We had to take an ear training class in college for four semesters. It was four semesters of sight-singing, solfege, rhythm, harmonizing, chord recognition, and dictation. To put it kindly, I was not exactly the shining star of this class. I liked to hide in the back and make snide comments to my friend-in-crime — your sense of humor gets honed when you feel like a dunce.
I had a particularly difficult time with rhythm. Pauses, to be exact. I was always too excited to wait the allotted rests, and instead would like to plow along, ignorant, often, of my musical faux pas. The “musicians” in the class (a.k.a., the non-singers) would sigh and shake their heads at me. I was only a singer, after all.
The other night, I learned where I got this terrible non-rest-observing trait.
It runs in the family, and it comes from my great-grandmother.
We sat at the piano (after I dusted the keys and smoothed out the hymnal and pulled up an armchair for Gram). For over an hour we played and sang. You wouldn’t think the tiny woman next to me at the piano was the same woman who perpetually leaned in her recliner. The woman who asks me the same question two or three times in the span of five minutes is also the woman who remembers every word to “Blessed Assurance” and “In the Garden” and “Rock of Ages.”
And she has a decent ear for tune, still.
She sang right along with me, her 104-year-old vocal cords showing their age, but her love of music outshining even her exhaustion.
[“It does a heart good to sing a song once in awhile,” she said.]
We sang and sang, my family cringing at my wrong notes, but she didn’t seem to mind. [Trick of the trade: drop the tenor or alto line if you can’t hack it.] I’d been wondering for two years what good my music degree was. I guess hearing your great-grandma sing is a pretty good reason.
The thing is, though, she never paused long enough. Every time there was a rest or a held note, she powered on through, halfway through the next line before my fingers could catch up. This happened again and again, until finally it dawned on me:
My inability to keep silent through rests is not my fault!
It’s all hers!
And I rejoiced.
[“Gram, it’s bedtime. Let’s sing one more and then we have to go to bed.”
“Do I have to?”
And who could say no to that?
So we stayed up another half an hour, sang a few songs more than once – because if you forget you sang them, what’s the point?
And the only way I could get her to go to bed was by promising we’d sing again soon.]