I'm learning a fairly short (six verses) section to chant this coming Shabbat. Actually, I learned it already; the cantor emailed yesterday asking if could read, I looked at it for 15 minutes last night and another 20 early this morning, and—I knew it. Not that I won't practice a hundred more times over the next few days, nor escape sweaty palms on Saturday morning, but it's already firmly lodged in the short-term folds of my brain. Even after working on this skill for almost eight years (a tie with the longest job I've ever held), I still don't always believe I can do it. A track record of success has not yet convinced me. Although I understand the gist of what I chant, comprehension happens only while I study. Up at the bima, the combination of nerves and a complete lack of fluency turn the words into a string of comfortable, essentially meaningless syllables punctuated by a few checkpoints—aha, blood! (or "heart," "death," or any of those other concepts that require extra emphasis). How can I memorize this gibberish, I wonder? But when I start to sing, the words take on meaning beyond grammar, pulling me along even when I'm unsure of their direction or intent.
I think that's part of what makes it fun, my doubt that it can happen at all and a constant, irrational, threat of failure. I've never rock-climbed or hang-glided; chanting Torah is my equivalent of living on the edge. As long as I don't poke my eye out with the yad, I think I'm safe.