February 13, 2013
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Getting the right tone for your Torah portion

Hear no evil

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

I’m a 13-year-old bar mitzvah student who’s just starting out. I’m also tone deaf. I sound horrible. How am I going to get through this?

—Fatally Flat

Dear Flat,

I have never met you but I will predict with almost 100 percent certainty that you are not tone deaf.

Tone deafness is pretty rare. In all my years of teaching b’nai mitzvah students, I might have come across a couple of actual tone-deaf kids. When a person is tone deaf, he can’t discern any difference between higher and lower tones. He can’t imitate — or even attempt to imitate — a single note.

Here’s how to tell if you’re actually tone deaf: sing “Happy Birthday.”

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Now, how did it sound? Did all the neighborhood dogs start howling? Or was it recognizable? Would someone have figured out what you were trying to sing?

Congratulations, you’re not tone deaf.

Often, when I start lessons, there’s a parent who will announce — with an oddly gleeful attitude — that his kid is really tone deaf. Of course, this exchange takes place in front of the new student. Then the parent will continue, explaining how when he was that age, the chorus teacher put him in the back and told him to just mouth the words.

To me, this exchange is the musical equivalent of being picked last for a team in gym class. Basically, what parents think is a big joke isn’t really helpful for a normal, insecure bar mitzvah student. It’s old-fashioned and kills a kid’s self-esteem.

The real reason why you sound flat right now is because your brain is so busy figuring out the letters, words, pages, and everything else you need to know that it is having trouble getting your mouth to sing the tune perfectly. Notice that when you sang “Happy Birthday” you didn’t have that problem. You already knew the words and melody perfectly, so your brain could concentrate solely on the singing.

Eventually, with more practice and familiarity, you will get better. I promise. Sure, you might not be a good enough to get on “American Idol” any time soon, but that’s OK. Some kids sing wonderfully and others … shall we say … don’t. But that’s just fine —not one person in the congregation is expecting to hear the next Pavarotti — and it’s not like I need that kind of competition anyway!

And even if you are the one kid in a thousand who is truly tone deaf, an experienced teacher has bag of tricks that will help you out, and we’re not talking about a bag full of ear plugs, either. We’re talking actual strategies.

So go practice! You’ll sound fine.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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