You don’t have a good voice. It’s OK, I don’t either, but we’re not talking about me right now. We’re talking about you, and you’re bad at singing. It doesn’t stop you. You sing in the shower, in the car, and once when you walked to the Hebrew school where you teach on Sunday mornings you forgot your headphones and sang out loud to Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” Once.
You’re not awful. You sang to a girl a few years ago and she said she didn’t mind it. Certainly not good, though. Still, there was that afternoon when you were singing the blessings after the meal and your friend’s mother told you your voice was pleasant. You usually make your voice sound worse than it actually is because if people are going to dislike it anyway, they might as well not think you’re trying, and you must have forgotten to do it that time. Every now and then during Friday night prayers, when no one can pick out anyone else’s voice and people clap their hands against the prayer books and close their eyes, you feel a tugging in your diaphragm and sing a little louder and more honestly than usual.
You wonder how singers feel about people singing along with them at their concerts. Whether they’re caught between knowing the music would sound better if they were the only ones singing and wanting as many people to make beauty, no matter how banal or tone deaf it may be, as possible. You wonder what it is about music that makes people want to participate. Maybe just that it’s convenient. You can’t draw or write in the shower. Or because you’re used to people telling you that you can join in. Campfires. Rockband™ and compulsory school concerts.
Or something else. Maybe because it’s like speaking, but cleaner. Each word stripped of its trivialities. You wonder if the first humans to speak sounded like they were singing. Whether other animals make a distinction and whether dolphins care that they sound beautiful. A troop of monkeys mistaking pianissimo for sadness and a leopard believing a crescendo to be a challenge.
Sometimes, you’re disappointed by the lyrics of songs you like. It’s not just that they’re less without the music, but that they’re not even good. The way you’re disappointed by the English translations of Hebrew prayers. Hard Day’s Night. The same seven lines repeated three times. Night rhymed with night rhymed with alright. A bad poem and a beautiful song. You don’t usually think about the lyrics this much, and you know it will make the song worse the next time you hear it.
Now, you’re thinking about Jason Derulo, and whether you would dislike him less if his voice were less beautiful. You know that sounds confusing. What you mean is that the other day you forgot what you were thinking about while you listened to Trumpets and closed your eyes and hummed for a moment before you realized you were singing along to “Is it weird that your bra reminds me of a Katy Perry song,” and suddenly instead of thinking about nothing you were thinking, yes, Jason, it is weird, but mostly you wanted to know why he had to ruin a voice like that by saying something stupid. You imagine him sitting down to Shabbat dinner and humming along to the wordless melodies between the ritual hand washing and blessing over the bread, unencumbered by meaning and whatever else weighs his voice down. Whether we would all sound better singing prayers in languages we cannot understand.
Sometimes, you listen to the Tigertones or the Footnotes or any other a cappella group and wish you were one of them, or at least as good. You tell yourself that they aren’t creating anything, just reproducing someone else’s art, and you know it isn’t true. That even if they sang someone else’s song note for note for note they would be creating something that could not be made again. You remember your mother singing to you as you fell asleep. Not the words. Not even the music, just that it was, that she rocked you in the chair in the corner of your old room and sang something sad that made you tired. Something about doves and rain. You wonder if you would sleep better if you could sing along.
Your friends are playing poker and listening to music and you’re watching Eric’s hands tapping against his leg, Daniel and Kyle nodding their heads, and in some small way you are all a part of each other or something like that. You unhear all the words of the song and imagine all of you caught in an inexorable bass, everyone you’ve ever known tapping their feet, swishing their saliva in rhythm. Nodding their heads so vigorously that soon they are all bowing, a pilgrimage you don’t know how to put into words. Two summers ago, you walked home in Jerusalem at one or two in the morning and the streets were emptier than they ever are in New York, so empty and you forgot your iPod and were tired of walking and maybe even a little scared and you sang a few songs you knew by heart, songs you’d have been embarrassed to sing along to if anyone else had been there, I Will Follow You Into the Dark and I’m Yours, and it wasn’t about feeling less alone or scared, you just wanted to listen to music and decided to make it. You wish things were always that easy. You wish everyone spoke as honestly as they sing in the shower. As unreservedly as dolphins. Sometimes, you still wish for a better voice, but most times the one you have is enough.