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RSVPhillippi | November 2017



By Dennis Phillippi

The very first words my future wife ever said to me were, “I really like this song, please don’t sing.” It would be impossible to overstate how fortuitous her saying that was because, as it happens, I cannot sing. Had she not said that, there is, I suppose, the remotest chance that I may have tried to sing nonetheless and what turned into a wonderful 32 years instead would’ve just resulted in a look of crushing disappointment and almost certain dismissal, which would’ve inevitably led to me dying alone, a broken man.

To say that I cannot sing is like saying a dolphin cannot type. It’s more than a statement of fact. It’s an imperial fact, like gravity or the tedium of talking about politics. From a very early age I was actively discouraged from singing. These people weren’t being cruel, they were trying to protect me from ridicule. And the people who advised me against crooning were the very people who were in the business of teaching people to sing. See, I was a theater kid, and literally from my very first audition for a musical I was steered to the non-singing “character” parts in these productions. There were times when I was enlisted to stand in the back of a chorus in a show and literally mouth the words because it was feared that even if I were to keep my voice as low as possible it would still disrupt the illusion completely. Voice teachers took the occasional shot at trying to tune my ear, but within minutes we would both realize the futility of the attempt, and move on to something more likely to succeed, like creating a perpetual motion machine.

The lack of musical ability in my make up isn’t limited to my inability to sing, I also can’t play any instrument, follow most of the lyrics in songs, and have a mental block against understanding the most basic rules of music. When someone mentions a “key change” in a song I nod sagely, keeping to myself that I have no earthly idea what that means. Before you start firing up that email about how “anyone can learn to sing” and I “just haven’t had the right instruction,” one of my best friends is an oboist in the symphony who also has perfect pitch. She tried several times early on to teach me simple things about music until even she, who teaches children about classical music, was forced to surrender the field like Lee at Appomattox Courthouse. If she can’t crack this particular genetic nut, trust me, you can’t.

Ironically, and I don’t throw that word around lightly, I grew up largely in house that was filled with orchestral music. My best friend’s parents were in orchestras and we were dragged to symphony and opera rehearsals, along with hearing non-stop rehearsing in their house. In all of those hundreds of hours being exposed to The Masters, I garnered not one iota of knowledge. All I got out of it was a lifelong dislike of violin solos.

My vast lack of understanding of music extends to virtually every genre. As hard as I try, I can’t decipher the words in pop songs, bluegrass music, or rap. These are all legitimate art forms, but so is Modern Art and I don’t get that either. I’m certain that rappers and rockers are all saying important things, but I can no more understand their lyrics than I can understand a giant canvas with one red stripe across it. I can usually follow a country song, but that doesn’t help much since I don’t make a habit of listening to country music. There’s only so many times I can listen to songs about barefoot girls, dogs and beer.

It is true testament to my wife, who can sing, that for over three decades she has been forced to endure my “singing” along with the radio and has never complained. I know it must be agony. I’ve had to suffer through people who can’t tell a joke trying to do so anyway, and it is agony. It’s like trying to watch a dog learn how to drive a stick shift. Listening to me “sing” must be, for those musically inclined, like listening to a duck being attacked by a cat.

This particular area of deficiency was a source of great anxiety in my youth. Not being able to carry a tune meant that I was very unlikely to star in the Broadway revival of “Pippin.” Being unable to warble even in the slightest meant I would not be belting out “The Way You Look Tonight” to my bride at my wedding. Of course, no one really wants to see “Pippin” again, and it’s obnoxious when the groom sings at his own wedding, but still, I was limited.

Maybe it’s for the best. By and large, people should stay in their own lane, and stick to what they can do well. If you need someone to write jokes, I’m your man. If you want someone to paint your portrait, you should probably look up an artist on the Internet. If you need someone to host your charity auction, feel free to give me a call. If you need someone to fix your faucet, call a plumber.

The weird part of this missing part of my genome is that I can dance. I mean, I can really dance. Back in the seventies, as a teenager I actually won disco dancing contests. There were trophies. By the way, this is the first time in decades of writing magazine columns that I have ever admitted that little tidbit. The only problem is, at my age there is almost no chance I will ever dance in public again. I may be able to dance, but no one wants to see that. Trust me.