March 20, 2003

Tone Deaf

For a brief semester in college, I was a voice major. I had studied music throughout high school and was a reasonably accomplished singer. Through some miracle I had made my way through a difficult audition process and been admitted to a reasonably prestigious School of Music.

I lived in a residence hall surrounded by other students majoring in one of the visual and performing arts. It was like living in your own version of the movie Fame. Singalongs in the cafeteria were more like operatic arias and every evening was filled with recitals, gallery openings, and the like.

While this should have seemed like a dream, it quickly began to feel like a nightmare. Within weeks I knew that I was in way out of my league. The abilities that had allowed me to be a somewhat big fish in the small pond high school I attended were vastly underdeveloped for this land of proficient prodigies. Whereas perfect harmonies once seemed to play inside my head effortlessly, I increasingly felt myself feeling tone deaf when compelled to sing solo or with others. After a semester of disappointing results, I quickly selected an alternative major.

Party affiliations aside, I cannot help but feel that our great nation is coming off a bit too tone deaf when singing on the world stage. Listening to Donald Rumsfeld today add fuel to the fire of the already damaging "shock and awe" proclamation of our military prowess reminded me of kids in the chorus who you only hoped the better singers would drown out with their more melodic voices. And if you can't sing at all, just mouth the words, right?

Inexperienced singers relish the "forte ma" moments in a score, those sections where you get to sing with unbridled passion and volume. Somehow cutting notes loose from deep in your diaphragm and then letting then wail to the rafters let's you feel that your voice is invincible and endless. But that inexperience matures over time, learning that to sing only at a loud volume eventually becomes uninteresting for the singer and deafening for the audience.

More mature singers become quite fond of the slower and softer sections of a score. These sections challenge their restraint, asking them to be much more focused and much more attentive to using the gifts of their voice in order to produce the desired effect. The accomplisher performer learns the appropriate mix of tone so that the loud notes don't seem so shrill and the soft notes don't seem unsubstantiated.

Just because you can sing at the top of your lungs doesn't mean you should. And for leaders who choose to do so? They would be wise to remember they may find no one around to applaud their performance.

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