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The Choir


I joined the choir at my synagogue a few years ago, when I was still a one-dog-woman, battling wills with Cricket, and needing somewhere else to be every once in a while, preferably with humans. At the first choir rehearsal of the summer, the cantor handed me a loose-leaf filled with the High Holiday music, and then he had to rush off to answer someone else’s questions. I didn’t even know where to sit.

I wandered around until the musical director introduced herself. As soon as she told me her name, I recognized her as my elementary school music teacher, and started to panic. She was a bit of a… let’s just say she had a tendency to be critical. She didn’t really remember me, but reminisced about other students she really liked over the years. When she asked if I was an alto or a soprano, I said, “somewhere in between,” and she sat me with the altos, because there were only two of them.

The rehearsal started inauspiciously, with a song I had never heard before that required the altos to sing something entirely unlike a melody. The next hour and a half was pure panic and confusion, for me, and boring repetition mixed with endless criticism for everyone else. When I tried to stand up at the end, I couldn’t balance and fell back down into my seat, and when the musical director came over and asked if I was okay, I started to sob.

Partly it was the adrenalin let down after my 90 minute panic attack, but also, I’d been having seizure-like episodes and walking problems for a while by then, so my balance was unreliable. Mom was there to drive me home, and as she walked me out of the sanctuary, the musical director walked out with us, talking non-stop. She said that I was brave to have tried, but choir isn’t for everyone, which made me cry harder. I tried to suck it up and smile and pretend I was fine, but she kept talking to me and the tears kept coming.

When I got home, I was determined to show her that I could stick it out. I put my new loose-leaf full of music on my bed and took out my guitar and picked out the first song in the book note by note. Cricket jumped up on the bed and pawed at the guitar strings. The sound stunned her, but she pawed again, and seemed to think she had discovered a monster hidden inside of the guitar. She is not a fan of monsters, other than herself, so she jumped off the bed in search of safer adventures.

Cricket's suspicious face.

Cricket’s suspicious face.

I practiced the High Holiday songs every day, with Cricket nearby but suspicious. None of the music was familiar to me, and I wasn’t used to four part harmony at all, but I pushed myself to go to the next rehearsal. The people who recognized me were surprised to see me again, and when the musical director came over, she looked at me like I was a fourth-grader who’d just peed on the floor. She said she was glad to see me, and I chose to believe her.

"You pee on the floor too, Mommy?"

“You pee on the floor too, Mommy?”

I thought I would be better prepared this time, but of course we only sang the songs I hadn’t practiced yet. I didn’t cry after the second rehearsal though, that was my big triumph.

I went to the next rehearsal, and the next, but I never seemed to catch up. There were different altos at each rehearsal, so I didn’t get to know anyone very well, and the row of bases behind me was completely filled, and loud, so I could barely hear my own voice to figure out what I was singing.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the bases behind me.

Cricket thinks fluffy hair would help me block out the other singers.

In between rehearsals, my neurologist was testing me for everything under the sun, but finding nothing. I was having a lot of trouble walking Cricket, even around the block, and the butterflies in my stomach during choir rehearsals were turning into pterodactyls and trying to rip me open from the inside.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me with her.

Cricket, leading the way, dragging me behind her.

By the end of August, the Neurologist was convinced that my problems were all psychological, and that I should try anti-depressants because he saw no physiological cause for my symptoms. He wanted me to see a psychiatrist from his group, but my insurance refused to cover it. They would, on the other hand, cover a hospital stay.

At first I was adamant that I would not go into a hospital: because I didn’t want to be away from Mom and Cricket, because I didn’t want to be watched all day, and because I did not believe I was crazy. But the choir rehearsals were setting off long forgotten pockets of dread that I could not squash, so, when Mom asked me, for the 72nd time, if I would please go to the hospital, I looked at the looming dates of the High Holiday services, and finally said yes.

