Be deliberate and thorough when assessing the talents and abilities of children.
|The Tin Ear
The test was done quickly without warning nor practice. Some details are lost in the dimness of memory but the main points are very clear. It was administered by dad when I was 10 or 11. He wanted me to sing some notes of music and the results were completely unsatisfactory. The notes he wanted me to sing may have been struck on the piano in the front room or voiced on the saxophone he used to tootle. He pronounced the conclusion rapidly and with finality. “WELL, YOU can't sing. No use trying anymore." Those words, even typed on a computer sixty years later, almost bring a flush of shame. And that's a damn shame.
The result demonstrated very clearly, that while my dad had many, many talents and skills, patience and teaching were not two of them.
The experience was, of course, the end of any idea that Del could carry a tune in both our minds. He slammed the door on that one with great finality. To make matters worse, he took it as a personal affront because he could sing well. He'd say, “I really wanted to have a quartet but nobody else in this family can sing!” His hopes were dashed and re-dashed as he concluded one by one that none of the three younger children could carry a tune in a bushel basket either. Family music-making was limited to whatever he produced on the saxophone and organ he liked to play by ear, and solos or duets in church once in a while.
We all attended one-room schools through the sixth grade and at least one of the teachers could coax tunes from a piano but not one of them helped students by playing a single note and having students reproduce it or otherwise instructing in ways to sing on key. Even Christmas and other programs were primarily recitative in nature in our little schools and I seem to remember a rhythm band one year but no songs..
Kids in our family attended grade shool during years that consolidation was taking place. One result was that we rode buses to a “city” school for 7th and 8th grades as well as high school. One music insgtructor sufficed for both the high school and grade school and there was an emphasis on band instrumenats but no voice lessons were offered. The main concern was to have a student band to play for graduation ceremonies. The impression he left me was he wanted to get it over and done because his conducting motions were always a half beat ahead of the students' playing. He put in his time but was not an inspiring teacher.
We heard music regularly at church in the form of hymns by the congregation. There was no choir and certainly no children's singing either of which might have offered opportunities to learn to sing. The hymns left a deep impression on me which wasn't to be apparent for many years.
Music impinged on my consciousness in other eays. Radio station WLS broadcast a National Barn Dance from Chicago on Saturday nights. We seldom missed listening on the radio and even went to the 8th Street Theater to see the live performance several times. Doing so required dedication and desire on dad's part because it was a hundred miles and a good bit of that was through tough Chicago traffic. Memories of some of the performers and their characteristics last to this day. The overall impression was that the entire cast was not only born to make music but that they loved doing so and having an audience was frosting on the cake. It seemed that all cast members could play any instrument they happened to pick up.
Music was not a constant but all the sources were important and appreciated. Singing along with the radio was something some in the family and friends tried even though it was frustrating for me because I could not always reproduce the note or notes I heard. The frustration was terrible because the notes would not come out of me on pitch and I knew it. Some would be on note but it was not consistent. It was so bad that it was (and is) possible for me to imagine singing a song and some of the imaginary notes will be off! I wanted so badly to sing the right notes whether I was listening to music or imagining it, but they were elusive and ephemeral.
A cousin teasingly accused me of having a taste for "longhair" music when I admitted liking an orchestral piece of music (maybe something by the Glenn Miller Orchestra) rather than the pure pop or rock he favored.
College at a small, liberal arts institution was a shock in more ways than one. It soon became very clear that my knowledge of musical genres was terribly limited (as was my knowledge of English and math). Many types and qualities of music were available at every turn, some of it in our dormitory. Lyndon Clyde Viel was an upperclassman who led me to an epiphany on the power, sweep, and majesty of classical musical that is very clear in my memory. He appeared at our dorm room one day claiming he had THE BEST piece of music EVER!!! He went up and down the hall with his claim and invited any and all to his room where he put an LP on and lowered the arm. It was Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto, with Emil Gilels at the piano accompanied by the Chicago Symphony under Fritz Reiner. The opening passages were thunderous and they and ensuing passages, some with violence and others with beautiful, soaring melodies, and tremendous emotions gripped and shook me. They were, and still are, enthralling. They've never let go of me. By the time the opening of the second movement, came most all the invitees were gone but one or two of us remained to the end to hear the emotion, violence, and storm of the final coda. I'm sure to this day that most of those who left wondered what the fuss was all about. I owe a large, large debt to Mr. Viel.
As a footnote [which is not at the foot of this page], not until Lang Lang has a pianist come close to Emil Gilels' ability to play individual notes with such incredible speed, power, and emotion.
