Share |

The Singing Gene

Spiritual Smart Aleck
The girls at the Salvation Army orphanage in El Paso, Texas, sometime in the early 1920s. My mother is the little girl in the front row immediately to the right of the Motherhood banner. My aunt is in the back row, fourth from the left.
The girls at the Salvation Army orphanage in El Paso, Texas, sometime in the early 1920s. My mother is the little girl in the front row immediately to the right of the Motherhood banner. My aunt is in the back row, fourth from the left.

People often tell me they cannot sing, or they are terrible singers. They offer lots of excuses. My favorite excuse for a less than lovely voice is, “I ruined my voice singing on the street for the Salvation Army.”

That was my mother. My mother and her siblings were raised in a Salvation Army orphanage in El Paso, Texas. Part of that experience was going out on the street to sing and try to reform the sinners of El Paso.

My mother was a gifted piano player, and she accompanied singers and choirs at school and in the orphanage. After she left school, during the Great Depression, she had the opportunity to be a concert pianist, but an older and supposedly wiser man advised her that it would be too risky, and she should stay with her $10 a week bookkeeping job at the Hollingsworth Garage in Watsonville. She was just a kid – she graduated from high school just before her 16th birthday – so she listened to this advice, and stayed at the garage, where she met my father. In 1941 they married. But she saved up to buy her own piano while she was working at the garage, and she played it all through the years.

As for singing, though, my mother had a voice that sounded like a chicken with a particularly accurate sense of pitch. As I say, she blamed that on the street singing she did for the Salvation Army in her youth, but I blame it on genetics. She got the gifted piano player gene, and she did not get the lovely voice gene.

My Aunt Della did have a lovely voice. She was five years older than my mother, or perhaps seven. She lied about her age when she was young and then had to recant and look for paperwork to prove she was two years older when she wanted to collect Social Security. When she graduated from high school, she went into the Salvation Army, which posted her in San Francisco, and then in Watsonville. There she met my Uncle Mike, one of the most profane auto mechanics on the Central California coast, but he watched his mouth and kept buying War Cry! Magazines whenever my Salvation Army lassie aunt came around, and in the fullness of time, they married.

So, Aunt Della sang on the street and had a beautiful voice, and my mother sang on the street and had the voice of a chicken.

The singing gene (but not the piano playing gene) came down to me and my brother, but I was the one who loved singing and began performing at age 8. I thrived on the attention and approval it got me.
My sons both can sing, but like my brother they don’t often choose to sing. My granddaughter used to make up songs in the car all the time when she was little, but she did not get hooked on singing the way I did. Now she’s having to sing for a show, and it turns out she has a voice.

So you’re sitting there, some of you, thinking, boy, I didn’t get the gene. Well, maybe not, but please - stop annoying people by whining about how you can’t sing. If you don’t feel good enough to be a professional, dry your tears. Most people aren’t good enough to be professional, and a lot of people who are good enough aren’t interested in a singing career. A lot of people who aren’t good enough have gone ahead and done it anyway. Think of that.

Don’t compare yourself to any of these people, or anyone else. They have nothing to do with you. The only question you need to answer is, do I enjoy singing?

I sang well enough to perform and over the years I must have made, oh, dozens of dollars. So why keep on singing if I can’t earn a living? Because it makes me feel good. I enjoy it. I sit here and plunk out chords on the guitar or piano and feel glad to be alive. That is the only reason to sing, or do any kind of music, or art, for that matter.

So if you enjoy singing, raise your good or lousy voice and let it sail. The only person to whom it matters is you. Enjoy. Have fun. Life is short. Sing!

Buck buck bacaw.