You Should Know… Nick May

Nick May in the hallway at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, where he is a music teacher. Photo by David Stuck.

Updated: Feb. 20, 2020.

Nick May has been expressing himself through music since age 12, when Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown of New Orleans. Now 26, he’s a music teacher at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax and a Jewish song leader who tours the country. When he performs, he tells audiences about his stutter and how music has helped him through it.

What got you into the field you’re in?

My mom is a cantorial soloist in New Orleans, and my dad plays music as well. So music was a big part of my childhood. I didn’t fall in love with Jewish music until I started going to summer camp … That’s where I started hearing songs that connected with me more, songs that sounded like songs I would hear on the radio.

Artists like Dan Nichols, Rick Recht, the classics, Debbie Friedman, those artists really helped me fall in love with what Jewish music could be.

So you consciously decided to learn guitar as a way to express yourself about what was going on in your life.

Obviously a lot was happening at that time. Twelve years old is a huge part of anyone’s life. I had just started seventh grade at the New Orleans Jewish Day School and we had only packed enough clothes and things for four days [when the hurricane hit].

And we ended up staying in Houston for a month. We stayed at my godparents’ house. I did go to school for the month that I was in Houston. We didn’t know when we were coming home.

Is there a reason you’ve stuck with specifically Jewish music instead of branching out to other types?

So in terms of writing my own music, I’ve always been more inspired as a songwriter when I read prayers in a prayer book, being able to come up with my own English interpretation of it. To me, that’s really powerful because I’m able to explain the prayer in a new way that speaks to me and may speak to someone else as well.

I do have a couple of songs that aren’t necessarily Jewish. One I wrote when I was in high school about my journey as a person whose stutters.

How has your stutter affected you?

I started stuttering when I was a kid. Like I remember my negative experience was in third grade … I feel like my stutter has … I think it helped push me to music because I don’t stutter when I sing.

My stutter has different ways of manifesting itself. There have been periods where certain sounds were harder than others. There were certain periods where my stutter sounded different, where instead of saying, like I stutter now, “Um um um um um” a lot, or like blocking, I would sound more like “W-w-w-w-w-what?”

And actually, I have a couple tricks to deal with it, like you can’t see it right now; however, underneath the table I’m tapping my foot to help my body get on a rhythm to get the word out on a downbeat. And sometimes, if I can feel if a block is coming, I’m able to switch out the words to a word that’s easier to get out.

May with his guitar in the classroom where he teaches music. Photo by David Stuck.

So you teach at Gesher, and you go touring and song leading in different places around the country.

Yes, and I also teach Hebrew at Temple Rodef Shalom, and I do Sunday school at [Temple B’nai Shalom] in Fairfax Station. It’s a lot, but it’s all in the same professional space. I’m still doing Jewish education, I’m still doing Jewish music.

What are you doing now, in terms of your music?
I’m kind of in a transitional period right now where most of my work is in the realm of BBYO, youth group song leading where I’m leading music at services, where I do song sessions that aren’t about me performing my songs. It’s about getting the group of people closer together through singing together. Whenever I do perform a concert, it’s mainly for … older audiences, and that’s just my music. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of children’s concerts.

Right now I kind of feel like my career is at a crossroads, like whether I want to focus more on songwriting, song leading, children’s music, adult music. Currently, I am actually working on an album that’s all … acoustic songs.

For a taste of Nick’s original music, watch the video below:

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