As a famous Paul Anka lyric has it, …Regrets, I’ve had a few/But then again, too few to mention…
I do frequently mention one regret, however, an abiding sorrow that I didn’t study music when I was in high school. Having been raised in a family where music was an ever-present part of our daily lives—to the point where I and my siblings to this day get a sing-song going whenever we’re together—it’s almost incomprehensible to me that I eschewed the opportunity to acquire formal training.
All the more so when I remember that the lead music teacher at our high school would go on to become one of the country’s leading choral directors—Elmer Iseler, conductor of the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, founder of the Festival Singers of Canada and the Elmer Iseler Singers. What a doofus I was!
With a stunningly callow arrogance, I suppose I dismissed the music students, some of whom were good friends, as too effete for the teenage machismo I was probably trying to cultivate.
I regret that.
As a youngster, I often found myself surreptitiously curled up, late at night, on the landing of the stairs in our home, listening to the singing of my parents and their friends from the parlor where the piano sat. One of our neighbours was a gifted pianist, and he knew all the oldies—Frivola Sal, After You’ve Gone, What’ll I Do, Rose of Tralee, Sweet Georgia Brown, Rockabye Your Baby, Danny Boy, Sonny Boy, For Me and My Gal—and so many more. Even fifty-plus years on, I know all the lyrics to dozens of their repertoire (sometimes now with a little prompting), and my favourite singer is still Al Jolson.
My mother loved the torch songs, and she’d vamp a little when she sang, a woman born to be a headliner. My father favoured the oldies, and was very good with the harmonies (although he occasionally had to be reminded of the decibel level). He absolutely loved barbershop quartets.
So many times there were that he would find me fast asleep on the landing after the last chorus had been sung. For a long time, I never knew how I drifted off on the stairs and awakened in my bed. I only knew that I loved the singing of the songs, and the singers who sang them.
The only singing I have done since those childhood days (other than alone in the shower) is at family gatherings, or occasionally at karaoke parties (with beer). But the music gene was definitely passed along to my two daughters, both of whom have been singing, together and on their own, since their pre-school days. They’ve even written songs together, ballads mostly, which I hum along to.
Recently, my wife and I attended a concert mounted by a local men’s chorus, a 108-man, traditional barbershop harmony group, but one that branches out into a cappella jazz, swing, soft rock, pop, traditional, and inspirational music. The concert was superb, and we were fortunate to be invited to an after-party by one of the members (not-so-coincidentally, a golfing friend).
And guess what! Some of the choristers at that party gathered ‘round each other to sing some of the oldies, an impromptu concert. And guess what else! I sidled over, inched close to their circle, and joined my voice to theirs. Tentatively at first, not wanting to spoil the beauty of their chorus, but then more confidently when two of them parted to make room for me. I knew all the words, of course, and we belted out a few classics—When You Wore a Tulip, Daddy’s Little Girl (a personal favourite), Oh! You Beautiful Doll, and That Old Gang of Mine. I could almost hear my father joining in beside me.
My wife told me later that I fit right in. In fact, she said, some of the others at the party told her they assumed I was part of the chorus. I stared at her, sure she was having me on, but she was apparently telling the truth. And that was music to my ears (if you’ll pardon the pun).
Even better, however, was an invitation from several of the chorus members to try out for the group. Attendance at three rehearsals, where I would be assessed to find my voice part placement, would be followed by an audition performance with three of the established singers as part of a quartet. And then I’d either be in, or out.
I’ve never been part of a quartet in the shower, where my best solos have been rendered, so this public audition would be somewhat intimidating. Plus, I have never been much of a joiner in groups of any sort, so making a commitment to this would be quite a change.
Still, I do regret passing up my first chance those many years ago. All those yesterdays when I could have been singing joyously with like-minded choristers are gone forever. But I do have a few tomorrows ahead of me. And I do like to belt them out. So, we shall see.
More than three hundred years ago, in his comedy of manners, The Mourning Bride, William Congreve wrote this—Musick has charms to soothe the savage breast…
Well, I am no savage, but it may well be that music could soothe the sadness I have carried with me since high school.
I’ll have to warn them, though, that I cannot hit the high C!