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Making My Peace With Song

The other night I witnessed what to me was a wondrous thing. My 11-year-old son. Singing in a choir. In a public concert.

I say "wondrous" because I never thought I would have a son with a voice. Not that he would qualify for the Vienna Boys Choir, but he can carry a tune and do it sweetly, and he has learned from his rather military choirmaster to put heart into the music.

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And so, like an angel, he stood there with his hands by his sides, his mouth exaggerating every syllable, giving them their full worth and measure, while his alert eyes followed every directive of madame choirmaster.

It is an amazing thing, I noted, when a child possesses a talent absolutely vacant in the parent. I wondered if my own parents muse over the contrary situation.

As far back as I can remember, my parents sang. I don't mean professionally, but around the house. I can still summon an image of myself at the age of 4, lying in bed on the brink of sleep, my mother sitting on the edge of the bed singing "The Creaking Old Mill by the Creek." As far as I know, she sang this to me only once, but I can still remember every word, and the melody is as fresh as if I have only just now heard it.

My father also sang, mostly standards, the repertoire of Bing Crosby. "Swinging on a Star" also occupies my earliest memories. I can still see the image I conjured upon first hearing my father sing the song: It was me, actually swinging from star to star, powered by the most gripping optimism that life got better every day.

I NEED to be specific about one thing: My parents didn't simply carry a tune; they had rich, compatible voices, perfectly pitched baritone and soprano, my father the mellow crooner and my mother the operatic diva. Of the two, my mother was the one who celebrated her talent, joining civic groups, church choirs, and charity recitals because, as she put it, "They deserve the best."

My father, on the other hand, sang only at home. His talent, unlike my mother's, was a private matter and he shunned any invitation to join a singing group, his light remaining most secure under its bushel basket.

When I became a teenager I began to grow self-conscious about the very idea of my parents singing for no apparent reason. It wasn't so much my father - who emitted his strains in brief, tolerable doses - as my mother, who believed that a song had six stanzas because they were meant to be sung. At peak volume.

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By age 16 I had developed the habit of slapping my head and complaining loudly every time my mother struck up the band.

Even while I felt entitled to be mortified when my parents sang in front of my friends, I also began to mature to the point where I recognized their voices as being good. Even beautiful. This led me to a period of brief but acute crisis: I suspected that I and my two younger siblings were adopted because we had no voices at all. I was incorrigibly flat, my younger brother was a master of the monotone, and my sister sang like a hinge. How could this be? We must have been left on my parents' doorstep as a sibling trio. The crisis passed as quickly as it had arrived.

Since then I have decided that lack of voice is no reason to remain mute.

Singing for me has become a sort of vacuum behavior, whether it be in the shower, in the garden, or in the car. And what crops up most in my repertoire are the songs my parents sang when I was small.

They were, in effect, seeds liberally sown, and in recent years they have germinated en masse. What other reason would I have for spontaneously belting out "Moon Over Miami" while driving through a blizzard in northern Maine?

The peace I have made with song has played an important role in the relationship between me and my son. Where I was self-conscious about my parents' singing, the first time my son heard me sing he immediately sought to join in.

To me, the reason is clear: He recognized my voice as so awful that he wanted to show me he could do better. And the tunes he has learned from me are the ones I learned from my own parents. His rendition of "Swinging on a Star" is enough to lift the spirits of the saddest soul.

And so I have gone from being an iconoclast of song to someone who encourages his son at every opportunity to open his mouth and hold forth joyfully. And with this school year's concert season only just begun, I have a lot to look forward to.

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