My grandmother taught ‘voice’ in a small town in Texas. As I understand it, ‘voice’ was how you controlled your singing, which probably meant taking the Texas out of the singer’s voice. When we visited her, we had to stay outside when she was giving lessons, and not be disruptive. Someone, usually some teenage girl that would rather be out with her friends, would follow the single note played on the grand piano by singing the scale in that key. The next note was struck and this would repeat, seemingly, for hours. “Ding…. La la la la la la la”.
She never tried to teach my brother and me — or our boy cousins. I suspect she thought we were lost causes culturally, but we were made to attend my girl cousin’s recitals and events when she sang opera. My first wife studied French throughout high school and college, but when we went to France after college, they thought we were German. Likewise, I believe it’s pretty hard to get the Texas accent out of Italian opera. Nonetheless, one of my grandmother’s students became a Broadway star, and they subsequently erected a statue of Peter Pan in a local park to honor Mary Martin (and, we feel, our grandmother).
We also intermittently attended one of the evangelical churches where mechanical music was not allowed. The small congregation would rifle through to the correct pages in the song books and sing a cappella. While I could hear the individuals around me singing poorly, the overall result seemed magical. Somehow, the flawed notes, missing tunes and wrong words still came out beautiful and joyous as a whole. For me, there wasn’t much to like about church, but I loved the singing.
Christmas was also a time when singing, regardless of the quality, was encouraged. Once, in college, I had a date with a girl from Chicago and we all went out to sing Christmas carols on the campus mall. She stumbled over the words pretty continuously, and I teased her about it. Hey, who doesn’t know at least some of the words to “Silent Night?” As I dropped her off later, she asked, “Don’t you know I’m Jewish?”
“No,” I replied seriously, “But that’s okay. I know plenty of Catholics and Lutherans and Baptists. And they all know the words…” Needless to say, that was our last date.
Music continues to be important to me, but I’ve expanded my scope. I enjoy rock and roll, country, jazz, blues, some rap, and some of the new industrial and electronic stuff. I once knew all the verses to “Tennessee Stud”, and under the right circumstances (and right amount of alcohol) can do a credible (if not fantastic) “Ebb Tide”. I like show tunes for singing on long road trips (particularly to annoy any kids in the car), but only consider a musical worthwhile if you can remember and sing the songs when leaving the theater (which leaves out “Phantom”).
I’ve also begun to appreciate nature’s music, the natural sounds that surround us almost without our hearing. When it’s warm, we keep the windows open and we can hear the sounds of the neighborhood. Early mornings, we hear the birds. First, it’s the robins proclaiming their territory, then the smaller birds start celebrating the coming dawn. They seek the tallest branches and face the east, waiting for the first of the sun’s rays. Lately we’ve had jays, ravens and magpies cutting through our yard in groups, with their harsh cries jarring among the otherwise peaceful banter.
There’s car noise and human voices as neighbors head off to work or school, the slamming of doors and quickly muted blaring of car radios, followed by engine noises that pass down the street. Occasionally the wind creates a rushing sound in the trees that surpasses the other sounds, creating a white noise helpful to early morning sleep.
When the kids come out to play we hear their games and their arguments and shrieks of joy, anger and pain, along with the magic sound of kids laughter. Emerging artists on the block create intricate designs in chalk on the sidewalks detailing the creatures or challenges to be encountered along the drawn paths. Sometimes they are as simple as hop-scotch or finish lines for the races.
The children’s sounds are reassuring and nostalgic, since we remember our childhoods fondly. My childhood neighborhood had lots of kids that formed groups by age and inclination for companionship, for bigger and better games and activities, and for protection. It seems we were outside all day, succumbing only to the call from the mothers to come to lunch or dinner, or worse, when your mother used your full name to make you face the music for some missed chore or other transgression.
If you left the porch light on in the summer, you were sure to collect a herd of June Bugs, reddish-brown beetles attracted to the light. In bad years, they could cover the entire door and porch, leaving you no choice but to endure their crunch under foot as you entered or left. One of the enduring summer sounds from my childhood was the cicadas — or locusts, as they were called. They emerged from somewhere underground, we were told, and inhabited the trees and shrubs, trilling shrilly. You could see their dried up exoskeletons on tree trunks, split down the back as the grown cicada took wing. One kid caught one and put it on a thread and flew it in circles around his head. In the evening, the crickets started up more musically and gently than the cicadas. This usually signaled the end of our games as one by one the mothers called the kids indoors.
Today the crickets bring a sense of nostalgic peace, a sense that at the end of the day, all is right with the world. Nature’s music has that effect on me. Birds, crickets and rushing wind or water seem to send a message that I am home, I am safe, and tomorrow is another day.
The other evening, the kids’ play ended and silence descended over the neighborhood. The crickets hadn’t yet started when I heard a small voice singing somewhere nearby. The voice was soft and lilting, and the tune gentle and joyful. I couldn’t make out the words, but I had the sense of happiness and freedom from care. It reminded me that, although we’re only human, any one of us can bring a little peace into the world.