My Life in Song

I have inherited many gifts from my father, both genetically and by example – reasonable looks (except for my fleshly earlobes), brown hair that just refuses to go grey, kindness, loyalty and commitment to family.  But among my siblings, there is one thing my father and I share exclusively – our inability to carry a tune.  While this would seem to be a minor setback, it was aggravated by the rich musical talents that my mother bequeathed to all 5 of her sons, who all married similarly talented wives, so my father and I emerged as real outliers.  This became painfully apparent during the musical skits for family occasions that my mother created for all of us to perform in – family birthdays and weddings, where you would have the additional stress of performing in front of the bride’s family, all of them total strangers.  The skits would typically involve some sort of recurring refrain, like Alouetta, where you had to sing your two lines over and over again.  Both my father and I would struggle mightily – on the first go-round I would sing too high, and then when it came around to me again, I would overcompensate and sing way too low.  In addition to being off-key, family members would comment that my voice was too “breathy.”

I first became aware of my deficiency in grade school; in fact my first formal rejection of any kind involved music.  There were tryouts for the grade school choir, and I marched in full of confidence since I had been told multiple times, “You Browns are such a musical family.”   The teacher asked me to sing along as she thumped away on the piano.  I still remember the music abruptly stopping and the teaching calling for the next applicant.  I was stunned when I did not make the choir, since with a handful of exceptions – me, Kathy Washburne, Emily Clow, Peggy Huber and Nini Swift – the rest of the class was in.

The initial sting of rejection became a scab that would not heal as the choir was consistently shown preferential treatment.   During my childhood in the 1960s, everyone rode their bikes and arrived at school early, a scenario that seems totally improbable today.  The school did not want students entering the building before 8 AM, so they set up crossing guards in front of the entrance, and everybody had to wait until the appointed hour.  It was a seething mass of bicycles, except for choir members who would break free from the crowd and gaily sing out, “I have choir practice so I get to cross early.”  The crossing guards always seemed to be the cute boys who would theatrically open the gate and let the singers cross.  Since the choir was almost the entire 8th grade, I felt like a loser behind the gate with all the younger kids.

Later that year we had tryouts for the school play, one of the social highlights of the 8th grade.  The play was a musical called the Thirteen Clocks.  There were limited speaking parts, so most of the class was housed in the chorus.  I was insulted when the cast was posted and saw that I was assigned to the chorus.  I already knew that I could not sing, so this casting meant that I was a worse actor than singer.  I realized that my role in the chorus was really damage control rather than any affirmation of my singing ability.  I was not housed, I was warehoused in the chorus.  I lip synched throughout the play.

In the meantime, my mother exploited her musical talents to great success.  “I always like to add another string to my bow,” she would say.  She participated in a church choir tour and fulfilled her dream of singing in a cathedral, started a bell choir and a singing group that entertained children and shut-ins, organized and performed in community theater and wrote musical plays for grade-school children.  My brothers had speaking and singing parts in their school plays.  My father and I sat on the sidelines until we were mustered up for family skits.  I was proud of my father’s good humor as he repeatedly humiliated himself in front of an audience.  However, over the years I did notice that he developed a serviceable work-around.  He managed to learn the one tune that my mother always used for her skits, creating some sort of muscle/ear memory so that his singing was not entirely wretched.  I continued to struggle.

As an adult, I tried a different tactic and followed my mother’s footsteps by joining a bell choir.  This seemed like a perfect compromise, since I did not need to sing and was only responsible for four notes.  All I had to do was recognize when to play them.  Fortunately this wasn’t too hard since I was tenacious counter and could usually figure out where we were in the piece, especially since I circled all of my notes in colored coded markers – red for right hand and blue for left.   All the other choir members recognized their notes by sight alone and actually knew the names of the notes.  But this has been a tremendous experience, a great team effort, particularly when we get some applause at the end of a piece.  I was getting just a whiff of the joy and comraderie my mother experienced in her musical life.

