Last week at a class about Shavuot, we were handed a sheet full of notes. I was momentarily shocked--musical notation for prayer? Is such a thing allowed? Then I remembered the many dog-eared pages I lugged around each Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during the five years I sang in the synagogue choir, and the relief I felt during my first rehearsal. There are notes here, whew! No matter my lack of experience singing in Hebrew--now I can do anything.
But since I began chanting Torah, and then helping lead services, I've learned everything by ear from CDs. The arrangements are written down (the instrumentalists have them), but my job is part of an oral tradition. After many years of judging my musical abilities--even, at times, my self-worth--by my proficiency at sight-singing, I was suddenly back at the beginning. I had to learn by ear how to communicate phrase by phrase, melody by melody, rather than trust that these elements would be conveyed automatically once I mastered the component parts.
At first I felt superior to the whole process; after all, I had long since graduated from this method. But it wasn't easy, especially having to sing like myself rather than the voice on the CD. Attempts to copy slavishly made the music sound derivative and soulless, a shallow parroting back. Eventually I learned what conductors and coaches had been trying to tell me for ages: key signatures aren't just sets of instructions, but particular, idiosyncratic landscapes. Phrasing matters because it conveys not only grammar, but also brushstrokes of sound that go in specific directions just as on a canvas. This is even more important when singing words that the listener (and, in many cases, the singer) doesn't fully understand. Kavannah, intention, is built into the the music, into its hills, waves, stretches of roads, dead ends, that can't be seen if you're concentrating on putting one step in front of the next.
I think my long affair with notes is one reason why I sometimes panic at the bima when faced with a scroll full of naked letters. I forget that I can now see and travel much farther than before.