Am I America's worst singer?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
June 22 2005 1:25 PM

Song of the Damned

I'm tuneless. In four weeks, I make my concert debut.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel.
Click image to expand.

I have always considered my husband the most supportive of spouses. But this belief was shattered when I started taking singing lessons in preparation for my concert debut. As I practiced my trills and glissandi around the house, he took to making comments such as these:

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

"You know how some performers throw up before they go onstage? In your case the audience is going to throw up after you go onstage."


"Are you deaf, woman?"

"For the love of God, stop singing!"

In Human Guinea Pig I do things the rest of you have too much dignity to do yourself. However, American Idol has shown that far too many of our fellow citizens think they have singing voices worth inflicting on millions. I have never suffered from that delusion. I have tried never to sing in front of others—at birthday parties I only mouth the words to "Happy Birthday." My family actively exploits my handicap. On long car rides, while some people play the license plate game, my husband and 9-year-old daughter egg me on to compete against them in "The Worst Singer Contest." I am undefeated. My husband describes my voice as like "a police scanner searching for a frequency."

Strangely, despite this tunelessness, I have long had fantasies of becoming a nightclub singer. I have spent countless hours when I could have been learning Spanish or straightening out my closet holding a fake microphone, listening to Sarah Vaughn, and singing along like a feral cat caught in a trap.

I decided to turn dream into reality. This spring I brought myself to the studio of Washington, D.C., singing teacher Deborah Benner to see if she could turn me from a complete non-singer into someone who could respectably perform in front of an audience. Deborah—who herself sings everything from opera to bossa nova—was warm and enthusiastic as she ran me through a series of drills. I sang nonsense sounds: me-may-ma-mo-moo, and hee-hee-hee, ho-ho-ho, up and down the scales so she could evaluate me. The verdict was surprisingly good.

She said that, despite popular opinion, I was not tone deaf. I was able to respectably stay on pitch. "I'm here to help you open your mind to singing in a different way. If you can speak, you can sing." She said my biggest problem was that I wasn't breathing. "Without breath, the melody has nothing to float on." She showed me the breathing exercises I was to do at home for at least a half-hour a day.

I came home lightheaded but excited. For my husband and daughter I demonstrated what I'd learned and sang the old standard, "The Very Thought of You." They winced, looked at each other, and burst out laughing. My husband, trying to keep the coming weekend from being living hell, realized he needed to backtrack.

"You have a confidence about yourself as a singer I've never seen before," he said. Then, unable to help himself, he added, "Your confidence is not justified."


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