Monday, July 25, 2011

Tin ear confession

My parents both sang well, and my father conducted a small madrigal group for many years. The summer I was six, my brother and I spent seven weeks with our maternal grandparents, and for our bedtime story my grandfather, who sat down to practice piano every day after work, sang and explained all the parts in The Pirates of Penzance and H.M.S. Pinafore to us. I remember learning from him what "fiftyfold" and "keelhauling" meant. My grandparents even arranged for my brother and me to start piano lessons with Mrs. Curry, who was plump with curly yellow hair and who drew pictures of plump curved fingers at the top of our assignment pages every week.

But I was terrible at music. Back in California, Mrs. Curry was succeeded by the timid and trembling Miss Perkoe, a pale young lady with long, straight, dark hair and large round glasses. Her fingers were long and slim and cool, and I loved the way they felt when she placed my fingers on the keys. I learned to play a gypsy dance for Miss Perkoe, but she couldn't make me musical. I was tone deaf. If I wasn't looking, I couldn't tell which of two notes was higher when my father played them on the piano. The music teacher at school asked me to sing very softly for school assemblies. My school singing career was further complicated by the fact that any time we sang "Puff, the Magic Dragon," no matter how I fought it, I started to cry. ( I couldn't stand how lonely Puff became when his lifelong friend outgrew and abandoned him.)

In high school I tried again. My cousin played the clarinet; during the summer I had blown though it, and I liked the way it sounded. I joined B band, beginner's band, which had seven students and a cute pale young male conductor, Mr. Dnelson. (My schedule said DNELSON, and even after I learned that his name was Don Nelson, I still thought of him as Mr. Dnelson, a variant of Nelson that went along with how special he was to me.) By the second year, I had graduated to last seat among the third clarinets in the A band. I never progressed further, and I never learned to carry a tune.

That's an exaggeration. One long ski trip, I spent every chairlift ride with my sister Polly (who could sing) practicing a two-part rendition of "Michael, Row the Boat Ashore." By the end of the trip, I could hold up my part, and I remember how that impressed everyone in the family.

In college, my friend John Rosenberg let me sing Faure's Requiem as part of his North House chorus. We decided I was a tenor, and he gave me special tutoring sessions by the piano. He told me that if I listened well to the voices around me, I could match their tones. His kindness gave me my first real sense of the joy of singing in a group.

Still, though, I can't sing, and my husband is just as bad. All five of our children have sung successfully in choruses, and singing is especially important to the three boys. They sing a capella or in choirs. Meanwhile, my own voice, affected by years of asthma and inhaled steroids, has grown more limited and unreliable than ever. I envy my children their ability to hear key changes, to pick out songs from memory, and most of all to be part of groups that get such joy from singing together. I listen, knowing it's like listening to a foreign language where I have a fair vocabulary and have studied the rules of grammar but miss the nuances.

Those are some of the reasons that the second adventure in Lexicon, The Ice Castle, is subtitled An Adventure in Music.


Alan said...

Somebody's listening, Penny:



Penny said...

This is good news... efforts to improve traffic flow through Wiscasset. Thanks, Alan!

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