That was more than two and a half years ago, and my neurological problems are still undiagnosed, though the anti-depressants have made other things easier. Butterfly arrived after my attempt to join the choir had ended, and after the guitar was zipped in its case and hidden in the back of the closet, and I wonder sometimes if I would have handled things differently if I’d already had Butterfly at home. But the fact is, I don’t sing to Butterfly at all! I’ve always thought that the one kind of singing I’d be able to do is to sing to my children, and yet here she is, big floppy ears at the ready, and I don’t sing to her.

Butterfly's big ears.

Butterfly’s big floppy ears are ready.

I do sing, but only when everyone around me is singing too. I look forward to the special Friday night services at my synagogue, when a full band comes to play, because with all of the singing and clapping and drums and amps, I can sing full out and not worry that everyone will hear me.

And it feels wonderful. It really does.

"Don't worry, Mommy. We're ignoring you."

“Don’t worry, Mommy. We’re ignoring you.”

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

107 responses »

  1. Do you live in a place where you can crank up the volume and sing with a DVD?

  2. Great writing! Honest, emotional – I kept reading it fast until the very end. I also love when the band comes to my synagogue, as all my Hebrew pronunciation mistakes just get unheard in such a noisy (and happy!) atmosphere. Thanks so much for your piece! 🙂

  3. Your music director is hopeless; that’s all I can say. I would love to join a choir (there’s a good one nearby) but due to fatigue I had to leave. It’s OK though; I just want to sing and I am singing (to myself). I even have accompaniment now that I’ve learnt how to play a few chords on the ukulele. Yeah, singing in company is great though. I remember belting out the Lord’s Prayer in St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The cantor invited us to so I thought: it’s now or never – so I sang in full voice even though it turned a few heads. Felt great.

  4. Wonderful determination there. You have more spunk then you might think. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories but interestingly enough one was when my crazy elementary music teacher pointed out that I was off tune. I have been off tune ever since. I too had a period when I was having strange symptoms and went through all sorts of testing and resulting complications from them. Ultimately I also saw a psychiatrist and was started on medications and have done much better since. I am not like I use to be but to be honest some of what I use to be, I don’t regret not being. Keep up the great work.

  5. It makes me crazy when just because a doctor can’t diagnose a thing they say it’s psychological. Singing is very therapeutic, you know? Even if Cricket is suspicious!

  6. The raw truth and honesty in this post was incredible. As someone who suffers from sever panic attacks, almost to the point of agoraphobia, I commend you for pushing yourself. I think if you enjoy music, you’re doing yourself a huge injustice by leaving the guitar zipped up. Butterfly is waiting…

  7. Butterfly loves you no matter what. And as for that musical director…..well, better left unsaid. Nothing that is meant to give you pleasure should cause so much anxiety. I am glad you still get to sing, Rachel. You don’t need a choir to allow you to do that.
    ps: I just love Cricket’s fluffy hair!

  8. As ever, I love your honesty. Your writing is relevant. The way you built the tension with your elementary school music teacher was terrific.

  9. I am so sorry that choir didn’t work for you, even though I never sing for anyone at all anymore, I cherished my time with my elementary school choir very much. Our choir director told me, only once, that I had a lovely voice and that was such an important moment for me. I am glad that you still sing at service and I am positive that your voice is beautiful. 😀

    • Thank you! A couple of times I’ve had people come up to me after services and tell me they love sitting in front of me and listening to me sing. And then I sing very quietly for a few weeks until the fear wears off again.

  10. Part of me wishes you just sang as loud as anything, enjoyed every minute of it and didn’t feel intimidated. But then again, being part of a choir would cut into your schedule and leave less time to devote to your talent of writing and the gift you have with animals. Happy that you have fun singing at those Friday night services!! Win- Win!

  11. I just love your dogs!! 🙂

  12. Oh, you poor thing! Bad enough to have to endure the uncertainty of a possible neurological condition; even wose to want to do something and get very little support or encouragement from the musical director.

