Singing in tune—again

I’ve noticed that when I hear groups of people singing, for instance, the “Happy Birthday” song, in restaurants and in videos, that almost everyone in the group is singing in a key that’s different than everyone else’s. And they don’t notice. Or care. That’s not the way it was when I was a kid. It was unusual when one person sang out of key.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I remember, and almost everyone I’ve asked who went to Cleveland Heights elementary schools from the 1930s through the ‘60s remembers, that there was a piano in every elementary school classroom, and that every teacher knew how to play it.

I attended Coventry School in the ‘50s. We did music with our teacher every day, and with a traveling Heights schools music specialist once a week. In addition, starting in third grade, kids could take lessons, once a week, for free, on an individual instrument, with one of the junior high music teachers. I took drum lessons, using drumsticks on a rubber practice pad, from Wilbur Turner, who later served as my band director at Roosevelt Junior High. 

At some point, probably in the ‘70s, the music-every-day thing went away. When my kids went to Heights elementary schools in the mid-‘80s and ‘90s, there was little music in the classroom. Maybe none. In school talent shows, literally every time a kid or group of kids, black and white, said they had written a song, it was always a rap. There’s nothing wrong with rap, but a rap, by itself, is not a song; it’s a poem.

My son’s elementary school did have an orchestra. It was made up of only fifth-graders, and it met only once a week, for 20 minutes (the second half of their lunch period). And the orchestra’s sound reflected exactly how much time was spent rehearsing. I used to have to sit through those concerts, and the only way I could tolerate them was, literally, to pretend I was listening to experimental, atonal music. It wasn’t the music teacher’s fault; the school, or the school system no longer valued the arts at that time. Not enough, anyway.

When my son was in third grade, his private violin teacher suggested that he join his school orchestra. She thought the experience would be good for him, and I agreed.

I took him to see the music teacher, but he informed me right away that the orchestra was open only to fifth-graders. I ignored him and told my son to take his violin out of the case and play something. After my son had played about four measures, the teacher said, “Okay. He can join. But you’ll need to clear it with the principal.”

I met with the principal and explained the situation. She looked at his class schedule and told me that it would not be possible, because at the time the orchestra met, he would be having a math class. “And,” she said, “we can’t have him missing math for something like music.” 

I’ve been a professional musician since the age of 12 . . . but I kept outwardly calm. And I pointed out that he would be missing only half of one math class, once a week, and that if he started falling behind in math, we would work with him on it (more) at home. And that while math is something we were able to work with him on, we could not provide him an orchestra experience. And if working with him at home wasn’t working, we’d pull him out of the orchestra. She said, "No, we just can’t have him missing something like math for something like music.”

I told my son to show up at orchestra rehearsals, anyway, and that if he got in trouble with the principal to tell her I told him to do it and for her to call me. I wrote a note to his classroom teacher, telling her that he’d be going to orchestra rehearsals and to let us know if she noticed it affecting his math work. I never heard anything from the teacher or the principal, and my son enjoyed his time in the orchestra. And then he played in the esteemed Heights High Orchestra for all four years he was there, and in Cleveland's great Contemporary Youth Orchestra for several years.

There is a massive amount of evidence, from many studies, showing how important learning music is to learning everything else, for children and adults.

I used to mention that in the speeches I made every year, for 15 years, on behalf of the Friends of Cain Park, at Heights High’s Senior Awards Night, when I presented their arts scholarship. And I also discussed how being in the Heights Choir had literally saved my life, and that I was sure I was far from being the only kid to have had similar experiences. And I would say, to the administrators and board members seated behind me, “So keep these things in mind the next time a levy fails and you’re looking for something to cut.”

But it probably wasn’t totally necessary to tell them. The Heights school system seems to have come back around to understanding the value of arts education. Plus there are organizations like Reaching Heights that support and encourage and supplement music education in the schools.

And someday everyone—at least in Cleveland Heights—will sing “Happy Birthday” in tune again. There IS hope for the world.

David Budin

David Budin is a freelance writer for national and local publications, the former editor of Cleveland Magazine and Northern Ohio Live, an author, and a professional musician and comedian. His writing focuses on the arts and, especially, pop-music history.

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Volume 12, Issue 9, Posted 2:18 PM, 09.02.2019