At the end of the school year at Robert E. Lee Elementary School, the band teacher at the middle school (Adams L. Middle School) arrived to test us fifth graders to see who had music.
If you had the music, you could be a part of the middle school band the next year.
If you did not, then you took woodworking.
We lined up by the stage. The band director played a few notes on the piano. It was strange to be in the cafeteria when it wasn’t time to eat. Every sound bounced off the floor and empty tables.
Some students hummed on key.
Many were off.
If you hummed on key, the director looked closely at your mouth and teeth.
If you could hum on key and had teeth, you were offered a place.
“Let me see your teeth,” he said.
“You will play the clarinet.”
“Let me see your teeth.”
“You will play the tuba.”
“Let me see your teeth.”
“You will play the flute.”
I stepped towards the piano, anxiously. I wanted to be in the band.
I didn’t yet know that I couldn’t sing.
The director played a few notes.
Or, I tried to hum.
“Stop, stop,” he said.
He stopped playing the piano and a few kids snickered.
He rubbed his head with his hands. Then he tried again in a different key.
Maybe all my 5th-grade voice needed was a different key.
“Well, he said after a few minutes of trying to find the right note for me to emulate.
“Maybe you can play the drums.”
My face turned red.
I sat down.
I forgot about the band.
But, in the 7th grade, I somehow managed to get into the choir. Mr. Casher must have had pity on me and needed another person regardless of ability.
I don’t remember, so I am guessing that there was no humming test at the piano.
Once, at a concert in the gym, I stood with the real singers. I was dressed in a blue suit. I don’t know why. I sang as loudly as I could.
An angry guy turned around and said, “Who is that back there singling like a horse?”
My face turned red again. I didn’t try to sing anymore that day.
I stopped trying to sing anything for a long time.
But the church I grew up in sang a lot. Actually, most everyone sang, even the ones who sounded like horses.
I was visiting a church in Crossette, Arkansas once and made a tactical mistake. I began to sing a little too loudly. (I thought that’s what we were supposed to do.) The guy standing in front of me turned around with a disgusted face like, “who’s that horse singing back there?” I stopped.
But, a few years later I was driving near Thomasville, Alabama and heard a commercial that changed my outlook on singing.
It began with a church setting and a voice trying to sing. The voice was awful. The announcer said that sometimes our voices may sound strange to people. But God hears our voices, regardless of our ability. And the singing turned into something beautiful. It was the way God was hearing this terrible voice. Suddenly, he was singing on key and it was nice.
The point of the ad was that God hears us sing – regardless of how we sound – and he likes it.
I don’t know how far to push the metaphor because the people around us actually have to listen to us even if we sound terrible.
So I decided a long time ago that I’m really singing to God, regardless of who’s around me.
I just try and keep the volume down low.