I was not very curious about the nuances of singing and producing pitch during my younger adventures in a choir. A solid chorus member, I enjoyed the demands of music acquisition, the camaraderie, and the chance to conjure my inner diva, when appropriate.
My perspective changed when I heard the words “You have cancer.” That year, those four syllables cracked me and my beautiful, imperfect, 45-year-old life wide open and handed me the dramatic role no woman desires. I found myself memorizing not Latin and French lyrics, but malignancy’s bewildering status symbols: grade, stage and node, hormone reception and recurrence. I donned drafty hospital gowns instead of costumes or robes, and summoned the diva, not to perform, but to confront a relentless, faceless villain. When offers of support poured in, I learned “Yes“ and “Things will be OK” were the only lines I needed.
I completed my transformation, from ordinary woman to infiltrating breast carcinoma patient to survivor, in just eight months. During the harrowing passages, I felt scared, boxed-in, smaller than before. Carrying the role of cancer patient sometimes left me gasping and utterly out of tune. And I’m one of the lucky ones.
Facing a life-disrupting disease didn’t give me special gifts, but it reminded me that strength and healing come from unexpected places, and it deepened my appreciation for the restorative powers of singing and music. I’ve never regretted the nights I showed up to sing when I was too weary to speak or even stand.
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Singing in perfect pitch tests professionals and amateurs alike. It’s an acoustical feat of mathematics, physics and human anatomy. We climb musical scales powered by our vibrating vocal folds. The higher we go, the faster the vibrations. Those frequencies are measurable, but how our ear perceives pitch is subjective and more complex as we approach our voice’s upper limits. It’s tough for one accomplished soloist to stay the course. That challenge expands exponentially when many differently gifted vocalists attempt the crossing together.
Diabolical phrasing, chords that don’t resolve, inadequate breath control, nerves and the winter’s chill lead us astray. Sorrow enters our rehearsal spaces, announcing itself with drooping shoulders and sagging tones.
When the choir drifts off-key, directors “tune” our voices with exercises to improve pitch accuracy. We might vocalize in sections over a major chord or focus on creating an elusive, well-tuned third and then, at the director’s signal, migrate to a lower one. Interesting things occur as we’re sustaining our notes. Vibrations collide, blanketing us in an exhilarating cloud of sound that helps us recognize if we’re hovering under or over so we can recalibrate. If our tone flattens, we brighten it together, modulating up in barely-perceptible increments until all singers land on a near-perfect third or triad.
The instant when 10 or 20 choir members lock into magical harmony to sing as one voice defies description, like a ballerina’s floating, a perpetual string of fouettes. It isn’t buzz, scream, or reverb, but when an ensemble gets it right, the air celebrates with us.
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I was hitting my mid-life stride when those four syllables knocked the wind out of me. I had a loving husband, amazing sons, good friends, interesting work, and meaningful volunteer pursuits. I’d even forged a delicate peace with painful childhood circumstances that bled into adulthood, and I was envisioning my next chapter.
In the lead-up to Thanksgiving, I came under bombardment. Dad and I were saying reluctant goodbyes. We knew he was running out of options and precious time. Many afternoons, I held his hand, saw his battered body succumb to cancer’s onslaught. I returned home at dusk to quietly plot my own body’s defense amid an escalating campaign of biopsy and MRI results and five-year survival projections. I had just reassured Bob and our kids (and myself) that, after my treatment, things would be okay when we were called to gather at Dad’s hospice.
On his final night, Dad’s chest labored with every subsequent breath until we watched him draw in and hold onto his most important one. The air patiently awaited permission, then transported my father to his next home. Dad died of cancer four days before my surgery; I attended his funeral, in a haze, five days after.
Amid the pandemonium, I refused to abandon the singing and ballet that anchored me in other storms, but my positive outlook didn’t spare me the progressive toll of chemotherapy, radiation and estrogen-destroying medications. Cellular warfare punished my stamina, spirit, and untrained, lyric soprano. Amid brain fog, hobbling myalgia, crushing fatigue and disappearing hair, my suffering soprano seemed like cancer piling on. What was clear and steady became temperamental and prone to croaking or evaporating mid-larynx. The diva went into hiding.
I smiled when people said, “You’re so strong.” Making peace with vulnerability was harder; it required a system override or an existential re-tuning.
I noticed the subtle, curative powers of music-making, how it awakens emotions and gently moves us into community. I soaked up the beauty of silences and admired how we stagger breathing in torturous passages to support the sound and one another and how a lush, alto line sends descants floating to wondrous heights.
There were some bruising remarks and sour notes. One regretful solo I should have refused, accomplished with sleep-inducing quantities of antihistamines. Yet I mostly recall how gracefully my musical community tuned me. Changing seats to accommodate scary side effects. Steadying arms when emotions overtook me. The kind diva passing me missing choreography, instead of scowling, when I accidentally trampled on her solo.
Friends raising a glorious roar when I could barely chirp, reminding me we belong to something mightier than any hardship or disease.
Singing through cancer punched up my playlists for the blessedly ordinary and terrible days and taught me to treasure songs that speak directly to our broken places. I count on the haunting, intersecting supplications of Renaissance master Victoria and Bach and Coldplay to calm the MRI chamber’s mayhem. It’s Prince, Bowie and Jackson Browne inviting me to dance in my kitchen. I memorized those melodies that carried hope and faith back to me when they went missing for a spell.
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I’m still okay. Gratefully, still a lucky one. I reclaimed my diva and, shortly after our move to Connecticut, joined a lovely women’s chorale. I’m discovering anew how routine vocalizations can realign not only discordant notes, but our anxious minds. At a recent rehearsal, I could almost see all our invisible burdens yielding to the room’s overtones, then evaporating in the swirling, ephemeral soundscape.
I believe the best choirs accept our offerings of exacting diction, buttery timbre and angelic tones, along with our heartaches, to grow something of honesty, tenderness and majesty. Sing long enough and you’ll one day find yourself harmonizing with and holding up someone who’s making her way out of a dark or lonely valley.
The fragile heart and unpredictable, faithful voice rising with the descant (and missing an entrance or two) were once my own. People said I inspired them by sharing my voice while my body was so visibility under siege. It was uncomfortable, almost as unnerving as cancer itself.
Looking back, I think that was the point.
Rebecca Ridgway Ayars built a career helping others share their stories, but lately is sharing more of her own. She draws on a challenging childhood, an unexpected, mid-life encounter with hereditary cancer and how the arts have saved her countless times, among other subjects. The Princeton grad and dancer at heart finds inspiration in small movements of grace, courage and faith.