A Man of Several Voices

SCOTT CORBETT is a native Missourian now living in East Dennis on Cape Cod. He has written several books, the latest of which is We Chose Cape Cod.


FOR a long time I thought my singing voice was unique. After all, there are 642 hymns in our church hymnal and not one of them is written in my key.

This seems all the more remarkable when you consider that I have three distinct and different voices to draw upon. I have a sort of automatic transmission built into my throat that would probably be of considerable interest to the eye, ear, nose, and throat crowd.

My two special voices are my falsetto tenor and my equally falsetto bass, or basso non tutio prqfondo. Then my true voice is a fringe baritone which is obviously not what the average composer of sacred music had in mind when he penned his vocal arrangements. As a general rule I try to get around this difficulty by singing harmony, but my improvised harmonies are given to an occasional clinker, and all too frequently a succession of wrong guesses leads me into a dreadful cul-de-sad-sac. Then there is nothing to do but clutch at the melody line with whichever of my falsettos seems closest, an undignified procedure at best.

One Sunday after the closing hymn, a particularly intricate Welsh dirge, had left me wandering distractedly in the lower octaves, I burst out of our village church in a cantankerous mood. I thought mine was an unusual case—until I mentioned my predicament to some of my fellow worshipers.

Since then I have made quite a study of church singing, and it turns out that I have plenty of company. I find there are two classes of church singers: warblers and mumblers.

The warblers think they can sing; the mumblers can’t and know it. This is a subtle distinction, but important. The warblers usually wind up in the choir, and the mumblers make up the congregation.

Oh, there are also the mutes, but you can’t class them as singers. They merely hold their hymn books open to see if the rest of us are singing the words right, and to see how much longer it will be until the hymn is over. The more conscientious among them follow the words with one linger, and occasionally you will see one whose lips move, but that is only because he always moves his lips when he reads. I haven’t much use for mutes. I might as well admit it — I feel that mutes tire people who just don’t have guts enough to be mumblers.

In our church we have about a dozen warblers and forty to fifty mumblers, but the dozen warblers make ten times the noise we do. If we mumblers had to sing alone, without the choir, you wouldn’t be able to hear us as far as the vestibule. In fact, the only way you’d know we were inside would be from the coughs. We can sing softer and cough louder than anybody.

When I found out how common my problem was, I thought I saw some exciting possibilities.

“Where can I get in touch with a good live-wire hymnbook publisher?” I wondered. “All they’d have to do is put out a hymnbook with all the hymns transposed into our key — ”

“Wouldn’t work,” said another mumbler promptly. “Choir couldn’t sing ‘em then.”

“Besides,” said a second, “what is our key? I’ll bet we all have different ones.”

“Maybe so, but we must all be in the middle somewhere,” a lady mumbler pointed out, “because if you’ll notice, the hymns arc all either too high or too low.”

Well, I wish I knew more about music, because I feel certain that if anybody can solve these technical problems and come up with a good mumbler’s hymnbook, he’ll have the cleanest best-seller since Little Women.