    Participating in a musical endeavor should be a happy time. I’m sorry that it wasn’t for you.

    When I was 12 years old, I was chosen to sing in a City-white chorus. I’ll never forget being bused to the event and then having to stand on some elevated platform along with fifty other children. The rehearsal was held in late May and I’ll never forget the heat of the afternoon. Standing for what seemed several hours (I’m sure it wasn’t as long as I remember!) to rehearse some Rodgers and Hammerstein music in close, hot quarters was unendurable. I could feel the sweat trickling down my neck, and I began to feel lightheaded. Soon, I was down for the count, and the music director ran up to me after several of the other children screamed, “She’s fainted!”

    Oh my – talk about the embarrassment of it. The director’s parting words to me: “Next time you feel you have to sit down, then go ahead and sit down – don’t fall down!” 😀

    Glad you have those sweet dogs to comfort you. I think they are adorable.

    • My best friend from high school had a little brother with an angelic voice. He spent all of his spare time singing with a boys choir, and he’s still performing as an adult. I don’t know how the boys were treated, though. I hope they had fun. And no fainting.

  13. Excellent writing as always, Rachel. I have a terrible voice but I still love singing. My two year old grandniece sits in rapt attention when I do. I bet Butterfly and Cricket would do the same!

    You ought to sing just for your own enjoyment. I do, and if anyone doesn’t like it, that is just too bad. 🙂

  14. Touching post. I tweeted it 🙂

  15. I really liked that post. It’s ashamed that your elementary school teacher turned choir director kept mistreating you like that. I would like to encourage you to pull out your guitar again and continue working with your music. I don’t play an instrument now, but I do sing in my church choir. Did you know that there is healing power in music? I am writing a book called Embracing the Healing Power of Music, which talks about that very thing, and my own experiences with this concept. Let me give you a little experiment for you to try. First of all, find a comfortable quiet place to relax. Find your favorite piece of music, preferably one that is relaxing to you. Turn on the music, kick back and open yourself up and truly listen to and feel the music resonating through your body. If you don’t understand what I mean by that at watch Evelyn Glennie’s youtube video called how to truly listen and you’ll understand more about what I mean. I’d also like to encourage you to read an article that talks about eleven problems that music solves by visiting . I hope these tidbits of information are helpful to you. If you want to read my own story of how I found healing through God’s Gidt of music, you can help me get this book published by casting your vote at and by streading the word for me. I want this book to reach people just like you who can benefit from the healing power of music. I pray that God will richly bless you in whatever your life holds, and I hope you have a blessed weekend. Love and prayers, Ann

  16. Butterflies turning into pterodactyls… I can feel that. This is a poignant, evocative post, Rachel.

  17. I was told at school that I sang out of tune, and now even though I would love to try singing, I feel too nervous about it! I’m so impressed that you persisted with choir, especially with so little support from the director. And you should definitely try singing to Butterfly. I might even try singing to my dogs – I have no idea what they’d do!!

  18. I always get confused when you speak of Cricket… I think of the game

  19. I’d stop associating my self with those who are the underside of the base of a canine’s tail. Compose your own holiday music-just a thought.

  20. What a nightmare. Congratulations on persevering

  21. Great writing as usual. And I give you the thumbs up for joining a choir. I dread choirs and choir masters because I’m tone deaf. But I do love to sing. And in church I will sing as loud as the next person and if I’m out of tune I take solace that God doesn’t mind at all.

  22. I love to sing too, though it was something I never did at the same time as playing the piano! I was in the school choir, but not being a regular church goer, the hymns I remember all have different tunes. Give me one that is familiar though, and I’ll sing at the top of my voice! (earplugs optional!)

    • My Rabbi actually has ear plugs on hand for when the kids come to family services and start screaming; maybe he should have a bowl of them available for everyone else, just in case!

