A well-matched note

"But if you're one of those unfortunate people whose teeth are set on edge by an ungrammatical phrase—a disability like perfect pitch, which renders so much wonderful music unenjoyable…"
—Garrison Keillor, in a column for Salon.com

That quote has stuck with me ever since I read it. Since the first reading, it has periodically resurfaced in my head, practically begging to be written about. Until this past weekend, I never had the correct context. There have been several times I've wanted to quote it to my spouse, who admits to having perfect pitch. There's irony in this situation, I do believe. I'm the one who has obvious problems with her hearing and can barely puzzle out a treble clef. Jeff owns two instruments (a trumpet and a bass guitar), could probably get back into sight-reading if he tried, and is (I believe) physically incapable of singing a wrong note.

Yet I'm the one listening to music all the time. I'm the one always swapping mp3s with friends to find out about new artists. Doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?

I can attest to one thing that you probably don't know about me: I sing constantly. Snippets of lyrics, half-remembered verses, anything. Everything's game. To the best of my knowledge, in the entire five years we've known each other, Jeff has never heard me sing. Not once.

He probably never will.

I've never acknowledged myself to be any good. In fact, I know I'm not. But there's something about the emotional release and sheer physical pleasure in singing that makes me do it anyway. Even though I know the notes are probably wrong and the phrasing awkward at best, I sing because it gives me pleasure to do so. A well-matched note and tempo are good for getting tasks accomplished.

So why don't I sing in front of Jeff? Perhaps it's one too many instances of him wincing and getting annoyed over someone who misses notes. He holds professional performers to an incredible standard (Joy, if you're reading this, he still praises your senior recital years later!) but I've always had the suspicion that he holds the rest of us mere mortals to the same standard as everyone else.

I've seen him grimace when people miss notes that, to him, are easily attained.

So, this weekend, when everyone started up on a jam session, I wanted to jump in so badly I could barely stand it. I had three good friends banging on instruments and hollering out what they remembered of the lyrics to "If I Had A Million Dollars." (Yeah, you know it, the Barenaked Ladies tune.)

I knew every single word. Damn you, Brad, it's all your fault—years ago you gave me a tape with amusing music on it. That tape got tossed into my box of mix tapes and made many a road trip with me over the years. For a couple of years now, given a line or two from the song, I could unspool practically the rest of the song with no prodding.

When they got stuck, I didn't open my mouth. Not once. Even though I wanted to, especially during the gaps when everyone was fumbling around and trying to remember what the lyrics were. I was in the kitchen, humming to myself ("but not a real fur coat—that's cruel!") but staying out of it.

I'll be having no rotten fruit thrown at me on the weekend of my birthday, I decided, and just stayed out of it.

I can think of two people that have heard me sing more than two notes—Kat and Sean. I can't even remember why we were in Atlanta, but we weren't tired after making the drive. Jeff was tired, and plead off, but we three decided to wander off to some restaurant for drinks and munchies. On the way back to Sean's parents' house, Kat popped in an Indigo Girls CD and we proceeded to yodel loudly all the way back to the house.

We probably weren't even close to being on key. But you know what? Months later, I don't remember that. I just remember laughing with them as we tried to figure out how to harmonize with each other. How much fun it was.

In retrospect, I wish I'd clamped headphones over my spouse's ears this weekend, punted him out to the front yard for thirty minutes, and then sat down with everyone and showed them that yeah, I knew the words they couldn't remember, and this is how you sing them…

Or—better yet—plunked Jeff down in the middle of the living room and made him listen. I should have been an evil saucy spouse and made him listen to us yowling around the right notes and having fun precisely because of it. Perfect pitch or no perfect pitch.

But that's not my way. Instead, I think I'll reserve my singing for the hours in which I have the house to myself. No one but the cats shall ever know for certain, now, will they?