Several years ago I wondered aloud how the people who lead religious services are able to pray themselves -- if they're paying attention to the logistics, do they ever get to have that moment of connection that they're trying to facilitate for everybody else in the room, I wondered? I later asked a rabbi at HUC about it and he said, basically, "welcome to our world".
Y'know what? I've gotten way more comfortable with this since then. What it seems to have required is practice and time. Shocking, right? :-)
Friday night I led services with our second rabbi. The senior rabbi and cantorial soloist were both on a congregational trip to Israel, so I was to fill the cantorial role. The rabbi and I talked by phone for ten minutes or so the day before to talk about music, and then we just showed up and it worked. We've led together two or three times, I think -- not a lot -- and yet the "shared mind" was there, so we did not bumble around with cues and awkward transitions. I got prayer time for myself amidst the service and it was great. I led a couple Friday services over the summer too, one all by myself (the cantorial soloist and I had been planning to do it together and she injured herself the day before), and I got compliments on how much spirit I brought to it -- and yet, again, I was able to participate and not just facilitate. It was neat.
I've led our Shabbat morning minyan a few times and that's generally gone quite well too, but the minyan has a hive mind and can do well with pretty much any semi-confident leader. (Confidence matters more than skill in this group, in my observation.) So I can lead that minyan and still have a worship experience for myself, but the minyan is helping. In the sanctuary, especially up on the bimah, that experience is different; the acoustics of the room are terrible, there's more space between the leaders and the congregation so it's harder to see how they're reacting, too many people like to sit in the back, and Friday night attracts a fair number of people who don't participate as actively as the morning minyan.
I've come to one important conclusion, and it differs from what I see some other leaders doing and I don't know why that is. I think I'm right, but I'm a virtual sophomore. My conclusion: just do it -- just pray the prayers, just sing the songs, etc. Add connective tissue where needed and appropriate (if I don't know many people there I mention the turning and bowing in the song L'cha Dodi, for instances), but extended interruptions will kill any chance of anybody in the room actually achieving kavannah. I see people stop to teach a song -- repeatedly, with call-and-response teaching and several run-throughs before we sing it "for real" -- and I feel like I'm no longer worshipping but am attending camp or a concert. None of our melodies are hard and most are repetitive; people who want to get it will get it, and if not this week then next week or the week after. Similarly, I've seen people stop in the middle of the Amidah, the central prayer, to explain what the prayer is about, because we're reading it in Hebrew, but the English is right there on the page. I assume I'm not the only person who's ever dropped out of a "let's read this together" section to read something else, like a translation, on my own.
Friday night we sang songs that we tend to sing only once a year, during Chanukah. I just sang them. I intentionally added an English verse to Maoz Tzur (for accessibility), and the others we sang two or three times (they're not long). Some people clearly didn't know them at the beginning but they were singing by the end. We read the Chanukah insertion in the Amidah but we did not stop to talk about its content at that point; there was a d'var torah coming and people could wait. I assumed that people are smart enough to just go with the flow, and I was not disappointed. And the rabbi and I got to worship and not just perform, without damaging the communal experience.