When I Sing, The Malady Lingers On
I cannot make music. During all of my 73 years, I have been off-key when trying to bring music out of me. I suspect that, as an infant, I squalled in D minor when everybody else was squalling in E.
Except that I can’t tell D minor from E. I can’t even define “key” in a way that makes sense to me.
With music, I love the rhythm, harmony, point and counterpoint.
With words like these I am writing, I can make fairly good use of rhythm, harmony, counterpoint – all the musical melodic variants – to convey thoughts, ideas, emotions. But not with music.
“Can’t you hear yourself? Your singing is flat,” my wife often says, with an ate-a-prune pinched expression on her face. Her pain is understandable. She is musically capable.
It is a dilemma.
I am a talker. I love getting things out from inside my head and into the world around me, through a sentence, a hand gesture, a primal scream – or an attempt to sing along with a song.
But I do not like to inflict pain on the people around me. I love some of those people and, on occasion, I even like them to boot. When I sing, it hurts them. That inability to connect via music pains me, too.
When I was 7 or 8, a parental conflict broke over me. Dad, an enthusiastic (and moderately talented) athlete, wanted a ballplayer son. Mom, who had a lilting soprano voice and a love of music infused by her opera-loving Italian immigrant parents, wanted a musically inclined son.
Dad got the first crack. Hot Stove League, the precursor to today’s Little League and Babe Ruth youth baseball programs, was just getting started by the returning veterans of World War II, now young fathers.
I had learned baseball’s rudiments on the cinders-strewn “fields” adjoining the New York Central railroad yard and the Oneida Lumber Company that abutted our home. One learned, in those days, by being berated by the older boys who played infield and wanted to win. I was beaten into infield competence by, “Time out! C’mere! This is how you stop that ball; get down onto a knee, knock it down, then throw to first base!” The instruction, accompanied by youthful profanity, was effectively punctuated by punches to the upper arm or open-palm swats to the ear.
But not well enough to compete outside the neighborhood. At about age 10, Dad shelved his dreams of having sired a Major Leaguer.
“Sign him up for piano lessons, Ann,” he sighed.
She was thrilled. I, too, sighed.
For five l-o-n-g years, I rode my bicycle a mile each way, each week from our West End home to the east side, testing the skill and patience of Adelaide Swanson, whose home contained a Spinet piano and a metronome.
I even played in a recital, in that fifth year. As we returned home, Mom shelved her dreams, too. “Let him go back to baseball, Jiggs,” she said. “He can’t carry a tune.”
She was right. I just didn’t know how.
Intellectually, I could grasp the concepts of major and minor scales, middle C, octaves.
But I couldn’t relate them to any inner storehouse of knowledge, as I always seemed to be able to do with words.
I instinctively group words, and the sounds of words. Poetry per se isn’t my forte, but I could accurately tell the family whether the priest’s sermon had been effective or boring at that Sunday mass.
I could also be uplifted by the soaring polyphony of church hymns and, the solemnity of Gregorian Chant at special occasions.
I love both words and music. I take in either, appreciate either. But I can only output prose.
That became painfully apparent again last week. On Thursdays, Brookvilleans gather by the half-dozens for fiddle or folk jams at the local arts center, a storefront called CREATE.
I love it. Their songs revolve around the folk music I came to know during my college years in the early 1960s.
During the verses, I hum, and slap hand on thigh to keep rhythm – approximately, but unobtrusively.
During the choruses, I cannot restrain myself. I warble to “Wabaaash Cann-nonn-bawwll!” or the haunting “I’ll see youuuu … innn … my dreams” of the Weavers’ “Goodnight Irene.”
The musicians play a bit louder. Charitably, they do not point out that my “singing” fits in about as well as the brake-squeal from a passing truck on Route 322.
I leave these sessions conflicted. I love what I take in from those folks’ musical talents. But I regret that I cannot enrich, can only sway and hum softly enough to not distract.
I regret that God chose to not give me the ability to make music.
But I praise God, and those who can make music, when they share their talents and enrich the hours I spend in their company.
Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren. He lives near Brookville. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.