Musical talent runs in my family.
Mom plays piano and sings. Dad played trumpet and sang in the church choir. Both of my brothers play guitar, and Lee plays piano, saxophones of various shapes and sizes, leads choral singing and sings. My oldest son plays trumpet, drums, guitar and conducts marching bands. My middle son plays trombone. My youngest plays piano and sings. I am generationally sandwiched by a musically talented family.
I earned a B- in flutophone in elementary school, and do not now play an instrument. I sing off key and cannot read music. Expressing emotions and ideas through music eludes me, and I often resort to written and spoken word to occupy my mind.
If I could choose a talent to have, it would be music.
I know, I know, “Whatever you set your mind to…” blah, blah, blah. My lack of talent isn’t from a lack of trying. As a teenager I sang in the church choir and performed solos at church and even at a church competition. In my 20s, I flirted with country and blues harmonica. Neither experience revealed a hidden talent for music.
I enjoyed singing in the church choir, and not just because as a preacher’s kid I was expected to be ready to “preach, pray or sing” at any time. In the 9th grade, my friend Dwayne and I transferred to Temple Christian School in Lakeland, Florida, because finances closed the Christian school at my dad’s church. The first day of school we were presented with a choice for our one elective: study hall or chorus.
Dwayne was heading to chorus. I didn’t have the slightest inclination to participate. I went to the cafeteria for study hall. When I arrived, I took one look around and realized immediately Dwayne had made the better choice. The collection of derelicts and academic refugees monitored by the stern faculty proctors had more of a feel of detention than academic pursuit. I ran to catch up to Dwayne and entered Mr. Huff’s second floor chorus room at the same time, preventing the other students from thinking chorus was not my first choice.
The scene in chorus was much different. About 50 or so students filled the classroom, which felt too small for such a number. A quick scan of that room revealed a female to male ratio of about 12-to-1. Dwayne smiled at me and said, “See? Isn’t this great?”
We enjoyed the company of young ladies the entire year and even spent a day out of school traveling by motorcoach to a Christian school choral competition in Jacksonville. I don’t know how much music I learned, but I found the scenery a vast improvement over study hall.
Emboldened by our choral studies, Dwayne and I joined the church choir. I applied with less success my strategy of blending in. I could do OK singing the tenor part if someone nearby could carry the note, and I could follow along. The problem arose when I had to lead, or, heaven help, on those rare occasions I tested my pubescent voice with “special music.”
I performed the “special music” in church a handful of times and always on Sunday night, when the B-team of singers were given their chance to work on their craft in front of a smaller audience. The first time I sang a solo, I chose Andre Crouch’s “My Tribute.” My mom accompanied me on the piano. It was such a disaster, me struggling to find the melody of the opening repeated notes for the lyric, “How can I say thanks for the things you have done for me…”
My nasally, off-key monotone was like fingernails on a chalkboard. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my dad on the platform wincing through my performance while Mom blissfully unaware plunked away on the piano, drowning out my vocal abomination. To this day, my brothers love to imitate the horrendous noise. In a way I’m almost proud of how terrible it was.
My grandest vocal failure, though, came at a World Baptist Fellowship Youth Conference. It was held at Arlington Baptist College in Texas and required two years of fundraising to afford the travel for our church in Central Florida. Everyone in our small youth group entered many categories in order to maximize our experience. I competed in the public speaking, quiz team, choir and solo categories, the latter being my downfall.
For my solo we chose “I’d Rather Have Jesus” because it fit well in my vocal range. Mrs. Mulberry, our church pianist, recorded two versions of the song on cassette, one in the key it was written in and one in a lower key in case that proved easier. I used that cassette to practice and to compete, a gigantic logistical mistake.
On competition day when I ascended the platform and retrieved my cassette tape, properly rewound to the version I planned to sing, the tape snagged on a string in my shirt pocket and began to unwind as I handed it over. All the color left my face as the audio technician at the tape deck stuck in a pencil and turned until the tape was at the beginning, or so he said.
On cue, I went to the center podium in the massive auditorium and waited for the music to start. It came in at the end of the first recording, which sounded a lot like the intro, so I picked up with the beginning of the song where I thought the first verse should have been. I hadn’t even made it to the refrain when the song started over in a higher key. Panicked, I didn’t have a choice but to stop. Rivulets of sweat dripped down my face. My only cover was the truth. Into the microphone I said, “I’m so embarrassed.”
The technician rewound the tape, and I was allowed to start again. Fortunately, the only witnesses were my youth group and chaperones and the judges. I did not place in the vocal performance.
My attempts at learning and performing a musical instrument were only slightly better.
In the mid-1990s during my heartbroken and lonely single days, I bought a harmonica with a companion book appropriately titled, “Harmonica for the Musically Hopeless.” I longed to sound like Clint Black on the intro to “State of Mind” from his 1993 album “No Time to Kill.” Instead, I sounded like a wounded goose wheezing its final breaths.
I sat in the swing on my screened in porch, puffing and inhaling on that harmonica for months, sending my landlord’s dog, Eudora, into fits of howling as she tried to match my key and pitch.
The “musically hopeless” book didn’t have sheet music. The holes on the harmonica were numbered. Rather than staffs filled with half note and whole note symbols or even the letters of the notes — A, B, C, D, E, F, G — it just had lines of numbers representing the holes you were supposed to blow or suck air through. If it was just the number listed, you were to blow. If the number was circled, you sucked in air. It was an easy system to read, but you were on your own with the tempo. Hardly Beethoven.
In the end, I had a couple of gigs, playing “You Are My Sunshine” at both my brother’s and my own wedding rehearsal dinners. It went over big on both occasions, but more for comedic rather than melodic reasons.
Maybe all my slobbery honking on the harmonica was therapeutic, but I was going for something more pleasing to the ear. I had visions of jamming with friends. They would be playing their guitars, and I could pull out my harmonica, which I would just happen to carry around with me everywhere, and play along, complementing their musicianship with the most amazing country and blues harmonica riffs ever imagined. That dream never materialized.
I won’t say “never” to a musical hobby, but I can safely say that any hopes of achieving musical proficiency have long been abandoned. Given three wishes by a genie in a bottle, though, I’d likely make one of them having musical talent.