One thing I’m continually thankful for is being raised in a musical family.
Dad was a preacher who promoted Southern gospel groups. He also sang, but I couldn’t tell you what part. Mom was a piano player and sang alto.
One of my first memories is of being a baby wrapped in a blanket lying on a pew in our church, and my parents on the platform practicing with their quartet.
In my early life I spent countless evenings at similar practices and then it was my turn to step up to the microphone singing a chorus as a preschooler, joining in the choir, or being part of a youth singing group.
I wondered if my dad wanted to be a professional singer. He was so supportive of the groups he scheduled for “gospel sings” in our area. Some big name groups came through, but there were many more lesser known performers he promoted by getting people to hear them live.
Those events were always exciting for me. I was shy, but still thrilled at being allowed backstage with Dad. I soon got up the courage to talk to the bands, and became a roadie of sorts, taking on the job of dismantling and carrying out the microphone stands. It was the only equipment they would trust to a scrawny kid.
One of my fondest memories of those concerts was standing onstage during a break and singing with my family. We did it at various places, but my favorite was the high school auditorium in our home town.
I have an 8×10 of the whole gang, and looking at it takes me back to manning the ticket booth by the doors, hanging out in the practice room where the bands warmed up, the smell of the curtains as I’d stand behind them watching the bands and the audience both.
I didn’t listen closely to the music then because there were so many other things to experience. But somehow it still got down inside me, and I knew that music would always be an important part of my life.
I often wondered if Dad didn’t wish he could play an instrument. Then one day I discovered a guitar case in my parents’ closet. I pieced together that it probably belonged to my Papaw, who played guitar in the honky-tonks when he was drinking.
So I think Dad could play, but he chose not to.
And that’s a shame. Because if his dad had a talent for it, I bet he would have been a good player.
And I would have loved to hear my daddy play the guitar.
My mom was a good piano player. And I have had about eight long, full, endless, mostly boring years of piano lessons in my life.
I did not inherit her skill.
Mom learned to play shape notes. Some of you may have grandmothers who can explain that to you! Apparently each note had a shape. The lines and spaces weren’t enough of a clue. But maybe that was her secret.
Because I could never make much sense of the lines and spaces and the ovals drawn upon them. Yes, every good boy deserves fudge or whatever makes him say, “Ahh!”, but theory and I never connected.
Mom could play almost anything. And transpose in a couple minutes time to suit the voice of the singer. And sing harmony with anyone.
In our little family singing group my older sister sang lead and I got harmony. Which was fine with me, because I was fascinated with my mom’s voice and how she found the right notes.
In my piano lessons I heard words like chords and keys, and I even knew that usually the second note from the top was the alto. But without a pencil to write down the letters I could not tell you what I was supposed to sing.
There are Facebook laments about how churches should go back to hymn books so people can see what they are supposed to be singing. But I know that after eight years of studying it, and my whole life singing out of a hymn book, I was no closer to knowing what I was singing.
Mom taught me that while some people are gifted with understanding theory, others are gifted with understanding the feel of music.
Guess which one I am?
I’ve often heard it said, of piano players especially, that they play by ear. In my understanding that usually means that they can’t, or don’t want to learn, to read music.
What I have also found is that those who play by ear are driven by the music, not by the notes on the page and the written instructions of how to play it.
They play with passion and feeling, and that flows through the music.
While music played exactly as written can be quite beautiful, I’d rather hear music played from the heart, full of meaning that goes beyond notes on a page.
And so I sing by ear.
I used to labor to figure out what it meant to sing specific notes. I’ve had piano players go over and over parts, and in some settings it’s necessary to toe the line and sing exactly the way every other alto sings.
But what I love most is the way learning and singing music comes to me.
It starts with lots of listening – I always say I have to hear a song 50 times before I “get” it.
The important thing for me is to feel the music inside me, to know where it is going, to feel the excitement of where I hope it goes next, to be carried along by the story it tells me before I ever take in the words.
Once I truly have the music in me, then I can add the lyrics, trying to hear them clearly on the radio before ever seeing them on paper. And layering on the meaning, the story, the message. Whatever they need to tell me.
To find my voice, I have to let the song tell me where to go.
Singing lead is great, and I love it. But there is something so satisfying about trailing a little under, giving a base, an anchor for the melody to soar above.
Depth and power and feeling.
I’m told that what I do is hear the chords and pick one of the lower notes to sing. That could be the technical explanation, but mainly what I love is to feel the music and let it bring out a response from my heart.
The same kind of response I felt as a girl, standing in the folds of a heavy curtain, hearing the same song I bet 50 times, and knowing that it was speaking to me.
And opening my mouth, and letting the music back out.