Singing my way into old age

Though I’ve always loved to sing, I was a secret singer for most of my life.

Young woman singing a song with a microphone (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Young woman singing a song with a microphone
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Though I’ve always loved to sing, I was a secret singer for most of my life. In my kitchen, in my car, and mostly in the shower, the tiled walls and stream of water creating a perfect acoustical chamber where I imagined myself another Carole King or Linda Ronstadt or Idina Menzel. But it was fantasy. I knew that my voice wasn’t good enough to share with others.
I discovered this back in middle school when I tried out for the choir. The audition was pretty standard: accompany the music teacher through some basic chords. But when my turn came I froze. This was my first time singing alone in public, and my voice went flat. The music teacher rejected me.
I tried out again the following year. This time I made the cut. I’m not quite sure how, but the damage had been done. I knew I was a faker, and after that year in choir, I went back to singing alone. That’s how it was for years. That’s how I thought I’d go to my grave.
Around this time, I started watching videos of a Jewish a capella group called The Maccabeats. More than their mash-ups of contemporary songs, I loved their vibe. They looked like they were having a great time together. I would have loved to join them, but I knew they’d never take me. The Maccabeats were a male-only group, but I really wanted to be a Maccabeat. As an empty nester and freelance writer, I needed to keep my spirits buoyant amid the inevitable rejection that is part of my professional life. I had a sense that being part of a singing group could do that for me, but where would I find one?
Then a woman I knew vaguely invited me to join the choir she was starting. No scary auditions, just come and sing. For weeks, we practiced our repertoire, a single song which we performed at a Hanukkah party. I loved it, not only the singing but also the schmoozing. But then my fellow choristers quarreled over which song to sing next and our group disbanded.
I started going to therapy instead.
A year later, I discovered another group. The women had been together for year singing a capella. At my first and only practice session I realized that everyone else read notes and sang like divas. I didn’t. When I struggled with the arrangements, the choirmaster nudged me out. So much for joy and community through music.
Another year passed. I quit therapy and took up painting instead. I thought I was doing well. Then I spotted an ad for a new choir. No experience required. Another choir. Would I make the cut? My good memories of the first choir stuck with me. I would try out.
AT THE AUDITION, I listened as an elegant elderly woman trilled in the upper registers. She was clearly a retired opera singer. After her came a young woman with a rich bluesy voice who sounded like she could sing in clubs. I wondered if I should bolt, but then a gawky woman opened her mouth. She was flat. Terrible. So terrible that her willingness to open her mouth in public made me brave. If she could, then so could I, however, when my turn came, my throat clamped shut. It was middle school déjà vu.
Dassi, the choirmaster, went silent too. I guessed that she figuring out a tactful way to send me home. Instead she started to play “Kah Ribon Olam” – an Aramaic prayer sung on Shabbat.
“Close your eyes and pretend you’re at the Shabbos table,” she said.
My body shook, my knees nearly buckled, but slowly I eased into the song. At the last refrain, Dassi smiled. “You’re in,” she said.
For nearly a year, I was part of the OU Intergenerational Choir. There were three dozen of us of various ages, nationalities, political views and lifestyles, but when we sang together, that slipped away. All that remained were our voices and the music.
Then my mother died. I quit. Jewish mourners must stay away from music for a year. Yet even after the year ended, I didn’t go back. While I was gone, Dassi’s choir had become too professional for me. I just wanted to have fun. And I wanted to sing rock and roll.
Another year passed, and another. I thought I was doing well. Then I read an article in O, the Oprah Winfrey magazine, describing a worldwide movement of people who sang together just for fun. The article said that singing elevated their endorphin levels, the body’s feel-good hormones. I could have guessed that. The article made me realize how much I wanted to sing. Everyone I knew was busy trying to make money and get their kids married. My desire to sing felt ridiculous, but it was real. Then one day, in desperation, I reached out to my musical friend Amy.
She liked the idea I suggested, but she didn’t have time.
A year later, Amy texted me. She had met a young choir conductor who was launching a group to sing rock, jazz, gospel and Broadway show tunes just for fun. Was I interested? Of course I was interested, but my insecurity reared its ugly head. Would the group want me? Was my voice good enough?
Fifteen of us turned up for that first session. Without holding auditions, Yael, the choirmaster, plunged us into our first song “Oh Happy Day,” with “Jesus” deleted to reflect Jewish sensibilities.
 Oh Happy Day – that’s just how I felt.
Three months in, I’m a dedicated member of the Jerusalem Women’s Singing Ensemble. We get together on Sunday nights to sing. Instead of the Sturm und Drang of late middle age or early old age, my mind is full of music. I still can’t sight read. I still drift into the wrong registers. I still worry that someone will catch me holding the wrong note. But when my voice merges with the other voices, my spirit soars with pure joy, singing my way into old age.
The writer is an author, writing teacher and amateur singer. Born and raised in New York City, she makes her home in the Judean Hills outside of Jerusalem.