  23. Love this post , singing well done and congrat’s for carrying on. I do love to sing but only in my own home,. I must confess I did in a church when know one was around ha! The accoustic’s are wonderful I must admit.
    Well done Rachel x

  24. Well I’ve only just started to read you but I think you were very brave and everyone should encourage anybody to sing!!! How silly is that. As fr the panic episodes, you mention neurological, maybe try and see a neurologist? I sincerely hope thats not the case, but my brother in law was “accused” of being depressed, overly panicked, worried about everything for years until he got a proper MS diagnosis. I do not want to suggest in any way that it might be that! But, for example, another friend of mine who is perfectly healthy and yet does have MS, says she is often prescribed antidepressants because they affect the same neurological places as MS. So consider getting a good diagnosis. I say that but haven’t found a proper one myself yet 🙂 And yet, we must try i think 🙂

    • That is so interesting! I remember reading about pain and depression being on the same neurological circuits, so it makes sense that MS would cross those circuits too. The brain is such a fascinating thing!

  25. Oh, Rachel. Your choir experience reminded me of when I joined the local Saturday morning orchestra to play cello. I had no idea what I was doing; couldn’t read the bass clef; and ended up wracked with stomach pains through the fear of it all. I was 10!

    Happily for me, I do sing. Actually, if you like 4-part harmony and are mezzo-soprano-ish, then you could try Lead (highest part being tenor); Barbershop singing is wonderful! But then, I’m biased.

    Enjoy your singing on Fridays!

    • The Cello is a beautiful instrument, but it must have swamped you at ten. How did you carry it? I just heard a story about barbershop quartets on the radio yesterday, I’ll have to do some more research on that. Thank you!

      • Oh, the cello was a very unwise choice, even in a child-sized instrument!

        Look up your local choruses who may belong to Sweet Adelines. They are awesomely amazing!! My chorus belongs to the Ladies Association of British Barbershop Singers (LABBS for short!). Alternatively, watch the men on YouTube; you will be entertained 🙂

  26. Can relate to much of your story. I might suggest you bring the ‘ole guitar out again and just enjoy making music. I did that. I also dabbled in writing songs and eventually bought a used recorder which allows me to multiple track at a reasonable quality level. Enjoy who you are and the creativity that you clearly have. You may well be the only one you will ever entertain, or you may meet someone with a more supportive attitude and propel you to new heights….. who knows? Just for today, enjoy where you are at. Tomorrow will be here soon enough. 🙂

    • Recording music might scare me to death, but the guitar does seem to be talking to me from the closet.

      • Nobody has to listen to your recording except you! Assuming you can “hit” desired notes, then you could harmonize with yourself and, who knows, you may be very pleased with the end result!

      • Sounds exciting, actually.

      • If you are little creative, it can get better. Beat out a rhythm on the body of the guitar (recording it) and then accompany yourself. Play a sequence of chords (recording them) and improvise over the chord sounds. You are only limited by your imagination and for a relatively small outlay of $$$, you can get all sorts of interesting stuff depending on how far you want to go with it! 🙂

  27. We had a singing competition every year at our school and it was very competitive. One of the girls in our house (the school was divided into four houses) not only had a terribly out of tune singing voice, she was also very fat.
    At her wits end, the director (for want of a better word) who was a very meek quiet sort of girl (now the conductor at some fancy orchestra in Cape Town) told me I had to deal with it (ie kick her out!) Don’t get me wrong, several people had tried to hint and move her to where she would maybe not be noticed, but it didn’t work. She sang really loudly. We had even changed the non-compulsory song to a more noisy one – but couldn’t change the ‘set’ song!
    Eventually I was told I had to tell her to leave and being me, I just went up to her one day and told her she sang out of tune and couldn’t sing in the house competition! It was terrible, she cried and cried she so wanted to be part of the show.
    Incredibly, she didn’t just scream at me and walk away, she asked if she could still help somehow – like move chairs or set up the stage!!! I got her to tap the drums!
    Years later I met her in her shop. She came up to me and introduced herself, but I didn’t remember her at all (which is unusual for me.) She said, “Don’t you remember me? Fatima?” I still shook my head. “The singing competition…!” Then I did, you know how you get that sinking cringing feeling about something you have always felt bad about? But now she was slim and really beautiful and you know what I said? “No!” and with my hands miles out from my hips I said “Not (fat) Fatima, who sang out of tune?” and she nodded, laughing and said “Yeah – luckily that fat disappeared when I left home, got married!” and then to make matters worse, she added “And I still sing you know – out of tune, all the time: in the shower and in the car and here in the shop! But thanks for letting me know, cos I sure can’t tell!”
    Now reading your story, it brought it back home to me how much she must have hurt – maybe we should have just had her along, singing wildly (and loudly) out of tune and simply come last in the competition?

