Speaking of nerves (last Tuesday, that is, when I started this post), I had none when I read Torah a week ago. I was relatively cool and confident as I approached the bima, having chanted the section a few times before in past years. It was a bad allergy day, though, and my throat was dry and scratchy. The short, first aliyah went just fine. The second aliyah, to my surprise, was offered to anyone who had just given blood. Why, that's me! and a dozen others, I thought. We crowded around the bima, proudly recited the blessing, and then I looked down at the yad resting on the edge of the first letter--and suddenly remembered I wasn't supposed to say "Amen" when I began to read. One does so only when someone else has the aliyah (because there's no need to assert "Yes! You go!" when the words just came out of your own mouth).
I wish I had thought of this a little earlier. I tell my students to practice beginning both with and without the "Amen," because maybe they'll have the aliyah and maybe not--you can never be too prepared. Also, "Amen" sets your tonal landscape, and is a way to establish a range in which you can actually sing. Of course I ignored my own advice, and never practiced without the "Amen." For about a second I debated with myself: should I sing it anyway, very softly so no one hears? Can I just think it? Or, wait, maybe I'm SO good at this that I can wing it. Yeah, right. If there were a magical camera that saw through God's eyes, a snapshot surely would have revealed an angel on each shoulder--the daring one whispering in my left ear: Go for it! and the conservative accountant angel in the right: No, better safe than sorry.
I listened to the reckless one. The aliyah began with a pashta, not the easiest first trop. It's high, and doesn't really lead you to the next note. I sang--and suddenly had no idea where I was going. I couldn't hear the key; the sound seemed to float aimlessly in an empty universe. (Is this how tone-deaf people perceive music? Maybe they don't feel as lost as I did, because they don't know there's any other way.) I tried again, and heard some strangled notes through the speakers. The rabbi quickly came to my rescue, and sang the whole first line. Like a life-vest dropped atop a drowning woman, I grabbed hold and repeated his sounds. The key was too low, but no matter--it was a place, dry land, ground and direction. I sang the next two aliyot slowly and carefully, not wanting to let a single sound pass by too quickly.
All of this took place in about five seconds, but I felt as if I had swum across the ocean and back again.