My tin ear

Posted on June 30, 2020 by

“Nancye, just move your lips – and please, don’t sing.” 

Mr. Yaffa, the chorus director, pointed his conductor’s baton bluntly at me, as I stood on the sixth riser in the alto section of the 100-voice concert choir at Glen Ridge High School.

  His stern commandment made me feel about two inches tall and yearn to shrivel up and sink into the floor. I was only in the chorus to fill an empty space in the altos, he went on, and I wasn’t to sing one note in my monotone voice. That would ruin the upcoming concert. 

  The fact that I hadn’t inherited one iota of my family’s musical talents hit me head on with a resounding wallop once again.

  I grew up in a musically accomplished family, but I was born with a tin ear. My father played the violin and sang solos in his beautiful baritone voice in the church where I grew up. He followed in his father’s footsteps, since Grandpa had also sung solos in church years before Dad.

  My mother played piano by ear, and both of my sisters were excellent musicians, too. Lynne played piano, relishing her lessons and recitals. 

  Carole was blessed with a beautiful voice, so sweet and crystal clear that she and Dad performed as a duo when she was five or six in one of his lodge’s variety shows. Little Carole, her hair in curls, sat on Dad’s lap singing “Daddy dear, tell me, please. Is the world really round? Tell me where is the bluebird of happiness bound.” 

  Dad sang in response, “Little one, little one, yes, the world’s really round. And the bluebird you search for will surely be found.”

  Their performance was the hit of the show. They got a standing ovation and hearty round of bravos from the audience. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house after their duet.

  Me? I was proud of them, but actually more worried with keeping my stockings pulled up since Mom had given me permission to wear nylons for the first time that night.  But instead of a garter belt she’d given me a pair of her round, tight, elastic garters to hold the darn things up. Not an easy task for a 10-year-old on the cusp of adolescence, as the nylons crept down my legs and I kept hoisting them up, so they wouldn’t drop to my ankles. So embarrassing.

  I kept aspiring to be musical into my teens. I tried piano lessons with a nice young woman. But the notes looked like chicken scratch, and I couldn’t coordinate my hands to play the chords. Mother took a music class one summer and the kindly instructor agreed to listen to me sing. He said I wasn’t singing off-key. I just needed a little more confidence.

   Fine. So I joined the school chorus to sing in the alto section. But my confidence was instantly quashed when Mr. Yaffa harshly commanded me to just move my lips.

   I was more successful musically when the dancing started, and I did the jitter-bug, stroll and twist. Maybe I couldn’t carry a tune worth a damn, but I sure could bop to the beat and keep time to the music. And I did it on American Bandstand, not once but several times. Wow! That’s a memory for another time in another essay.

   In college, I found my voice, so to speak, when I discovered that I had a way with words. Even though I couldn’t sing them, I could write them and discovered my life’s calling. 

  I switched my major to English from elementary ed when I found out that the elementary majors had to learn to play piano in a music course. No “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” for me.  It was Shakespeare, British and American lit and journalism all the way.  I’ve never regretted my decision, and I’ve never looked back.

  These days, I write about music and musicians pretty regularly. Boston Pops conductor Keith Lockhart is a friend. I love listening to music from Beethoven, Bach and Brahms to the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bacharach.

   My sisters are still musical. They both sing in their church choirs. One even took lessons with a Metropolitan Opera soprano.

   But I still have more of a way with words than they do. Only I prefer writing them to singing them — unless I’m driving in the car by myself. Then I belt out the music with gusto, Mr. Yaffa be damned. 

One Response to “My tin ear”

  1. You had me laughing out loud at this! I was once assigned to stand next to a tin eared fellow alto. I literally tried singing the notes in her ear, but she couldn’t manage to ever hit one.
    So glad you found your voice in spite of Mr. Yaffa!!

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