  28. I can relate to your post. I give you credit for trying something challenging. It doesn’t matter the outcome, only the bravery of facing a challenge.

  29. I admire and envy anyone who can sing. Ever since that UN resolution my voice has been banned around the world as a weapon of mass eardrum destruction.

  30. Well I don’t know how you sing but I know you can write! And very well too.

  31. I agree with flippenblog – although I am sure you do have a lovely voice. I invent my own notes – But I love to sing and when God said to sing a joyful noise” I took Him literally! lol
    Are you still being treated for your neurological problems? My husband was seen for years and they never did figure out what his medical problem was. Test after test – year after year can be very frustrating. Prayers for restored health.

  32. I don’t know if it matters so much where or how, as long as you sing! So glad that you do.

  33. I have been told for years that my voice is “interesting”, “uh…interesting” and “interesting” and from my deceased husband “For GOD’S sake don’t sing!!!” (in loud tones). When I moved to the place I now live in, the choir director happens to be my next door neighbor and she has been wonderful! I joined the choir and , like you, was placed with the altos (I probably sing at contralto (if I understand what that is) or even lower though), but I stopped worrying about what others thought and began to sing for God. It’s been amazing and the best part is that I’ve discovered that a great many others ‘can’t sing’ either. You have an advantage if you but recognized it, you can read music. I can’t. I have to rely on my ear to get the melody of the song I’m supposed to sing; and on the support of the other altos (thank goodness there are a couple of really strong ones). I have gotten the attitude from a few about my lack of prowess, but I feel if it makes me happy and God doesn’t object (He hasn’t spoken on the subject. Not to me anyway), that their opinions are best ignored. I hope you try again and embrace the experience for yourself and whatever joy it brings you, not for the humans who will be critical. Humans are flawed. It might help to remember that too.

  34. I was having dizzy spells, which became worse over time. When I couldn’t control the left side of my body as well as the right, I went to my family doctor. She immediately sent me to the hospital for a brain scan. That showed nothing, so she referred me to a neurologist at the university hospital/clinic in the area. My neurologist suspected the problem, but put me through all sorts of tests to eliminate the more serious possibilities. I was even referred to an otolaryngologist to make certain it wasn’t a balance problem (inner ear). At the end of the tests, the diagnosis was a-typical vestibular migraine. It’s a type of migraine where there is no pain but you can’t walk upright without holding onto the wall. There are other problems associated with it, too, and I’d never heard of it until after the diagnosis. Tricyclic antidepressents can be used to help prevent attacks.

    I’m not a doctor, all I can do is tell you what I went through for an answer. 🙂

  35. So wonderful to see Cricket and Butterfly again… all fluffy and full of life…Trev and I think you should get that guitar out every single day and strum away whenever your heart feels the need…We send blessings and tons of treats your way!!!!

  36. Girl I had a liking for sang in our Church Choir and I contemplated joining the choir myself so I could get to know her better. However, as much as I loved her, I could not, in good faith and conscience, inflict that on an unsuspecting congregation. She joined the Youth Fellowship and we started going out together. Two years later I did the scary thing and asked her father for permission to marry his daughter. We were married and have two wonderful sons. She remained in the choir and I still listened to her singing each Sunday and I still do today.

