From goldfishing to perfect pitch

`I CAN'T sing.'' For years I have been saying that. Now I know I really meant ``I won't sing.'' My secret boycott was partly due to the music teacher at school who used to pace up and down the rows of singing girls, listening. Why I was so convinced that you would detect nothing but sour notes coming from my mouth I will never know. But I was, so I stood silent opening and closing my mouth like a self-conscious goldfish. Apparently I was most convincing, since I was only caught out once. That was when we were instructed to hum a bar or two. My performance was greeted with a drill-sergeant-like bellow: ``Pamela, we keep our lips closed when we hum.''

I thought I had come into my own, singing wise, during the World War II air raids on England. The family would crouch under the stairs and my sisters would implore me to sing hymns to them. You bet I would. It was a marvelous feeling - so much encouragement from such a normally critical audience. I abandoned my goldfishing and really belted out my favorite tunes. It took me quite a few months to discover that I wasn't comforting them - I was reducing them to frantic giggles, muffled by the handkerchiefs they stuffed into their mouths. At least they weren't afraid of raids as long as I kept singing. The old music hall ditty didn't apply here. ``I am so loving and so clinging/ I can almost stand your singing.''

My mother could sing. Really sing. And she loved drama. In fact, before she married she got a job on the stage on the face of her voice - if you see what I mean.

When we children were still quite small she used to take us to matinees at Birmingham's famous Repertory Theatre. My father would buy us bunches of violets and boxes of chocolates, so it was truly a grown-up occasion (even if we had to leave before the final curtain to catch the bus home).

In those days, theater was tremendously dignified. The orchestra opened every performance with an impressive, dragged out playing of ``God Save the King.'' The audience rose to its feet as one and stood at attention, but we never seemed to remember that this solemn moment was coming. Coats and gloves and programs and scarfs and violets and chocolates would tumble off our laps in a shower. Tip-up seats would bang us on ours. We would stand doubled up trying to cling onto what was left of our belongings.

This particular awful afternoon as the solemn notes rang out, Mother, triggered no doubt by some ancient stage memory, began singing the words loud and clear from her place in the row. My mother singing the national anthem while everyone else stood silent! Oh, the shame of it all!

You might have thought her voice would trail off when she realized she was singing a solo. If you did, you didn't know Mother. Once she'd begun, her voice, her splendid contralto voice, rang out ever louder and more powerfully right until the very end. She sang every verse - most Britons don't even know the words.

``Whatever else could I do?'' she asked afterward.

Remember the man who said he knew only two tunes and one of them was the national anthem, but he wasn't sure which? Well, thanks to Mother I know the British national anthem - every word is burned into my memory.

But now that I am an American citizen I can't guarantee to recognize ``The Star-Spangled Banner.'' There are so many American ``anthems'' - all of them difficult: ``God Bless America,'' ``America the Beautiful,'' ``The Stars and Stripes Forever.'' People removing their hats does give me a clue. (I once knew a man who, when the band struck up the anthem at the Rose Bowl, swept off his wig and held it reverently over his heart.)

But any day now when the anthem is played I will join in, for it is dawning on me that all this time my nonsinging has been unnecessary. My goldfishing secret is leaking out. Recently a new friend pressed me to explain why no sound came out of my mouth when everyone else was singing the hymns in church. It was then that I remembered my mother's piano teacher's unheeded advice. Long ago he tried to convince me that my vocal cords are rather like violin strings. To keep them in tune, they need to be ``played.'' Mine, he said, had been allowed to just sit there and slacken.

``Sing,'' he said. ``Listen to music and sing and eventually your cords will become `tuned.''' I ignored him at the time, but now I have taken his advice to heart. I sing as I go about the house. The cats ask to be let out, but I go on singing anyway. I join in with whatever the radio is playing - even the commercials. Sometimes I sing my own invented-on-the-spot songs. And soon, who knows, I will be singing recognizably in tune, and then it will be goodbye to goldfishing forever.

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