Fine Tuning

During this past week, amidst so much bad news—the spread of Ebola in West Africa, the sudden eruption of Japan’s Mount Ontake that killed dozens of innocent hikers, the escalation of air strikes against ISIS in Syria, wildfires on the West Coast and more—I have been singing.

I highly recommend this as an antidote to scary headlines and other depressing thoughts.

In particular, I sang alto in a quartet accompanying our cantor and choir for Rosh Hashanah last Thursday and Friday. We’ll sing again this coming weekend, when Shabbat coincides with Yom Kippur. So we have another rehearsal this Thursday night.

This is a good thing. It’s wonderful to have the beautiful melodies of the High Holiday liturgy circling around in my head, blocking out all the bad stuff.

Services were lovely and uplifting, but it took quite a few rehearsals for me to feel really good about singing again. It’s been at least 10 years since I participated in a High Holiday choir, and I’ve never been part of the quartet. So it was a bit of a shock when we began rehearsals about six weeks ago to realize that I had gotten quite rusty. Despite more than a decade of playing instruments and singing in choirs, when I looked at the sheet music, I could not recall the names of all the notes.

Understand that I played violin for 11 years and was concert mistress in my high school orchestra.

What was happening to my brain? It actually scared me. Early signs of dementia? Age? Fatigue? Some crazy aspect of scleroderma? I didn’t know.

With practice, thank goodness, the notes came back, and by our second rehearsal, I began to regain my ability to sight-read.

A second challenge, however, was tied to scleroderma and its nasty partner, Sjögren’s Syndrome. Although I can still vocalize well, my range is more limited than in the past (I used to be able to sing second soprano as well as alto), and sometimes the notes come out warbled or off by a half-step, because my mouth is dry and I can’t always control my swallowing or how my throat opens.

I figured out how to compensate for some of this by remembering to breathe from my diaphragm, rather than straining my throat to sing louder. But I do have limits. I need to breathe more often, breaking phrases, because my lungs just won’t hold enough air. And if the group goes flat, I cannot hit the low G. Impossible.

I was feeling a bit awkward about all this, wanting to hold my own in the quartet. But then I realized that I had better fill in people, so they would understand and I could do my best for the group. Both the tenor and bass are physicians, and all are friends, so when I took the leap and explained about my health-related issues, everyone was quite supportive. This was a relief. I no longer felt self-conscious, and I certainly enjoyed singing all the more.

We received many compliments after services, how our voices enhanced the experience for the congregation. And we loved singing together. Once we learned the music, we enjoyed the added, serendipitous benefit that our four voices have natural resonance. Truly a delight to harmonize.

So I’m looking forward to our Thursday night rehearsal and to singing once again this weekend. And I hope our quartet will find more opportunities to sing together. The world is overflowing with bad news, and I don’t want to lose those notes again.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at


  1. Jesse Evans says:

    Hi Evie, Loved reading your post this week! I can vouch for the therapeutic value of singing too. I am quite active as an instrumental musician, but the highlight of my week is on Thursday nights when I meet to sing with a local group of friends. There is something very powerful about blending voices with others, and I’m glad you didn’t let yourself be intimidated.
    All the best,

  2. Steve Wolfe says:

    Hi Evie: Nice blog post about your musical talents and recent challenges. I’ve been finding that prayer has been my solace getting through some personal dilemmas. Meditation has also been helpful; I enjoyed the session last night with Al and treated them to a recording of Chinese Bells which I think they enjoyed..I didn’t know about your violin expertise, but I appreciate the steep learning curve involved with that instrument. I used to play clarinet and sax but gave them up mainly because I didn’t achieve fulfillment with those options, although I had some fun playing sax in the URI marching Band for 2 yrs. Have an Easy Fast and may you and your family be written and sealed for a good year. Shalom

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