Over time, some of my most enduring, deeply touching memories involve music. Some of these are a too-long delayed live performance of the Chicago Symphony, hearing Lionel Hampton and his orchestra in Las Vegas, a Ray Charles concert in Omaha, listening to Erroll Garner play piano at a bar on Rush Street in Chicago, John Denver in Omaha, a concert by the Statler Brothers in Omaha, the choir at First UMC in Omaha often brought tears to my eyes on Sunday mornings, James Galway in concert with the Omaha Symphony during which he played three penny whistles simultaneously as an encore, some gospel and blue-grass events, listening to Der Meistersingers choral group in Omaha, all had great impact that remain for, in some cases, fifty years after the event.
One concert memory stands head and shoulders above all others even after fifty years because of it's incredible emotional and almost physical impact. In 1957, a group of some 40 North Central College students spent the bulk of the summer traveling in Europe shepherded by the college chaplain, George St. Angelo. The trip was expensive and paying for every penny was my responsibility. I dropped out of school in the fall of '56, continued my summer work as a carpenter and delayed college until the second semester of the next year. Immediately at the close of school we left by bus for Montreal where we boarded a ship that began our sojourn. We traveled to England, visited the Netherlands, Belgium, and spent about a month in Germany where we scattered and worked in church-related institutions as volunteers. Some of us (probably most) did grunt work while others had it a bit easier. There were ten or twelve of us in and around Stuttgart and someone learned of an upcoming concert by the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra and offered to obtain tickets. Some of the ring leaders knew the program but I jumped at the chance to go and ordered a ticket. There were five or six of us “longhair” sorts (or, in my case, a longhair wannabe) who attended. The concert was held in a brand new concert hall. Our seats were on the main floor and there was a balcony above that extended in an arc and down to the main floor on either side. It was very impressive.
What all was on the program is not in my memory but the closing number was Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The orchestra was large, the chorus huge, and the music nothing short of spectacular. We were all simply carried away by the soaring melodies, the soloists, and the thundering chorus. We were mesmerized. At the final coda, there was stunned silence for a moment before the place erupted with cheers, shouts, and applause that didn't want to end. We students were crying, hugging each other in turn, jumping up and down, and applauding with the crowd. It was a madhouse. How long we stood there lost in the glory and afterglow of the music I do not know. It was nothing short of stupendous. The world had changed. Thinking and remembering all that still produces goose bumps.
Later, one of the more anal music majors of our number voiced a complaint. To wit:the choir members had not remained at attention after their singing had ended and the orchestra completed the final coda. Some had folded their music, bent over and collected their things, turned and talked with others, some folded their arms, etc.
Fast forward (or slow forward, if you like) to the spring of 2008. My wife Helen and I returned to Nebraska from the south and decided to attend a church in a larger town, Wayne, some distance farther than our very tiny nearby church. We were both impressed by the choir which was very, very good. After the service I fell into step beside the music director, Connie Weber, as we walked to the fellowship hall for coffee. She was, it turned out, a retired music instructor from Wayne State College. After expressing our appreciation, she asked me if I sang. Helen interjected, “He'd LIKE to.” She asked why I didn't and I admitted to my dad's diagnosis, the lifetime of frustration and envy of those who can sing. More talk elicited the information that she did take private students and, yes, she'd see what we could do.
We set a day and time for my first lesson. It was nerve wracking. We talked for a bit as she asked about my favorite hymns, the type of preferred music. She then played a bit of one while I tried to sing. That didn't go too well so she turned to Mary Had a Little Lamb, Row, Row, Row Your Boat and a few other such arias. None of those went very well either. She continued to explore tunes and the range of my voice. Before long, she was playing melodies in lower ranges to accommodate my voice. She also sounded individual notes which she asked me to reproduce. Then we went to three notes up and down. It was tough for an old dog trying to learn new tricks. At the end of 45 minutes, we agreed there had been progress that there should be another session.
At the second, she began with three note exercises and introduced a five note scale that she played and I sang going up and then back down. She offered a couple of other exercises and went back to a couple of elementary pieces which seemed to go much better at the previous lesson. As before, we agreed on another session.
Third session opened with exercises then a few simple tunes and some a bit more complicated. Late in the session, she pulled out a hymnal, turned to “Joyful, Joyful,” told me she was going to transpose the melody down into my range, and had me sing it through from beginning to end. Evenutally, she stopped playing the melody and played some fancy accompaniment and let me sing. Each time we finished a verse she'd say “GOOD. AGAIN!” and we'd go through it again. Singing that hymn through several times gave me goose bumps and put tears in my eyes. “Joyful, Joyful” you see, is based on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.