“You can’t carry a tune.”
"You’re tone deaf.”
“Please, just mouth the words when you sing.”
These are the comments my singing inspired when I was a little girl. I didn’t want to believe them. Deep down something felt so wrong. Even though I was scared, I tried to sing again and again. My singing brought laughter to many people. They were right – I was a fool to keep trying. I sounded terrible. I really did. Eventually (before adolescence) I accepted that I couldn’t hear melody – singing was hopeless. Until I was in my forties, I believed music was a place I didn’t belong.
So how did a middle aged, tone deaf woman start composing music? I was watching a rehearsal for a play I wrote. An angel of cello, Helena Espvall, had just created the sounds of hell. Now she was trying to figure out how to make the sound of a dead baby crying for life. I don’t know what possessed me, but I asked if I could try making this effect by crying into the cello’s sound holes. When I did, I felt the vibrations fill the room. The echo haunted me.
After the play closed, I longed for those vibrations. I wasn’t happy just reading my poetry anymore – I wanted the words to grow fat, luscious, and painful with song. I met with Helena. I tried to explain how I wanted the words to sound – this proved to be an impossible task. Helena encouraged me to try singing again for the first time in decades. I sang a few words at a time. She imitated my pitches on the cello. They were often the same pitch over and over again. Helena didn’t complain – so I didn’t admit, that wasn’t what I had intended.
Being the fool that I am, I didn’t give up. I tried picking out the notes with one finger on my daughter’s old toy piano. I wrote down the letters of the notes (which were written on the keys). I wanted to hear how the notes flowed together, but I couldn’t make that happen using one finger. I decided to ask a piano teacher how to place my whole hand on a keyboard. Thinking I was too old and tone deaf to actually learn how to play the piano, I signed up for a single lesson.
Alongside my poem, I brought the little melody I wrote to class. The teacher, Jordan Klein, played it for me, adding chords. He explained that I had written the piece in C minor. He told me that the melody illustrated my poem well.
I said, “I think I’m tone deaf.”
He said, “Clearly you’re not.”
“But I can’t carry a tune to save my life.”
“You can learn,” he said. “That’s a skill anyone can learn.”
I wasn’t convinced, but I signed up for more lessons.
Jordan found something of value in everything I did, which gave me the patience to start from the basics. He taught me there was a middle C, and showed me how notes looked on a staff.
When Jordan taught me there were intervals in music, I thought, “Oh my god there are intervals!” I was so excited that I wrote a song entirely in intervals. Anyone listening would have put their hands over their ears – it was a very dissonant song. But Jordan told me that the patterns I made were musical. That was the first time I heard that term used to describe my work.
I confessed to Jordan, “I feel like music is this cool place where I don’t belong.”
He said, “I’m happy to admit you to the club.”
This invitation opened my ears to music. I always heard the beat because, thankfully, no one ever told me that I didn’t have rhythm. But I never really heard the melodies and harmonies. For most of my life, I didn’t trust myself to determine if one note was higher than the other. Now the tones on the piano felt hot in my ear, and I could see the melodic curves the tones were making. I could feel, hear and see the music. I learned how to play songs on the piano. And I learned how to match pitches with my voice. Jordan was right –“carrying a tune is a skill anyone can learn (even me)!” I was in my forties and fully experiencing music for the first time.
I wrote music to better understand almost everything that Jordan taught me: intervals, chords, keys and cadences. I loved writing music. After two years of these wonderful lessons, Jordan told me he was moving away. Before he left, he gave a couple of Art Songs I wrote to Professor Richard Brodhead, the Director of Graduate Studies in Music at Temple University. I received an email from the professor. “It has been a pleasure getting to know your pieces. Brava!”
Professor Broadhead was kind enough to meet with me. He was surprised when I told him how recently I started learning about music.
He asked, “But how is that possible – your pieces are so long?”
I laughed in a self-deprecating way. “They are kind of long.”
“No, they’re long and successful,” he said. “They work as a whole.”
I wondered, “Which one of us is lying, him or me?”
“And you have a gift for melody,” he continued.
“It was him!” I laughed to myself. “That can’t be true.”
I asked the professor how I could continue to grow and improve. He suggested that I take his graduate level fugue and canon composition course. I knew that was a crazy suggestion. I never even took an undergraduate class in music – how could I be ready? I’d have to be a complete fool to take his course.
Sometimes I did very well in Professor Brodhead’s course, and he generously praised my counterpoint and my canons. Other times, perfectionism got in the way of my finishing a piece. I was terrified that I would make a mistake and music would be taken from me forever. I was much older than the other students, but that didn’t keep me from being the biggest baby in class. I often turned to the professor for guidance and reassurance. Fortunately, he was a very nurturing teacher. And Jordan was only a phone call away. Throughout the course I was a nervous wreck, but I’m glad I gave it a try. I love, adore and use everything I learned in that course.
Music is part of our being. It’s in the inflections of our voices, the waves of our laughter and the gaits of our walk. It’s in the environment around us: the songs of the birds, frogs and crickets, the roar of the sea and the moan of the breeze. Music is the universal enduring language – every culture throughout human history has expressed itself through music. It’s in all of us.
The music in me longed for life. I was willing to be a fool for it. I still am. Music is a powerful force. But believing I lacked the ability to learn and take part in it, overwhelmed that force for most of my life. I thought I couldn’t hear melody, so I shut my ears to it. The labels I was given as a child became comfortable and protective. It felt dangerous to explore other possibilities. I couldn’t do it alone. I needed someone to encourage me and teach me that music is accessible.
Everyone can learn to sing, write music, and play an instrument. What you do with those skills depends on your passion and level of commitment, but the options are endless and open to everyone. As a recent inductee to the music club, I’d like to invite everyone who has ever felt excluded to join. It’s not too late!