The gift of the ear
It’s not that I am tone deaf. I feel music, all genres, from classical to rock ‘n’ roll. But anytime I try humming a tune, its melody often veers off, sounding indecipherable to most ears, from less musically inclined ones to those with perfect pitch. I lack the gift of the ear.
Each December, Sirius XM radio plays holiday music, all kinds, from traditional to contemporary selections. A few weeks ago, listening and humming in my car I was reminded of my past melodic struggles.
Starting about age 10, after hearing the St. Patrick’s Day Parade music from a Mount Sinai Hospital bed in New York City, I wanted to play in that parade. At Rice High School, run by the Irish Christian Brothers, I joined the band. They always marched on St. Patrick’s.
For my instrument I selected the trumpet. But it soon became evident I had a limited ear. Irish-Americans would have used shackles to prevent me from disrespecting their McNamara Band song. My playing was so bad that the teacher, frustrated, once banged my music stand with his conductor’s baton, splitting it in half.
In no way was I going to be allowed to be in that parade. That is until I proposed marching with my trumpet but not playing. It was difficult for them to say no when I argued that they had already issued me a band uniform. I promised not to blow any air into my mouthpiece. But I did press down on the trumpet’s three valves throughout the march to add authenticity for the applauding crowds.
On that day, down Fifth Avenue I marched as a pretending trumpeter. There was one other fake playing public appearance when Hunter College had asked our band to play at its graduation. That concluded my pretending, but I did continue privately and unsuccessfully to toot Perez Prado’s “Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White.”
In my late teens, still determined to play an instrument, I took up the piano. I practiced on weekends at PS 72 in Spanish Harlem where my father was the custodian. My teacher, white-haired, with the flair of an accomplished orchestral maestro, tried working with me. Once at his studio as I flailed on his grand piano, I spotted him shaking his head. It seemed as if he was thinking, “That boy is hopeless.”
But some situations call for music. So, when my wife and I were dating, I’d relentlessly hum, “The Way You Look Tonight.” Our courtship survived my off-key serenading of that tune. It became our wedding song.
Later, married with two daughters about 8 and 11, we played the Carole King’s “Really Rosie” album constantly. I became fascinated with the lyrics of the title song, and all the other catchy tunes. One day alone at home I recorded myself on a Walkman singing while playing the album. After hearing the playback, I never sang or hummed again publicly.
It was, however, my good fortune to have married into my wife’s musically gifted family. Her grandmother played the guitar and mandolin. Her grandfather, a barber, with a Pavarotti-like tenor voice, sang selections from Italian operas while cutting hair. Customers cried. Lore has it that he performed at a pre-inauguration gathering for New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker.
One of her grandparent’s son, an accomplished pianist, said he went uncredited for writing the score for the 1937 movie “Lost Horizon.” The other son, my wife’s father, with his brother formed a quartet named The Continentals. During the 1940s they played at clubs,
One day alone at home I recorded myself on a Walkman singing while playing the album. After hearing the playback, I never sang or hummed again publicly.
hotels and social events such as Gloria Vanderbilt’s Sweet Sixteen party. Moreover, my mother-in-law danced professionally. And our two daughters sang and danced from kindergarten through college.
My five grandchildren have music in their veins. Recently at a solo recital my 9-year-old granddaughter sang “Once Upon a December” from the animated film “Anastasia.” Her voice coach has called her a promising mezzo-soprano. Which means little to me. But I did feel an adrenaline rush when she hit and held her high notes.
On Christmas Eve last week, my wife sang along to “The Phantom of the Opera” on Netflix. Three times I heard her enthusiastically call out, “Beautiful, beautiful.” When I asked about her excitement, she said it was about the intricately arranged key changes. I had no clue what that meant either.
In my pajamas on Christmas morning I walked out to my car and turned on the SiriusXM radio Holiday Traditions station. Appreciative and contented I listened and hummed. A gift we may have wished for ourselves can be lived vicariously through others.