A brief rant about my tone deaf family

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 02, 2010

My son has started singing and he's just awful at it. Lately I've been trying to teach him to sing "Happy Birthday" for his sister's annual "one-year-older-but-not-much-taller" jubilee. He learned the words quick enough, but there's something about the way he sings them that makes the simple tune sound like an Estonian funerary dirge performed by an in-bred goatherd into the merciless winds of the Baltic Sea. I just look at him and think, Damn, son, you're never going to sing in a rock band. Maybe you could play bass, or become a white rapper named Tône Dëf who gets mocked in the early stages of American Idol, Season 23, but if you ever have any hope of scoring chicks you'd better be athletic. Trust me, the bookish romantic loner thing doesn't work. I'll buy you a case of those Mark McGwire steroids before I let you bring home a volume of Rilke or utter the word "Rimbaud" in my presence. I won't stand for the sighing and mopery, son. You don't want to bring a platonic Mormon friend to prom who's only allowed to go at all because her father can tell just by looking at you that there's a greater risk of her giving lap dances to a room full of LDS missionaries than there is of you moving in for a closed-mouth kiss during the final chorus of Boys II Men's "End of the Road." While everyone else is getting it on post-prom at Andrew Howard's Lake Michigan cottage, do you really want to be at the 99-cent theater's midnight screening of Wayne's World 2 with your Mormon entourage? Don't think I'm buying you a bass guitar either because those guys get laid even less than bookish romantic types. Even less than drummers.

Perhaps you think I'm being hasty. He's only two! you shout at your computer monitor. And you're probably right. But by age two Buddy Rich was already an experienced Vaudevillian (billed as "Taps the Wonder Drummer"). By age two Mo Kin's xylophone lullabies were already luring Kim Jong-il to sleep in his cryogenic chamber every night. And at not much older than two, Tallan "T-Man" Latz was embroiled in litigation over whether hammering Elkhorn Wisconsin nightclubs with the blues was a violation of child labor laws. It's not inconceivable that my little guy could be stuck with that voice forever. Occasionally he "sings" me a mumbly approximation of the first few lines of "Monster Mash" or "Frosty the Snowman." Adorable, true, but if one were to judge the singing alone it is clear he's almost as tone deaf as his sister, who sings almost as poorly as her mother. Not a single member of my tribe can carry a tune in a wheelbarrow. And I'm not exactly Dean Martin over here. The last time I took singing seriously was fifth grade when my hippie-turned-fundamentalist music teacher changed the words in "Kookaburra" from . . .Gay your life must be! to . . .Happy your life must be! and I was all, That's the gayest thing I've ever heard. I sing lullabies. That is all.

People who take singing really seriously in casual situations make me fidgety, like the super-serious guy on our recent Christmas caroling excursion who insisted he couldn't sing "Joy to the World" because it was in the wrong key. I wanted to ask, "What's a key?" but any such query would have been drowned out by my father-in-law singing "Feliz Navidad" like he'd just been punctured by a harpoon. My father-in-law is almost deaf (so he has an excuse), but I don't know what to say about the people responsible for the other half of my wife's genes: an Irish family of eight kids and I've never heard one of them sing. They don't even clap during "The Wild Rover" (though they do plenty of drinking and fighting to prove a rightful claim to their ancestry). At some point her uncle recruited this other local family to sing at all their family events, and these people always come armed with pitch pipes and jazz hands. Truthfully, I would rather suffer a music-less existence with a family that sings like bellicose sea lions than hear that middle-aged couple and their kids sing "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" ever again.

* * * * *

The silver lining of having a child who can't sing is that you will never have to watch him in a vocal jazz performance. While my wife recognizes our son's nascent tone deafness, she keeps some dubious hope that even with this genetic millstone he'll be the musical one in the family. We named him after a musician, she says. We could hire someone to train him. You know, like Sister Maria. I think she harbors a deeper, more sinister fantasy about raising a brood of harmonizing von Trapp-lites. Every year when it comes on network TV my wife insists we watch The Sound of Music and every time we do so it makes me a little more angry.

"I liked this family better before Sandy Duncan came along."

"That's Julie Andrews."


. . .

"Why am I supposed to feel bad for these kids living in their giant mansion in the mountains?"

"Because their totalitarian father didn't allow them music after their mother died."

"I thought Sandy Duncan was their mother?"

"No, she's the nun who takes care of them."

"Those kids better have leprosy."

. . .

"I know another girl who's sixteen, Liesl: her name is Anne and she lives in an Amsterdam attic and your creepy boyfriend is going to keep her from seeing seventeen."

. . .

"Why are they frolicking so?"

"Sister Maria is teaching them to sing."

"'La, a note to follow so?' Rogers and Hammerstein really phoned that one in, didn't they?"

. . .

"I thought if they won the singing contest, Captain von Trapp didn't have to go back into Das Boot."

"No, he still has to go. That's why they're running away."

"They're running to Switzerland on foot?"

"I guess so."

"Next time take some Jews with you, you assholes."

* * * * *

Our neighbors take their daughter to Canada every Wednesday for violin lessons.  While the idea of a weekly poutine run sounds tempting, I do think I'll wait a few years and enroll the kids in ordinary piano lessons or find a pixie-ish postulate from a nearby abbey who works cheap.  As sure as I am that genetics are working against them here, I'm even more sure that they deserve a chance to overcome them. I believe I also owe them the chance to prove their curmudgeon of a father wrong, even if he ends up fidgeting whenever they sing.