Patrick asks me to sing; my tummy plunges; do I dare? I clear my throat, the sound sticks. I sip my water. For the past hour I’ve had cramps from anxiety.

 Patrick has come to Israel to coach voice development and direct choirs. Barbershoppers sing “a cappella” – without instrumental accompaniment – creating wonderful harmonies using only their voices: tenor, lead bass and baritone. I’m set on joining the Barberina women’s chorus but I don’t feel at all confident about my voice so I’ve asked Patrick to help me get to speed.

Just a short while ago I was a nightingale, my voice clear and confident. I sang all day, mentally practicing for this moment: in the car; humming under my breath at work whenever I thought no one could hear me (though my staff did, to their merriment – it makes them giggle at their boss who is never without a tune playing around her lips), and later in full fettle in the shower. But now when I open my mouth I’m off key. I try again – the note wobbles and falls flat. I cringe; if only Patrick will allow me to lean my shaky voice on the instrumental backing track I have burned onto a CD – just in case!

But Patrick ignores my agony and vibrates his tuning fork. He gives me a ‘C’ and I make a timorous attempt at “Yesterday”, the old Beatles melody we’re learning in the chorus. The tuning helps; I hover around the pitch, sometimes hitting it, but mostly sliding around it; just above or below.

My life is like that: one minute I’m on key, the next I’m wavering out of sync. For a long time I lived in a bubble, protected by the illusion that bad things only happen to other people. Then suddenly my husband died. My life missed a beat and for a long time the music sounded like an orchestra abandoned by its director.

But time has passed and things are better. I’m no longer afraid of living alone and am used to negotiating my own life. I enjoy my independence; grappling actively with my minor and major responsibilities. These days I change my own light bulbs, kill my own cockroaches and do my own garbage. Though I remain a widow, this is only one note of the complex symphony of who I am. Singing is an essential piece in the complex jigsaw of who I am.

Patrick dances around me with instructions: “You have to learn to control your breathing… shorter or longer – it must last enough to complete a phrase.” I hear echoes of Alex, our long-suffering Barberina choirmaster, exhorting us:

‘I did something wrong, now I long for yesterday-ay-ay-ay – yesterday!’ “No breaths in the middle of the phrase”, he commands, catching me sneaking an extra gasp before the second ‘yesterday’ while I’m wondering whether it’s physically possible to do as he demands. But I notice that the other women are still hanging on to the note…

“If it’s a short one, you need less breath … if it’s longer you need more…” Patrick sings a ditty of three verses in a gulp that would burst my bellows. “In… count for three, relax…! Let the air move through all the spaces in your lungs. Don’t try so hard … you don’t have to think about breathing. Take it slow …”

I exhale; try to relax. My lungs swell, filling my chest with song. I open my mouth and, guided by Patrick, direct my voice through trumpet-shaped lips. My head is a temple; my sounds resonate through its cavities and chambers. They are round, full, often even on pitch. I don’t even notice that the ache in my belly has disappeared.

About The Barberina Choir

The Barberina Choir was formed in 1999 under the direction of Alex Eshed. It is one of two choirs that he directs, the other being Twelve Tones – for men. It has a membership of 15 women ranging in age from young adults to grandmas. The chorus recently completed an ambitious schedule of performances including singing at the Esra 30th Anniversary event, Beth Protea and Abu Gosh. Their repertoire includes many old favorites: New Orleans, Carolina in the Morning, Unforgettable, A Certain Smile, Bei Mir Bist Du Shein. There’s also jazz, doo-wop, pop, ballads and more. While most songs are in English, Alex is steadily incorporating more Hebrew into the routine.

Barbershop singers have an international network of associations and the international women’s group is called Sweet Adelines, after the popular American song of the same name.

Patrick Kelly has been working with choirs and singers for more than 25 years. After three coaching tours of Israel in 2003, he joined Alex in establishing SingIsrael, Israel's only choral development service. Nearly 180 singing groups have participated in their workshops and coaching sessions. SingIsrael works closely with MILA – The Israel Center for Choir and Singing Groups, and has already made an appreciable mark in raising the standard of choral singing in Israel.

We are always interested in new members and you don’t need to be an experienced choral singer or to sight-read music. So if you would like to join Barberina, please call Diane Zehavi at 054 488 8001. Barberina’s website address is: www.barberina.singisrael.co.il

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