  37. Is this a true story about yourself? nice writing either way. Don’t take away the music – just sing. I’m a HUGE believer in real music. Healing

  38. Hi, Rachel. Lovely piece, and if I may say so, told with perfect restraint. You remind me that we all carry stuff around with us that is unknown to others and that we should be mindful of that. Thanks and peace, John (My wonky WordPress wouldn’t let me like, so here’s me “liking.”)

  39. Late in reading and commenting, but really enjoyed this post. Especially the fact that you went back to choir anyway. 🙂

    Don’t let the “it’s all in your head” pronouncement deter you. That’s just what doctors say to save face when they can’t figure things out, and they are wrong, more often than not.

    Maybe the problem isn’t neurological, and that’s why he couldn’t find anything. I don’t know what all problems you’re dealing with, but I have fibromyalgia. That leads to my muscles clamping down, and when they clamp down on nerves, all kinds of neurological-seeming things can happen. A few years ago, I was getting horrible vertigo, for example, and it ended up being neck muscles clamping down. Once I got those loosened up, the vertigo finally subsided.

    In any case, it took me 11 1/2 years to get diagnosed, and there are still people who think it’s all in my head. Meh, who cares about them. There’s plenty of research now showing otherwise, and I got tired long ago of citing primary medical literature to those who choose ignorance and judgment.

    I also have neurally mediated hypotension, and that can leave me dizzy and off balance at times. Standing and singing, especially under pressure like that, would be just the sort of thing to lead to me stumbling back into a chair, just as you describe. Took a cardiologist and a tilt table test to diagnose that one.

    Taking a break from trying to figure it out is good for your sanity, though. I’m sure by that point, the endless stream of doctors and tests *was* getting to your head! I’ve been there, and it sucks. So I spent most of those 11 1/2 years simply living life, as are you. If you reach a point of trying to figure it out again, though, maybe try a completely different doctor. This one is out of ideas. Doesn’t make him a bad doctor. He’s just not the right one for you, perhaps.

    Regardless, I’ve no doubt you’ll manage it all in whatever way is best for you. You’re the one who figured out how to make that choir work for you, after all. 😉

    • My primary care doctor wants to train in functional medicine because she’s frustrated with the limitations of western medicine, not just with me, but especially with me. I love that I’ve played a part in inspiring her to keep searching. Makes me feel special.

  40. Keep singing. You will work through the demons that were probably unleashed the second that you saw she was your old grammar school music teacher….I find it interesting that we get so uptight about the very thing that we love. Maybe the A personality comes out. I know that I have a similar problem with riding a cross country course. I love it and I love when I am through it and live to ride another day. But I make myself sick thinking about it and planning all the strides. Still worth it. I could keep Rescue Remedy in business…LOL.

  41. Be grateful you weren’t born Sourthern Baptist. I went to a Southern Baptist Seminary for two years to study music when I was young, spent five years as a Minister of Music in South Carolina, another 20 years as a soloist in a church choir and would probably still be singing if the preachers hadn’t preached regularly that all gay people were going to hell, a place to be avoided at all costs due to extreme heat and brimstone. One day I said seriously? And never went back.
    P.S. I was also an alto which thrilled my very conservative religious musical mother who allowed as how there was always a shortage of altos in the choirs.

  42. hello! I love the Jewish Faith, as a Christian I spend most of my time studying the Hebrew roots… but what i wanted to show you was this, her probs remind me of yours, plus have had that therapy and it started my road to healing… tho i don’t mention it on my healing website, which is here (not there was nothing diagnosable about me either, but i was in hell on earth)

  43. Wow. I have sung soprano and tenor in choirs. The altos always have the hardest parts. I wouldn’t want to have to sing alto!

  44. I love the fact that both dogs have different reactions to your singing — and the difficulty you had, as well as the way you have coped. Thanks for sharing this story, as well as your life,with us.


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