Saturday, February 14, 2015

What? Me Sing?

So is the title of the chapter about singing in my book “Play, Sing and Dance: An Introduction to Orff Schulwerk.” In it, I freely confess that I rarely sang as a kid— in elementary school, a little “Erie Canal” here, a little “Star Spangled Banner” there, in high school, some Beatles or Rolling Stones on the car radio, singing with my friends cruising the streets for some action (“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” the soundtrack of our failure to meet girls), in college, leaning on some basses in the chorus to get myself a free ride to Europe singing Masses by Renaissance composers Ockeghem and Dufay.

At 24 years old, I had my first official job as music teacher at The San Francisco School and was in charge of something called Singing Time. Armed with my three chords on the guitar and an Alan Lomax book of folk songs, I set to work to fill the 20 minutes daily with something that was reasonably enjoyable for both the kids and myself. Very little in my background prepared me for that task, but that was part of the job description and there was no choice but to step up to it.

So here I was yesterday, 40 years into the same job at the same school with the same commitment to daily singing, sitting in front of the 100 1st through 5th graders with my banjo and guitar at my side and piano close by and 20 music teachers from Sacramento who were visiting the program for the day. We had been singing love songs in honor of Valentine’s Day and it was time to review them. So off we went—You Are My Sunshine, Honey You Can’t Love One, Froggy Went A’courtin’, Red River Valley, Down in the Valley, On Top of Old Smokey, The Riddle Song, The Water Is Wide, Love Is Something If You Give It Away, Tony Chestnut, De Lanterna Na Mao (Brazil), Choucounne (Haiti), Jamaica Farewell, Skinnamarink, A You’re Adorable, Five Foot Two. Beautiful singing, seamless transitions from one song to the next, good feeling for all styles, all words memorized, 99% full participation (how I want to name the delinquent! But discretion prevails.), perfect endings and why did that clock have to tell us to stop?! We were just getting warmed-up! Had another fifty love songs under our belt waiting for the kids’ voices to keep them alive and happy.

After a Chinese Lion Dance interlude by the 6th grade, my guests and I drove up to the Jewish Home for the Aged and put in another glorious hour-plus of non-stop singing through the Great American Songbook, with delightful detours to a Mozart aria from one of the guests and Home on the Range, the one song everyone knew the lyrics to. The air was charged with beauty and communion and healing sounds and all from the power of the human voice combined with poetry, memory and 88 piano keys as the earth from which we flew. And so this young man in his 60’s who barely sang as a child finds song at the center of his life. Who could have predicted?

And yes, I still suffer from the faulty wiring of unattended neuron connections as a child. I’ve worked hard to improve, but more often than I like, I feel the cobbled-together neurocircuitry of my musical brain fraying like duct tape losing its stick and envy those who hear pitches clearly in their head and have an effortless direct connection to their voice. But passion, love and a fearless plunge into the steps and leaps of each melody help me at least be a good enough faker to kick-start any song and then let the group take over.

Here’s hoping that you sing to your beloved on Valentine’s Day. And every day of your life. 

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