For my birthday, Mom bought me a recorder: the same instrument everyone learns to play in elementary school. Mom has a brown plastic one, like the one I had in fourth grade music class, and she uses it occasionally to soothe Cricket’s savage breast, but she wanted me to have a better one, with more resonance, so mine is a blond wood.
I was kind of hoping for a new iPhone, or a new President, for my birthday. This present, instead, required me to work.
I hadn’t played recorder, or any other wind instrument, since fourth grade. I used to play the Melodica at my grandparents’ house (a tiny version of the wind keyboard Jon Batiste plays on the Late Show with Steven Colbert) but that was even longer ago.
So, along with my ukulele lessons on Yousician, and occasional choir practices, and daily breathing exercises, I took on the task of relearning how to play the recorder. My new recorder came with a book to teach me which holes to cover to play which notes, and exercises to practice for each new note. It was a pretty basic book and I assumed I’d get through it quickly; three months later I’ve finally made it through one octave. The breathless feeling I had at the beginning, even half-way through a four measure exercise, shocked me. I skimped on whole notes, pretending they were only half or quarter notes, just to get through a single page. I felt like my lungs were, at best, two tiny desiccated walnuts.
I had started doing regular breathing exercises in the fall, after listening to the opera singer in the choir at my synagogue, who stood behind me when we sang for the high holidays. His voice sounded like it was supported by a huge reservoir of oxygen, and mine sounded like I was sucking oxygen through a tiny straw, so I looked up some breathing exercises for singers and started to do a set of them every day. But not much was changing, and I continued to feel like I was suffocating each time I tried to extend the counts on my breathing exercises. That’s when Mom decided to buy me a wind instrument for my birthday, thinking it could help me train myself to breathe better.
When I learned how to play the low C on the recorder, a few weeks ago, I realized that I was finally giving four counts to each whole note, but it didn’t feel like much of a success. It’s possible that I keep moving the goal posts, so that instead of recognizing the progress I’ve made, I’m much more aware of how far behind I still am. That sounds like me.
When the choir got together to rehearse for another performance this winter (Shabbat Shira at our synagogue, to celebrate the crossing of the Sea of Reeds when it comes up in the yearly cycle of Torah readings), I worked very hard to learn all of the songs and find the right places to breathe, but I still couldn’t hold the longer notes as long as I was supposed to (four counts, yes, six counts, no).
At the last rehearsal, our opera singer came in and learned the music by sight and held the notes for what felt like hours at a time. To be fair, he’s been working at this for his whole professional life, so comparing my five to ten minutes every other day with his lifetime of practice is pretty silly, but I do it anyway.
I want to feel the way he sounds – as if I could sing for hours without any friction or effort, as if the sound is just floating on a pillow of air. There’s something so reassuring about hearing that voice behind me, but it also makes me feel like a mouse, with barely a squeak to my name.
The opera singer actually brought his whole company to perform at the synagogue the next day, as a fundraiser to support immigrants at the border. They did an hour of songs in English and Italian and German, from operas and musicals, in solos, duets, and group numbers. They, of course, didn’t need microphones. I had a sneaking suspicion that they all had lungs the size of hot air balloons hidden somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t prove it. (They’re called the New Camerata Opera Company, by the way, and you should look them up if you have a chance.)
I’m not sure if all of my sporadic efforts to improve my breathing are leading anywhere, and I still feel like a ne’er do well, but I’m realizing, more and more, how much I love music. Even when I’m exhausted, and driving to choir rehearsal feels like torture, I still love to sing; even when I struggle to understand how harmony works, or can’t hold the note long enough, I still want to try. And I’m enjoying learning how to play the ukulele, and the recorder; and I like the possibility that I might get up the nerve to write my own songs again someday, and sing them out loud, where people can hear me. But in the meantime, even though it makes me feel lazy and incompetent and silly, I keep practicing. And maybe someday I’ll be proud of myself for that.
If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.
Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?