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Monday, January 11, 2016

"Move over, I Can't Sing On Tune.”

There was not much singing in my house growing up. We enjoyed listening to music on the radio. My older sisters started buying a few popular recordings when they became teenagers, but I can't recall once that we gathered to sing. Nor can I really recall any individual going around the house singing—even in the bathtub. I believe my mother could sing. She had learned to play the piano and organ as a kid and did so in both the Methodist and Catholic churches in vicinity of her family's farm. She must have developed some sense for singing as well as playing. However, I don't remember hearing her sing.

While this may seem to have been a loss to our family, more important, it was a gain for humanity. Why? Because, with the possible exception of my mom, nobody in the family could sing on tune. We didn't talk about this. We kids all sang with our classes at St. Columba School and, on selected Sundays, in the choir loft of St. Columba Church. We also spent a lot of time singing from pews on the floor of the Church—compulsory mass before school during Lent and Advent and participation in the Stations-of-the-Cross ceremony Friday afternoons during Lent.

Nobody had complained about my singing poorly until one day in 8th grade at a before-school mass. I got there almost late, so I had to kneel and sit next to the nun who was our teacher. When hymns were to be sung, I probably sang a little louder than usual fearing she would think I was a slacker. Not far into the second hymn, she turned and said to me: “Robert, move over a few places; I can't sing on tune kneeling next to you.” Dutifully, I moved over three places and made a classmate be next to Sister.

I know I was at the age when boys' voices change and they have trouble staying on tune. I can't remember if I was into that stage or thought I was beyond it. No matter, I was deflated by the news that I could not sing. Back then, I thought I was pretty good at just about everything I tried. To be told I could not sing when I sang with enthusiasm and conviction--that shrank whatever musical ego I had—shrank it to zero.

This nun's assessment of my singing and her way of dealing with it may sound cruel, but it was not. She was right. Her evaluation has been confirmed by scores of friends in the decades since. When asked why I was not singing out among friends singing Christmas carols, or folk songs, or popular hits, I would say, “I can't sing.” The standard response to my hesitation is: “A lot of people say that, but everybody can sing.” Hearing this, I would often sing out until I got a second response: “You're right, Bob, you can't sing.”

Worse, over time, I came to be able hear how badly I and most others in my family sing. I cringe at family reunions when it is time to sing a “Happy Birthday” and too few of the less-musically-challenged family outsiders are there to carry the tune and supply the volume.

Sometimes in a group of all outsiders who can really sing, their volume will help me find one note in the song that I can hear resonate melodiously from my voice. I may then become a kind of drum section, voicing that note in rhythm whenever it seems to fit without dissonance.

Most of the time, however, I remember that humbling day in church. I smile, and I may even pretend to sing. Thanks, Sister, for helping me give this small gift to humanity.

(c) from date of posting, by Bob Komives, Fort Collins 

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