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Monday, November 13, 2006

My singing debut at the Met

My mother would have been so proud of me. There I was, singing at the Metropolitan Opera House.
I could hardly believe it myself because I have never presented myself as a vocalist. I still don’t consider myself to be a singer. Yet I always had my aspirations.
I should have realized early that my horizons were limited. I began drawing critical glances from our elementary school music teacher, Miss Van Hern. The class concentrated on singing and practicing songs to be presented in the school auditorium, usually for parents night.
Miss Van Hern was a large and striking woman. Occasionally she would accompany our music class on the piano as we sang such tunes as “Bless This House” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” But more often, pitch pipe in hand, she would stroll up and down the aisles as we sang a cappella, attempting to detect who among us was the furthest off key. Our class was characterized by many singers who had more enthusiasm than talent.
I was a leading member of that group. I thought I sounded pretty good. At that age, I didn’t know exactly what resonance was, but I was surely convinced my voice resonated just beautifully. Besides, I always memorized the words, I usually got the rhythm, but, at an early age, I apparently became afflicted with an incurable case of tone deafness. I couldn’t carry a tune. I could present stirring renditions of old favorites like “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” or “White Christmas,” totally convinced that I sounded great. Oh, how little we sometimes know about the sound of our own voice.
After several years of kindly treatment at the hands of Miss Van Hern, she apparently realized I was a lost cause and proposed a strategy designed to improve the mellowness of our class songs. It must have been impossible for a music teacher to oust a student from the class singing group. If that were an accepted practice, I would have been ejected years earlier.
Miss Van Hern presented me with her solution. I was asked to learn the words, but not sing. I was placed in the last row, along side such other disappointments as Curtis and Franklin, and ordered to move my lips, but not utter a sound. It must have been a very painful moment for me, but I remember no feeling of resentment.
The news that their son had been silenced by the music teacher received a mixed reaction at home. My father accepted the decision with equanimity, assuring me that he wasn’t a very talented singer, either, yet years earlier had enjoyed himself as a member of the Masonic Lodge Glee Club. He advised me not to worry about my inability to please the music teacher, but to concentrate on more important topics like geography and arithmetic. My mother, on the other hand, called the school, spoke to Miss Van Hern and requested an explanation. Whatever Miss Van Hern said must have been very diplomatic because she mollified my mother, who told me it didn’t matter that I was just moving my lips, I should still participate in the musical presentation with enthusiasm.
This took place in elementary school. In high school and college, I forgot about singing aspirations and found other outlets for my creative energies. I missed the singing, though, and continued to do my share in the shower, and on whatever semi-public occasions that seemed appropriate.
This is all strictly background. It happened many years ago, but it helped define me as a person. I learned that my voice was fine for speaking---I even did some broadcasting for several years---but not for singing.
Then, just a few weeks ago, I found myself in a situation that I had never anticipated. There I was at the Met, attending the annual meeting of Baron Funds, a mutual fund company. We had heard of the meetings and always wanted to attend because the sessions include speeches by CEOs and a performance by a guest star. It was a memorable day, with each speaker and performer seeking to outdo the others. Kristin Chenowith, a Tony Award winning singer, was among the performers and when she finished her spot, out marched Ron Baron, the company founder.
“Please rise,” he asked the audience of 3,500. We did. Then, with Kristin singing the opening stanza, we joined in singing “God Bless America.” It was an emotional interlude, with cheers and tears, and that is how I made my debut at the Met. (end)


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