Kindergarten teacher Val Toskin had a bit of a problem. Her pupils at the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School were just not responding to her song leading as enthusiastically as she thought they should, and her confidence was taking a hit.
“I love to sing, but I really didn’t have the skills that were required to have them sing with me,” says Toskin, who has been teaching for 20 years, the past five at Mirowitz.
“I could sing to them and sometimes they would sing along, but I felt that I’ve seen Rick do his thing, where he comes to a school and gets the whole school’s energy going. He always said, ‘It really is a skill, Val, It’s not something I have naturally, it’s something I developed.’”
“Rick” is musician Rick Recht, a native St. Louisan who is executive director of Chesterfield-based Jewish Rock Radio and the St. Louis Songleader Boot Camp. And it was at SLBC last year that Toskin learned how to lead kids in song – and so much more.
Recht says Songleader Boot Camp “provides a wide range of educational opportunities for Jewish leaders that include a constituency of rabbis and cantors and Jewish educators who don’t necessarily sing or play an instrument. … SLBC is not (only) about teaching songs, it’s not about Kumbaya moments. It’s really about Jewish meaning, connection, analysis and strategy.”
This year’s three-day boot camp begins Feb. 17 at the Jewish Community Center, coinciding with the JCC’s Festival of Jewish Life and the first Jewish Rock Radio RockFest national Jewish music festival. Indeed, many of the SLBC presenters and leaders will be performing at RockFest, including Billy Jonas, Saul Kaye, Shira Kline, Naomi Less, Mikey Pauker and Jay Rapoport.
Jonas, for example, will be leading an SLBC session Feb. 18 that he calls Primal Songleading 101: “How to walk into a space and set it up for maximum success as a song leader. How to galvanize a crowd, willing or unwilling, into a chorus or choir and one musical organism using techniques from throughout the ages.”
At boot camp, participants, who come from around the country, learn leadership methods that can be used in performance, education and other area to engage and inspire Jewish youth as well as communities of all ages.
Recht says core training at SLBC involves exploring “the methodologies of the world’s top athletes, entertainers and business people, and looking at the ways they achieve a peak physical and psychological state to perform at extraordinary levels all the time. We study those methodologies and apply them to Jewish leadership.”
One master class is called Star State, in which the individual makes a “radical change” in his or her physical and psychological state, Recht says.
“The radical change on the physical level is created by quick and rapid movement, the kind of movement you see when you look backstage at a rock concert, or when you look at the swim team at the Olympics before their event, you see people jumping up and down and stretching and really moving quite rapidly to increase heart rate and oxygen flow,” he says.
Changing one’s psychological state is more difficult, and it takes concentration and focus.
“The way we do that is by asking ourselves a series of provocative questions,” Recht says. “Why am I incredibly blessed to have the opportunity to teach or do do what I’m about to do? Why is this particular experience incredibly important to me? What are their expectations of what’s about to happen, and what are my expectations of what I’m about to do? How can I set a new standard?”
SLBC also typically teaches a mantra, the use of which all peak performers have in common, he says.
“We find these skills and methods are extremely accessible for your average person and that they can be applied directly to Jewish education with very exciting potential,” Recht says. “You just don’t see Mick Jagger walk out of his room and walk out on stage (without employing some of these methods). However, in the Jewish world, they aren’t used, and it’s our goal to learn from the world’s top so we can be the world’s top at what we’re doing.”
For Toskin, SLBC helped her overcome her fear of singing in public and of playing her guitar, on which she had only rudimentary skills. Now she can “sing in front of the whole school and never think twice about it.”
But she also took the other major component of SLBC – planning and strategy – to become a better teacher.
“They had us sit down and write a plan of action on how we’re actually going to use our skills,” she says. “It had very little to do with song leading but a lot to do with where I want to go with teaching. I would like to be a curriculum writer (for young children). Boot camp enabled me to write down a plan of action and to have some goals. I didn’t accomplish all of them, but I did accomplish quite a few of them.”
Recht says the “strategic road map” that participants design before leaving boot camp helps them identify milestones as well as challenges, and the resources they’ll need to meet their goals.
“The idea is not just to inspire them at Songleader Boot Camp but to create a strategy to move forward,” he says. “Songleader Boot Camp is intended to be a beginning, not an end, of a journey.”