Saturday, January 17, 2015

Tone Deaf

I’ve always admired people with musical talent. Anyone who can sing and hold a tune gets my vote. Same goes for people who can play an instrument.
            There’s something incredibly awe-inspiring about being able to look at a page of squiggly notes and translate that into music. As Saffy points out, she has enough trouble with English spelling, never mind trying to work out what a double clef is, or sounds like.
            When I was growing up, my parents nursed violently ambitious dreams that we would all one day become world famous concert pianists and violinists. It was always the piano and the violin for them. Never the trombone and, definitely, never the harp.
            “Can you imagine driving the harp all around town to rehearsals?” my mother would wonder aloud, though you had to wonder what her concern was given that she was never going to be the one chauffeuring us around. That was what Chauffeur was paid for.
            No, as far as my parents were concerned, the only respectable instruments for their children were the piano or the violin. And you had to be first violin, not the ones stuck in the back of the orchestra pit where no one could see you, let alone recognize you as the talented child prodigy of Mrs Mei-ling Hahn.
When they watched people like Yehudi Menuhin at Carnegie Hall, my parents mentally inserted our faces onto his and pretended that all the applause at the end was for their children – and, by extension, them for being the kind of liberated, nurturing parents who could produce such prodigiously gifted offspring.
As it turned out, the Hahn children’s complete lack of musical ability or interest was just one of the many disappointments we thoughtlessly and cruelly inflicted on our parents.
My brother Jack decided from an early age that he loved heavy metal. When he wasn’t jamming on his electric guitar, he saved up every cent to buy Black Sabbath, KISS, Judas Priest, Slayer and Iron Maiden. Father used to say that Jack’s playing reminded him of cats OD’ing on helium, while Mother spent hours consulting the electrician to see if there was a way to cut the electricity to Jack’s room without in any way affecting the circuitry to the rest of the house.
For years, whenever Mother and her sisters played mah-jong at our house, their gossip was usually disrupted by Jack’s music which he played so loudly the tiles vibrated. No one could hear a thing. Between shouts of ‘pong!’, Mother’s sisters were convinced they were in perilous proximity to a real life devil worshipper, even though when he wasn’t whiplashing his head to Metallica’s ‘The Four Horsemen’, Jack was the sweetest and kindest boy this side of heaven.
Meanwhile, Michelle, surely the world’s most passive-aggressive daughter, decided that she would buy into our parents’ musical dreams, but she was going to play the cello.
My mother was horrified. Of all the instruments in the world, she would shout to her sisters over the thundering bass of Black Sabbath’s ‘Children of the Grave’, Michelle had to pick the most un-ladylike one of them all. “It’s just so undignified,” she yelled, giving her tiles an extra shake, “having to wedge that big bulky thing between her legs!”
Of course, it didn’t help that her sister, our Auntie Wai-ling, had two obnoxiously talented sons who played the violin and they kept winning all sorts of competition prizes.
As for me, I didn’t even pretend to have a musical bone in my body. Still, my parents refused to believe that I couldn’t tell the difference between a ‘doh’ and a ‘la’, and insisted that I should at least try the electric organ, the logic being that, given my musical stubbornness, a Yamaha plug-in was less of an investment than a Steinway baby grand. “He can always try the flute if that doesn’t work,” Father reasoned as he winced his way through my dull, out of tune rendition of ‘Twinkle, twinkle Little Star’.
Recognising a lost cause, I refused to practise and when, in class, we had to play ‘Ba-Ba Black Sheep’, I simply turned off my electric organ and ran my fingers fluidly across the keyboard, making no sound whatsoever. To this day, it staggers me to think that the music teacher never noticed – although Amanda points out that he must have known, but, given my complete lack of note recognition, decided to not say anything.
 “Well at least your parents were interested in you guys,” Saffy says jealously. “Mine were so disinterested, I sometimes think I’m adopted!”
Amanda, who has met Saffy’s parents, says that would explain a lot.


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