The Singing-Impaired

A WORD ABOUT THE singing-impaired. The singing-impaired are those who like to sing, who are frequently moved to sing, but who do not sing—according to others—well.

When the singing-impaired begin to sing, others do not join in. When others are singing, and the singing-impaired join in . . .

There is nothing quite so vulnerable as a person caught up in a lyric impulse. The singing-impaired are forever being brought up short in one. When the singing-impaired chime in, they may notice a sudden strained silence. Or just a sudden loss of afflatus in the music about them. (The singing-impaired can tell.)

No national foundation exists for the singing-impaired. Nor does any branch of medical science offer hope. No one provides little ramps to get the singingimpaired up onto certain notes. There are, to be sure, affinity groups. One of these has a theme song. I wish you could watch a group of the singing-impaired sing it together, it would touch your heart:

Don’t be scared
If you’re singing-impaired.
Sing out, sing free;
Just not audibly.

I, myself, was once singing-impaired. Perhaps that surprises you. But people once looked at me as if I had no more sense of melody than a Finn has of cuisine.

I would lie awake nights wondering: “Is there no other soul in America who, while trying to stay on the tune of ‘La donna e mobile,’ will lapse, now and again, into the tune of ‘It’s Howdy Doody Time’?”

I did not ask whether anyone should do it. I did not ask whether it argued a fine musical sense. All I asked was, did it not make some sense?

All the people I ever lived with said it didn’t. They said “It’s Howdy Doody Time” was nothing like “La donna e mobile.” Categorically. Whatsoever.

“All right,” I would say. “Not nearly so good, certainly. Not nearly so sophisticated. But surely ...”

They never wanted to discuss it further. They would suck their breath in, just perceptibly, and change the subject.

For some years of my life, as long as I sang only in church, I was harmonious. At the evening service there was a man up front pumping his arms and urging everyone to “Let the rafters ring.” I could do that.

Then I went to grammar school, and had to be in the clinic. The clinic was conducted by our music teacher while the chorus was off to itself, running over the tones it had mastered. Many of the people in the clinic were there because they couldn’t behave in the chorus. I was there because, the feeling was, I couldn’t sing.

Everyone in the fourth grade had to appear in the assembly program given by the chorus. But some of us were directed to stand there and move our lips silently, as the rest rendered “Mockingbird Hill,” “‘Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab,’ Said the Chimpie to the Monk,” and “The Thing.”

Well, I was permitted to come in on “The Thing,” which may be recalled as a Phil Harris recording of the late forties. The refrain ends, “You’ll never get rid of that Boomp-boomp-boomp, no matter what you do.” I came in on the “Boompboomp-boomp.”

If it had been “Ave Maria,” I wouldn’t have minded so. But being deemed unfit to sing “‘Aba, daba, daba, daba, daba, daba, dab,’ Said the Chimpie to the Monk” with other children . . .

In graduate school my roommate, besides having read all of Samuel Richardson, had perfect pitch. And perfect tempo, I suppose, because he would sit for hours by his FM radio, tuning it finer and finer and rolling his shoulders subtly to the classics and saying, ”No, no, no, too fast.” I could not hum where I lived without running the risk of shattering my roommate’s ears like crystal. So I didn’t hum.

It is only in recent months that I have taken hold of myself and said, “Listen. This is not American. This is not right.” It is only in recent months that I have begun, whenever the chance arises, to say a few words about singing-impairment; about how my life was marked by it for so many years. I pause for a moment to let it all sink in. And then I sing.

And do you know what people say? After a pause? “You don’t sing as badly as you think you do.”

Which I have no doubt is true. And which I propose as a slogan for the nation’s so-called “singing-impaired.” Another thing I have been doing is putting the finishing touches on a monograph that pretty well establishes that all known melodies can be boiled down to four or five basic tunes.

These are the four or five basic tunes I feel most comfortable with. “It’s Howdy Doody Time,” as it happens, is one.