I like to sing. A lot. I’m also terrible at it. Apparently, I’m in good company, which explains the plethora of awful karaoke out there.
I’ve cultivated my love of singing since childhood, where I had ample opportunity in my Orthodox Jewish yeshiva to learn a variety of niggunim, the traditional Hebrew melodies. Later, I sang in the chorus in public school for six years or so, and then for one year in college before I finally gave it up to focus on other things (writing, mostly).
It’s wonderful that, at least back then, the schools allowed budding warblers to pretend that they might one day end up the next Billy Joel or Madonna (my New York bias is showing here). These days, many school districts lack funding for anything but the bare basics and have had to cut music programs left and right. Also, I don’t know what the equivalent of the general chorus or the concert choir would be in the age of rap. (Do high school music teachers dare to perform Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis in the 21st century?)
I think singing appeals to me so much because it is an act of sheer joy. Warbling is visceral, inherited from the birds, enhanced with human language and stylized with poetry. It is hard-wired into our genes.
One thing that’s great about singing in church or synagogue is that no one cares how good or bad you are. It doesn’t matter if you harmonize perfectly, can barely hold on to the melody or sing completely out of tune. It’s all about participation and community and you get an A for effort.
My singing voice has a catch in it that can be particularly grating to the ear when I start out by accurately hitting a note and then, inexplicably, screechingly launch off a tangent into the stratosphere. It’s almost as if, even though I’m an old guy now, my voice is still changing like a twelve year old’s.
You can understand why I enjoy singing in relatively private spaces, where I can laugh at myself and not raise any eyebrows. Outside of religious services, I am reluctant to sing in public for fear of being judged. “He thinks he’s so good, but he’s terrible!” I can read the amused or disgusted expressions on faces when my voice cracks, as it always does at some point.
So I start out every day by singing in the shower, while I’m getting dressed for work and in the car tooling down the freeway. And if I’ve unwittingly allowed a note or two to escape when I have my headphones on at work and I’m really into the music, please don’t tell me about it. I don’t want to know.
I have certain favorite tunes that I can never sing often enough, many of them Hebrew melodies from the days of my youth (such as “Oseh Shalom,” familiar stalwart of the Friday night synagogue service). But if my iTunes library is pouring forth from my car speakers, there’s no telling what I might tackle, from Katy Perry to Toby Keith to John Lennon to Taylor Swift. With my windows rolled up and either the heat or the AC on, depending on the season, I get to have my own private karaoke session, no mike required, all the way down Interstate 5 to downtown Sacramento. James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” has nothing on me.
This works great most of the time, and it starts my workday on a cheerful note. But, like any routine that you don’t pay too much attention to, it’s easy to make a mistake and fail to notice until it’s too late. This happened on my way home from work a couple of weeks ago.
One recent evening, the weather was perfect. Sunny and 75, just like in the Joe Nichols song. I had my music on and the window down, as I enjoyed the warm breeze. What I forgot, however, was that I was bound to have an audience. Stopped at a traffic light next to a pickup truck, the passenger said “Not bad!,” nodded his head and gave me a thumbs up. Busted! Oh God, this was embarrassing. It would have been bad enough if I had been singing George Strait or The Bee Gees or even Michael Jackson. But no, he had to catch me while I was belting out an impassioned plea for love along with Linda Davis. (It’s an oldie, so you’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of her.)
This was a long light, so the man decided to strike up a conversation with me. He told me his name and asked me mine. He told me that he does tattoos (not a surprise, as every visible inch of his skin was covered in ink) and asked if I knew anyone who wanted one. “No, sorry,” I sheepishly responded. “I just got one,” I lied, feeling stupid and trying to sound legit. I didn’t bother to mention that the Jewish faith doesn’t approve of tattoos, or that asking an old guy in a corporate white shirt and tie who just got caught singing Linda Davis whether he knows anyone who wants a tattoo is probably barking up the wrong tree.
And from now on, I’ll make sure to keep the windows up while I’m driving.