Finding your voice

One of the greatest tragedies of my life.

I’m part of a silent minority of Filipinos who bear a secret shame: I can’t sing to save my life. From the age of six, I’ve envied Lea Salonga. She has two things I desperately want—dimples and a singing voice. Someone once told me I looked like ‘a Kim’. Too bad my singing voice is worse than grim. By Filipino standards, I believe this makes me a mutant.

I dated a pianist and knew it was true love when he played the entire Miss Saigon repertoire as I belted out the vocals. I married him, of course. Once in a while, I’ll sing along to music in the car. Just to see if he still loves me. Fortunately for him, I’ve learned some techniques that people like me can use to compensate for our vocal disability.

#1 Surviving karaoke

My vision of hell is karaoke for eternity; my husband’s version of damnation would be sitting in the audience. The best way to cope is to be slightly tipsy. I can blame the alcohol for my crappy singing, and my husband can use it to numb his pain. It’s also important to pick the right songs — I like to call them ‘yelling songs’. Everyone knows them and will sing along with you, thereby drowning out your voice. My personal favourite is Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Trust me. No one under the age of thirty-five can resist screaming out the chorus.

#2 Surviving Filipino choirs

Most Filipinos I know have been asked to join a choir at some point, and the question is usually rhetorical. ‘What do you mean you can’t sing? I’m sure you’ll be fine!’ By the time you can prove to everyone that you really, really can’t sing, there’s a microphone stuck in front of your face, and a look of horror on everyone else’s. When someone asks you to join their choir, volunteer to do the overheads instead. Otherwise, learn the art of lip synching until you’ve had enough singing lessons not to embarrass yourself.

#3 Surviving family

My inability to carry a tune is a running joke in my family. They haven’t asked me to sing since I was about three years old. Fortunately, over a decade’s worth of dancing lessons enabled me to participate in normal Filipino rites of passage — talent quests, fiestas and Christmas parties — without damaging anyone’s sense of hearing. All Filipino kids need to have at least one talent that their parents can show off to other people. If you can’t sing, find an alternative quickly — dancing, acting or the drums. Otherwise … well, we’ve all seen those funny outtakes from Australian Idol, right?

But for all that I’m resigned to being a Filipino anomaly, I’m hoping that my children will be spared this particular indignity and they’ll inherit my husband’s musical ear. In the meantime, my lullabies may not be worthy of a Grammy but they’re performed for a captive audience.

‘Sing, please, Mama.’ To me, that’s the sound of unconditional love.

This article was first published in the February/March 2007 issue of the Australian Filipina. A modified version was published in the October 2007 issue of PINOYexpats, an e-zine for Filipino expatriates. I thought it would be interesting to compare the differences, so here’s the modified version:

The Secret Life of a Tone Deaf Pinay

I’m part of a silent minority of Filipinos who bear a secret shame: I can’t sing to save my life.

By Filipino standards, I believe this makes me a mutant.

I dated a pianist and knew it was true love when he played the entire Miss Saigon repertoire as I belted out the vocals. I married him, of course. Once in a while, I’ll sing along to music in the car. Just to see if he still loves me.

It hasn’t been easy growing up surrounded by Pinoy family and friends, most of whom seem to have been born with a silver mike in their mouths. Luckily, I’ve learned some techniques to help compensate for my vocal disability.

#1 Surviving karaoke

My vision of hell is karaoke for eternity; my husband’s version of damnation would be sitting in the audience.

I refuse to go near a karaoke mike until I’m slightly tipsy. I can blame the alcohol for my crappy singing, and my husband can use it to numb his pain. I make sure I pick the right songs. I like to call them ‘yelling songs’—everyone knows them and will sing along with me, thereby drowning out my voice. Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ has never failed me, yet.

#2 Surviving Filipino choirs

Most Filipinos I know have been asked to join a choir at some point, and the question is usually rhetorical. When I demur, I’m told, ‘What do you mean you can’t sing? I’m sure you’ll be fine!” By the time I manage to prove to everyone that I really, really can’t sing, there’s a microphone stuck in front of my face and a look of horror on everyone else’s.

So, when someone asks me to join their choir, I volunteer to do the overhead slides instead. If that doesn’t work, well … I’m a master at lip synching.

#3 Surviving family and friends

As a teenager, I watched as my friends were forced by their parents to sing, one after the other, at parties. My parents (bless their hearts) remained conspicuously silent. I don’t think I can ever repay them my debt of gratitude for that.

Fortunately, over a decade’s worth of ballet lessons enabled me to participate in talent quests, fiestas, and Christmas parties without damaging anyone’s sense of hearing. I’m glad my mother forced me to stick with dancing. Otherwise … well, we’ve all seen those funny outtakes from Idol, right?

I’ve long ago resigned myself to the fact that I’m a Filipino anomaly. And yet, although they may not be worthy of a Grammy, my best songs are performed for a captive audience.

‘Sing, please, Mama,’ says my two-year old child, smiling expectantly. To me, that’s the sound of unconditional love.

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