You Should Know… Russell Nadel

Photo by Demitri Bowen

Russell Nadel, a middle school music specialist and composer, did not always like music. It took a whole lot of Billy Joel and a few music competition wins for Nadel, 37, to realize that he wanted to study and pursue a career in music. Nadel teaches at the Potomac School in McLean and participates in the musical life at his synagogue, Congregation Adat Reyim, in Springfield.

What drew you to music?

I grew up in a musical house with a beautiful piano. I started taking piano lessons in third grade at age 8, and I didn’t much like it. But I had a very patient and very understanding music teacher who let me play the music that I liked, which at the time was a lot of Billy Joel.

That was convenient, instead of Led Zeppelin. I ended up staying with piano lessons for a whole bunch of years.

Around 8th grade, there was a competition sponsored in the Philadelphia area, a Holocaust memorial competition for students in the arts. One of the categories was music composition.

My music teacher at the time told me I should write something. I said, “You are nuts. Only dead white European dudes with complicated names write music.” And she said, “No, no, really, you should try something. Just try it. You might like it.” I tried it, and I ended up winning that year. That was obviously very exciting.

What do you do as a middle school music specialist?

Music composition, music theory, music analysis, percussion instruments, playing Bard instruments, xylophones, social dance, traditional dance, folkloric dance, creative dance, choreography and a lot of small group work.

The thing that I love about this job, especially under normal circumstances, but even now, is the amount of creative work that I see my students produce. At a certain point in my teaching, there’s always a moment when I say, “OK, you now know the basic rules. Now go create, go make something.” That’s just the best feeling.

How are you involved with the music at your synagogue, Congregation Adat Reyim?

I’m the co-director of Shir Reyim, which used to be known as the folk group. We are the instrumental and vocal group that performs. We lead services roughly one Friday night a month. We have vocal harmonies, and we have the repertoire pulled from Debbie Friedman, as opposed to the sort of more classical synagogue literature.

For me, a worship experience or a student experience that features music is always going to be more impactful than one that does not. OK, not always, but almost always.

What kind of composer are you?

I start most pieces at the piano. I start sketching at the piano and very quickly move to the computer where I use programs that are a combination of music engraving programs and music playback programs. So if you can imagine this sort of a word processor for music, there are a lot of programs like this out there where you can literally type in the notes, hit play and then it will play it back. It’s a very powerful tool. I start with singing or with the recorder, depending on if it’s a vocally conceived piece, and then I move pretty quickly to the computer and continue composing from there.

I really like writing vocal music. I really dislike writing text. I am not a poet, that does not come easily to me. So I really like setting other people’s texts to music.

What is your favorite piece that you have composed?

I don’t think I can pick. I’ve been writing music now for 20 years. It is hard to imagine. The two things that really sort of strike me are how much my voice and style has changed over that time. How it has evolved and morphed depending on who I’ve been studying with, what classes I was taking, or what I’m listening to. Also, how the pieces that I wrote even 20 years ago still sound like me. I find it quite beautiful to have come on a journey as a composer, as a musician and as a music educator. It’s been a good ride. It’s been so lovely to have had the support from other musicians, peers and educators to have been able to experiment with a whole bunch of different styles and try different things.

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