I read them, with trop, phrase by phrase, and have the child repeat as best they can. Over time, the kids associate the symbols with the notes intuitively, the same way they associate the letters and words with the sounds and concepts they represent. So far, I've only had one kid reach bar mitzva, and this method, probably with some deliberate teaching along the way, worked very well to prepare him to learn to lein.

I agree with Aaron that your best bet is likely to find a teacher to teach you the trop, one phrase at a time, the way I learned. Short of that, and possibly complementing that, I'd suggest:

  • If you don't already, move your lips along with the Torah reading in shul. Try to anticipate, as you go, how the words will sound coming from the Reader. You won't always succeed, but in focusing and trying, you may build awareness, natural-language-style, of the notes.
  • Try to teach yourself one trop-phrase at a time. Start with the most common one (mercha-sof pasuk) and work your way down. Listen to a recording, and pause it to repeat every instance of that phrase. Keep doing that until you feel that you've mastered that phrase, and then add another one (e.g. mercha-tipcha), and pause to repeat every instance of either of them. Etc. If you focus on one trop-phrase at a time, you can hopefully build mastery until you can sight-read all of them.

In case you're wondering: My mother, A"H, learned to lein for her bat mitzva. By the time I was born, leining in shul was no longer part of her expression of Judaism, but she still knew how. I do try to teach my daughters to read the Torah with trop, so that they have access to that layer of traditional form and meaning.

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Over 40 years ago, Yoseph Simpson taught me how to read the Torah exactly like it's done at 770.

Yoseph is still alive in New York City.

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  • Welcome to MiYodeya Howard and thanks for this first answer. Since MY is different from other sites you might be used to, see here for a guide which might help understand the site. That answer would be more helpful if you shared contact information for Yoseph Simpson, otherwise I'm not sure how it helps the questioner. Great to have you learn with us!
    – mbloch
    Apr 13 at 17:49
  • @mbloch if you shared contact information for Yoseph Simpson Jeez my guy don't encourage a dox here 🤣
    – Yehuda
    Apr 14 at 3:40
  • I do not have his contact information. I do not know if is willing to teach trop. I have not communicated with him since 1975. The rabbis at chabad Fairfax and chabad Tyson in virginia know Simpson. I'm told he is principal of a school. In 1975 I asked to learn to read Torah, and he taught me the way he knew, the chabad way. I give up reading Torah a few years later because it was too time consuming. Last year I tried reading shabbat minchas because I have the time. I still have a recording of Simpson. If someone really wants to read the chabad way, there are some people who know.
    – howard
    Apr 14 at 19:07

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