Wednesday, September 17, 2008


The performing arts theatre where I work (as a low-wage box office peon) is calling part of its season this year "Giving Voice" — theatre pieces about food insecurity, class and culture in New England, and post-Katrina America.

But I can't stand the phrase "giving voice." In my experience, the problem isn't that (powerless) people don't have a voice, it's that no one listens to them. Nothing against the artists — they seem like good and interesting pieces, I may even try to go see some of the shows — but "giving voice" seems to me to be a marketing tool to get the theatre audience (which will be overwhelmingly white and middle-class) to buy tickets to these performances so they can feel good about themselves for having participated in "giving voice" to working-class folks, for having participated in an "initiative for diversity" (one of the institutional sponsors of one of the shows).

When, of course, the most useful thing white middle-class people can do is to shut up and get some humility and find ways to listen directly to voices from the grassroots.

* * *

I loved music as a youngster, learned the guitar and piano starting in junior high, wrote songs, played in bands, picked up other instruments, spent endless hours making home recordings on a 4-track tape recorder. But I never could sing; I'd always have to find singers and teach them the songs I wrote (which often had interesting lyrics, chord changes and rhythms, but were kinda weak on melody).

In my early 20s I finally taught myself to sing a little — I figured out I could pick out (simple) vocal melodies on the guitar or piano, then play the melodies back and sing along and slowly learn how to match the pitch with my voice. I started playing solo acoustic shows, with a repertoire of songs whose vocal melodies didn't go below C or above G. In general only close friends, and a few people who really liked the songs, were willing to endure my more or less on-key but not particularly musical singing.

Over the years I expanded my range a bit, even found a few singers with whom I could successfully harmonize, but it wasn't until I had kids and had to sing lullabyes a capella (and, incidentally, no longer had time to play the guitar) that I finally learned to sing consistently on-key. Instead of using my ears to match the pitch of my voice to the pitches of instruments I heard around me, I learned to find the pitch in the vibration of my own body.

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