Sometimes it's best to sing from the heart

I watch my 8-year-old son's mouth, willing it to move. Charlie sings in the junior choir at our synagogue. Actually, "sing" is a bit of an exaggeration. He attends the rehearsals, but I've never heard a sound come from his mouth. Sometimes he moves his lips. Occasionally the shape of his mouth seems to correspond to the sounds in the words of the song. One time I saw his mouth open wide, during the "ah" part of the word "hallelujah." I bit my lip with excitement. He was finally singing.

But it turns out that he was just yawning.

The cantor works with a somewhat unruly bunch of kidsat junior choir. They are in kindergarten up to second grade – and are rarely still. They squirm and wiggle in their seats. As a group, their feet swing enough to power a small boat. They poke at and bicker with one another. Every once in a while, a little girl in pink jumps up from her seat and twirls around, her arms waving exuberantly in a chaotic, spontaneous ballet.

But while they wiggle and argue and poke, they sing.

Not Charlie. He sits stock-still, his wavy hair falling in front his face, and the toes of his sneakers barely – but deliberately – touching the floor. He keeps his hands in his lap, and his intense, dark eyes never leave the cantor. He pays rapt attention. It's not that he's generally a still child. He is as squirmy as any of them. But at choir he is perfectly behaved – except that he never sings.

He's like the kid at the soccer game who never goes for the ball. It bugs me. I don't want him on the sidelines. I want him in the action. Otherwise, what's the point?

I try to talk to him about it.

"Today, can you try to sing at choir, Charlie?" I ask him as we walk to the music room.

"I always sing at choir!" he insists, affronted.

"But not loud enough to hear," I answer.

"Then you're just not listening well enough," he argues.

Another time I take a different approach, a scientific one. Charlie is an analytical child. He appreciates facts.

"Did you know," I ask, "that we each sound different to ourselves than we do to other people? It's because we hear our voices through the bones in our face, but other people hear the sound waves through air. That's why even if we're really, really quiet, we sound loud to ourselves."

"Cool!" he exclaims.

"That's why, even though you're loud to yourself at choir, you're quiet to the cantor. You need to sing much, much louder so that he can hear you."

Charlie takes that all in and nods his head. But that day at choir his lips barely move. I try to mentally transmit the words of the song to him, like parents "send" their kids letters at spelling bees.

The cantor asks, "Who was singing during that last song?" and Charlie's hand shoots up in the air with the rest of them.

Weeks go by and I give up.

"Do you want to keep going to choir?" I ask him. "It would be OK with me if you didn't."

His eyebrows furrow in puzzlement. "Of course, I want to go. I love choir."

One day at home I walk past a room where he's playing with his LEGOS. I hear the quiet clicking of plastic brick snapping into brick, and the rustle of his hand searching the pile of pieces for just the right one. Then I hear another sound. It's his voice, high and sweet, an innocent falsetto.

"Mah yafeh hayom. Shabbat shalom."

I hold my breath and listen to the Hebrew words: "How lovely is the day of Sabbath."

"Shabbat, Shabbat shalom," he sings unselfconsciously, joyfully.

My first instinct is to open the door, tell him I love his singing, and ask why he doesn't sing like that at choir.

But I don't. I walk quietly down the hall and down the stairs. This whole time at choir he has really been listening, and the song has been burrowing somewhere deep inside him. I wanted to hear his voice ring out at choir because I wanted him to fully participate. But I hadn't realized that he had been participating the whole time, just in a different way. He had been absorbing the music.

At the next choir rehearsal, I don't try to will him to sing, and I don't feel frustrated. He stares at the cantor and listens. When the cantor asks who was singing, he raises his hand – and I know it is true.

Just as our voices sound different when they come through the air than they do when they come through our bones, our voices are different when they come from the heart.

He was singing. I just wasn't listening well enough.

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