Susan Colin isn’t afraid to try new things. In March, she left her position as cantorial soloist for Congregation NefeshSoul in Chandler to work solely as a visiting guest artist and artist in residence for various synagogues.
While Colin loved her years at NefeshSoul, this move is something she had been contemplating for some time. She described her departure “not as a leaving but as a going to something new.” And Zoom played a role in making this an opportune time to make the transition.
She has always found that being open to “experience and opportunities” serves her well, she said. So when COVID-19 temporarily ended in-person gatherings, she was quick to adapt to virtual platforms, musically and professionally.
After all, she said, it’s what Jews do. “Jews adapt, pivot and repeat to find ways to stay connected, keep each other going and remind ourselves we are part of a chain, and music helps us with that.”
As an early adopter of YouTube, Colin didn’t hesitate to perform online in light of the pandemic’s restrictions. To ease people’s anxiety, even a little, Colin created “music buffets” on her YouTube channel, SusanColinMusic. She described the buffets as 20 minutes of “light and easy songs,” which gave viewers “a nice little tour” of Jewish music. As the owner of OySongs, a digital platform for Jewish music, she had a vast array of music to choose from.
But it was when Cantor Seth Ettinger of Congregation Beth Israel put together a virtual concert for Tu B’Av last summer and invited Colin to be one of 11 contributors that new opportunities opened up for her.
A congregation in Westchester, New York saw the performance and contacted Colin to perform a virtual concert for them. More invitations soon followed.
“A year ago, nobody would have dreamed of paying someone to do a Zoom concert, and now this is just a normal thing,” Colin said. “It’s become a weird but wonderful technological option that we have. It isn’t perfect, but it still serves a really important purpose.”
Zoom also brought opportunities closer to home. Before the pandemic, NefeshSoul didn’t offer services every Shabbat. But seeing the congregation’s need for connection, Rabbi Dr. Susan Schanerman and Colin began holding weekly services. Colin also created a concert especially for NefeshSoul last November.
“Susan connected to the congregation through her singing, her careful mixture of Hebrew and English, her original compositions and her skilled blending of traditional and contemporary melodies,” said Schanerman, via email.
Colin plans her concerts around a theme that suits the moment. Then she sits with her initial plan for a day or two before revisiting it. She’s always thinking about how to connect with the audience and wants to get the music that will be most familiar and enjoyable for any particular audience.
“Music matters,” she said. “Music does something that nothing else can do. It moves us and helps to express things that we may not have other ways to express. It can be cathartic, it can be uplifting.”
Since she isn’t able to use her go-to response songs on Zoom or harmonize with a virtual audience, she creates chemistry in other ways. She looks into the camera to create a feeling of eye contact. She chats with people at the beginning and end of a performance and uses gallery view at key moments, letting people see each other. She calls out for people to wave their hands or give a peace sign. And, of course, people are always free to dance while they watch. She does.
Zoom concerts can also feel more intimate, since audiences glimpse her at home. So she’s intentional about what she wants to share and why. In her office, she’s surrounded by her books and family photographs and viewers sometimes ask about them. That familiarity results in more chemistry, more connection.
And no two virtual concerts are alike. Last month’s Zoom concert for a synagogue in Florida felt more like an episode of the “Merv Griffin Show,” she joked. But no matter the presentation, Colin emphasized the importance of taking the time to experience music rather than merely letting it fade into the background.
“Music affects us emotionally, spiritually, physically, and it’s one of the most important gifts we have to share together,” she said. “I’m relieved that we have the technology to share this in a more personal way.”
A colleague once told her that she had a nice voice, but if she wanted to build a legacy she would need to write her own music. She did, although it’s not her music that she considers her legacy, but rather how her songs affect listeners — in person or otherwise.
A few years ago on YouTube, a woman saw “Healing Song,” which Colin wrote about the “unique agony” of being a caregiver, and contacted her to express gratitude for capturing the essence of what many people in that position feel but don’t know how to express.
“I was touched that someone found my song for healing and related to it and took the time to write to me, and now that’s my legacy — that I provided comfort to someone,” she said. “Isn’t that the ultimate human connection? That’s what music can do.” JN