But my inability to sing still gnawed at me, in part because I had inherited my mother’s other gift for word play and writing ditties.  For my mother’s 60th birthday, my brothers and I created new words to the tunes of some of her favorite hymns, Fling Out the Banner, Once to Every Man and Nation, Onward Christian Soldiers, All Things Bright and Beautiful.  However, the best hymn was Rock of Ages, which we changed to “A Jock for the Ages” in honor of her athletic abilities.  The evening was a ripping success; my mother loved the irreverent humor, clever word play and singing, but most of all I think that she loved knowing that her talents would live on.

I have used “Rock of Ages” many times since then as part of birthday and family celebrations.  It has a nice steady rhythm, a limited range of notes and simple rhyming scheme that make it easy to adapt.  If I really want to slather it on, a birthday verse could go like:

When you joined the human race

The world became a better place,

On this earth no one’s more kind,

You’d give your eyeballs to the blind.

Your loving friendship we hold so dear,

So raise a toast of birthday cheer.

 But singing remained a problem.  You might ask, why not read it instead?  Yes, that would be the easy choice, but the verse would fall flat.  I have found that when sung, lyrics can be infinitely sappier and cornier than anything that is read, so I go ahead and continue to put my finger in the socket and try to sing it.

All these thoughts were running through my mind as I took one of my brainstorming bicycle rides through the local Forest Preserve.  I thought back to my father who found some success in mastering one song.  “Perhaps I could just focus on Rock of Ages and really learn how to nail just that one tune,” I thought.  I emerged from the Forest Preserve onto the corner of Rte 176 and Waukegan Road and noticed a sign stapled to a telephone phone.  I assumed that it was some tragic plea to recover a lost pet, whose life expectancy would be minimal at this bustling intersection.  Besides, there was no foot traffic here and cars would not be able to read the sign as they whizzed by.  When I looked at the sign more closely, I was startled to see that it was a handwritten sign advertising singing lessons!  I felt that we were made for each other – an atonal singer with a breathy voice and a singing teacher who advertised on a telephone poll.  It was a deus ex machina.

I committed the phone number to memory, but then it took me 1 ½ years to work up my courage to call.  I recruited my friend Marion to accompany me, since this whole scenario seemed a bit sketchy; I didn’t want to be the innocent victim lured into an evil trap on the premise of singing lessons.  Sofio answered the phone, and in a Russian accent that could have come out of a James Bond movie, he asked me if I sang in a choir or was a soloist.  I explained that my goals were much more modest – I only wanted a couple of lessons to get some tips on how to sing one song, and one song only.  I would bring the sheet music.

There was a pause, and Sofio said, “I am professional singer and only teach singers.  I not teach you.”

What? I was indignant.  It never occurred to me that I would receive such a resounding rejection – how could anyone advertising on a telephone pole afford to be picky about his students?

While I am sure that I could find others who would let me pay them, I now appreciate the 45 year symmetry bracketing my singing rejections.  Perhaps it’s time to set aside my loftier ambitions and just go with what I’ve got.  A long time ago I bought a sweater, hand made by some hard working Peruvian.  The tag on the sweater said, “The minor irregularities in this garment are part of its handmade charm.”  I took this aphorism to heart as I evaluated my amateur efforts at knitting or sewing, but over time the saying has become the life lesson that my father accepted many years ago.  The irregularities in my quavering, breathy voice will just have to be part of its charm.

(The missing words in the following poem are all anagrams (i.e. share the same letters like post, stop, spot, etc).  The number of dashes indicates the number of letters.  One of the words will be at the end of a line and this word will rhyme with either the preceding or following line.  Your job is to figure out the missing words.   Scroll down for the anwswers.)

In my family musical prowess is the talent that ——

In skits, I struggle to perform the multiple refrains.

I am not a —— so no matter how hard I try,

The first verse is too low and the next one too high.

But over time I —— myself to my atonal voice

And accept its irregular charm as the logical choice.







Answers:  reigns, singer, resign

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