I live my life in music. This is not a surprise to those of you who know me. All of life is a lyric, all of life is one verse after another, and occasionally getting back to the chorus. If I'm really lucky, others know the song I sing, and sing it with me. Otherwise….well, it can get pretty cacophonous in my world.
This week I was even more aware of songs, or more specifically, melodies, as I prepared to lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at various services around town. I'm a cantorial soloist "for hire", and this is the busy season, folks. So, I'm in three different congregations, three different settings, three different musical requirements. But the melodies, the "mode" of this time of year is the constant between the three.
It's more than just what key the liturgy is in, and more than being minor or major. One of the things I love most about the musical cantillation for Torah is that it changes with the holiday. The same markings are sung differently depending on whether it's Shabbat Torah, Shabbat Haftorah, Purim, Tisha b'Av, or the High Holidays. Each variation has a character to it, and the nusach (modal pattern) for this time of year is deep and solid. I find it not too flourish-y, not too fancy, but easy to sing with true emotion. In fact, it just doesn't flow if you sing it "dry." It is memorable and a bit repetitive. One hears the same musical phrases throughout. It fits the prayers—heartfelt, repetitive, not too high in the register, but grounded, even for tenors and sopranos.
Practicing for the services really gets my head into the "space" of the Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim. It's odd—they bounce around my head and ears for weeks leading up to Rosh Hashanah, yet on any given day, I'm listening to the radio, singing while I cook or drive, and there are all sorts of other, "regular" tunes in my head. Yet, as soon as I hum one phrase, one word even, I'm out of the daily world and back into the service.
I am as surprised as my father probably would be, to be standing in front of a room full of people, chanting Torah or singing Kol Nidre. This will be the first year for that one, actually, and it's awe-some. Literally. One doesn't take this stuff lightly, at least to my way of thinking. Dad never got used to women chanting; he died before seeing two of his daughters take their places up on the bima, (my sister is a rabbi/cantor), and frankly, I'm not sure if he'd have ever gotten used to it. He was a Loop Synagogue kind-of-guy. Mom preferred that too, and for them, the key to the Gates from Selichot (the week before Rosh Hashanah), to Neilah, as the gates closed on Yom Kippur night, the key (literally!) to their holiday experience was a chazan with a little niggen in his voice.
There are lots of clichés about the power of music to transform and transport; they're clichés because they're true. I'm only singing parts of the High Holiday liturgy, and I have enormous respect and admiration for the chazzanim (cantors) who take on the entire thing. I once had a girlfriend who was eight months pregnant on Yom Kippur and never missed a note; now I know how astounding that feat really is. When I spoke to my sister earlier, before we both dove into the whirlwind, only to re-surface in about ten days, I could wish her the usual sweet new year. But to her, I added, "May your voice be strong and solid, and may it never leave you."
Whatever your entrance into the head-space of these Awe-some Days, may you find it in joy and meaning, and may your new year be filled with the song that speaks to your heart. Wishing you a very sweet New Year, L'Shana Tovah.