“Hey look me over,
Lend me an ear,
Fresh out of clover,
Mortgage up to here….”
No matter that I was thirteen and had no idea what a mortgage was, I bellowed the classic loud as an air horn and flat as a shredded tire.
Mrs. Northrup, head of the eighth grade choir, placed me strategically beside a girl who projected with perfect pitch, so if I didn’t manage to tone with her, I would at least be drowned out, causing minimal damage. My favorite songs had little range for the alto section, because I couldn’t go from doe to tea without hitting a falsetto. High on my list of greats were “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Hey, Look Me Over,” which Louis Armstrong could not have belted out with more enthusiasm.
Who doesn’t like to sing? It is an old, old instinct to test the hilly pitches of one’s voice. For animals and children, tone is more meaningful than words. Before Homo sapiens spoke, I am sure we hummed.
During the Christmas Eve church services my family attended through my childhood, I had to switch octaves a few times to get through “Silent Night.” I couldn’t make it to the end of “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” without my larynx failing in the upper reaches of the first verse. When all ye nations were joyfully rising, my voice refused to; it did not join in triumph in the next line, and by the time the angelic host proclaimed, I was squeaking like rubber shoes on a wet floor.
I am not tone deaf, but I came into the world with completely unexceptional vocal cords and an inability to reproduce with accuracy the sounds I hear.
My dad (The Guru) for a long time believed that most of what a person accomplishes in life is determined by genetics, like you’re shot from a sling out of the womb into your highest achievement. (Now he probably believes that it’s a combination of genetics and politics.) I remember him and my brother David arguing about it when we were teenagers. David disagreed: he insisted that anyone could do anything if they tried hard enough. I thought that sounded like a bad high school graduation speech.
For example, I knew for a fact that Mary Cartmill, who I helped with math on the school bus, would never be a nuclear physicist. My own philosophy settled somewhere in the middle but more on my father’s side. We were all born with limits that would shape—had already shaped—our lives. You had to have a proclivity.
In my early teens, I became very self-conscious of my singing voice. I only sang when I was alone.
And then, thirty years later, Mbot was born. He ate slowly and slept poorly and four times a night, every night, I read novels aloud while I fed him. I found myself listening to the sound of my own voice for hours. As the weeks passed, I start varying my tone, altering inflection and rhythm and timbre.
I also began making up songs for everyday activities: a song for waking up and a song for sucking binkies and a song for rubbing on sunscreen (“We put it on your legs, and we put it on your cheek, and if you were a bird we would put it on your beak. We put it on your tummy and we put it on your other cheek, and if you were a mouse, we would put it on your squeak!”) I started singing his nursery rhymes. One Little Piggy went to market to a swingy gospel melody with extra notes and a catchy refrain followed by deep, repeating bass lines: “….The little piggy went wee we wee wee weeeee all the way hooooome….”
I loved having an excuse to sing, and my audience was appreciative and forgiving.
Seven months after Mbot arrived, I signed us up for a ten-week class called Music Together. It’s a nationwide franchise aimed at the six-month-through-four-years set (and their parents),and involves forty-five minutes a week of interactive singing, dancing, and music-making with an instructor and a small group of other short and tall people. One of my worksheets likens music to a foreign language–no surprise there–and tells me that “the best thing for…development is lots of exposure and practice.” The program was launched in 1987 by the Center of Music and Young Children, in Princeton, New Jersey. The website claims that research shows that unmusical adults are unmusical “due to lack of experience, not genetics.”
I didn’t sign us up to learn to sing better. The possibility that I could never crossed my mind. I signed us up to get out of the house and to escape the hundred degree heat of my new hometown and to meet other mothers. I signed us up to tire out Mbot, who did not seem to need sleep. I was newly pregnant with Gbot, and I very much needed sleep.
In the heat of a Phoenix spring, Mbot and I drove to our local Music Together every Thursday morning no matter who got how little sleep. In a Sunday school classroom, Moms and toddlers marched and twirled and shook plastic eggs filled with beans and beat wooden sticks on the linoleum floor and sometimes, on the heads of others. Moms herded toddlers away from light switches and stacks of chairs and other people’s sippy cups. We all sang. No one really had a good voice.
Our imaginative and energetic leader, Miss Mary, who has degrees in music and early childhood development, as well as years of experience as a kindergarten teacher and professional cellist, plays the guitar, too, and makes the recorder sound mystical and haunting. In class, she took suggestions from the bigger kids, who delighted in suggesting that we all swim like sharks or rumble like trucks. In the first few classes, I mumbled haltingly to unfamiliar but predictable tunes. I discovered that many of the simple songs had been written just for me. “Old Brass Wagon” starts out with just one note, an F, repeated seven times. Making momfriends didn’t happen right away, but least Mbot usually fell asleep on the ride home.
We listened to the CD (registration fee had included two) at home and in the car. After a few weeks, I was singing “The Water Is Wide” as I pushed Mbot’s stroller to the park. On about the hundredth rendition, I discovered that if I took a breath first, and stretched my mouth wide, my voice could reach all the way up to the boat that can carry two.
As the months pass, and we progressed through another and yet another semester, my repertoire widened. I hollered, “Hey, Betty Martin, tip toe, tip toe,” ad infinitum while driving, and found that if I actually moved my face, like I am biting into a big cookie at the same time I am pretending I’m British, I can nail the “t’s.” By this time, Mbot was mimicking words. “Tip toe, tip toe,” he chanted. We sang about old dogs named Blue, about chickadees and blackbirds and little goats snowy and white. In the car, if I switched from music to NPR, Mbot fussed in the back seat. “More, More.”
By the time Mbot was almost two and his little brother, Gbot, was about six months old, I calculated that I had sung “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” over one thousand times. The alphabet song—which I discovered has the same tune as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” is close behind. Strangely, my voice did not sound like it used to. It seemed bigger somehow and more willing to do what I asked. I didn’t give this much thought. I ventured into the old Christmas carols and the scraps from eighth grade choir, pushing air from my chest and rearranging my facial muscles in ways that would have mortified me at thirteen in a room of my peers.
After over thirty weeks of Music Together classes, when Mbot was twenty-three months old, we visited my family in Idaho. Mbot dived into the roomful of his older cousins’ toys. He homed in on a long plastic arrow with a suction cup on one end, and a giant toy bow strung with string. He had never seen a bow and arrow. He manipulated the bow so he was grasping it carefully at its center, and anchored one end on the carpet. He drew the arrow back and forth across the bow string and raised his voice. “Twinko, twinko, witto staw!” he sang. He was playing the cello.
The next afternoon or the next, while I fed Gbot, Mbot curled up under a blanket in the kitchen while my mother and I prepared dinner. Thinking that perhaps the miraculous would occur and he would fall asleep, I began to sing. I was still not accustomed to singing with anyone over twenty-three months in the room, but I raised my voice carefully, as if I were singing “The Star Spangled Banner” at the seventh game of the World Series. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star….” I was conscious of the movement of my tongue, my lips, my cheeks.
It was not Loius Armstrong. But my voice sounded strong and oddly rich and resonant. At the end of the song, Mbot was no closer to sleep. But my mother turned from the oven. “That was beautiful,” she said with unflattering surprise. “Where did you get such a pretty voice? I never had one.”
“Neither did I,” I replied.
“More sing,” said Mbot. And I began again.
I’m a little bit short of the elbow room
But let me get me some, And look out world,
Here I come!
Is how hard you try a genetic trait? Is there a gene for conviction, and persistence? Or is it learned? As a parent, I will try to nurture that quality.