My mother was tone deaf. Profoundly. If she hummed a song without its lyrics, you’d have to ask her to identify the melody. No exaggeration. She married a man—my father—who was a professional singer with an exceptional voice. Then she bore him two children—my brother Laz and me—who also showed musical promise at an early age. It couldn’t have been easy for her to be on the outside of that brotherhood. To make matters worse, my father was often not kind in his teasing.
It also wasn’t the first time she found herself living in a family of musicians. Her father and older brother were both excellent pianists, her father even moonlighting evenings as a musician in pre-WWII Budapest’s bars, brothels and casinos, after enduring his day job as an accountant.
San and Laz with their mother, Blanka Gersten Slomovits circa 1955 in Budapest. The brothers are six years old.
I don’t recall her listening to much music when we were young children, unlike our father, who had a deep love of Italian opera and both listened to it and frequently sang arias at home. (When we left Budapest after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and emigrated to Israel, among the very few non-essential possessions he packed to take with us were his copies of the complete scores for three of his favorite operas, La Boheme, Rigoletto and Tosca.) But when, after a couple of years in Israel, we moved to the United States, our mom began listening to music—daily. She worked in a garment factory alongside a couple of dozen women who listened to the radio, tuned loudly, to a top forty station. So it came to be that she was the first in our family to discover the Beatles. She came home raving about their music, and singing She Loves You, and I Want to Hold Your Hand. Of course the melodies she sang were—due to her unfortunate tin ear—pretty different from what we heard the Beatles sing when we finally deigned to listen to them on the Ed Sullivan Show. (Like our dad, in those days we were musical snobs. After a minute of listening to the Beatles crooning All My Loving, he got up from our living room couch and grumbled, “This is not music!” and left. I stayed, but I don’t recall feeling wowed.)
But her enthusiasm for the Beatles’ music, and for many other folk, rock and pop songs and performers, was infectious. Long story short, she helped infect my brother and me. While it would be some years before I finally gave up my dreams of singing at the Met, more and more I found myself listening to the Beatles, Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, rather than to Puccini and Verdi.
Laz and I have played folk music professionally for over four decades. We came of age in the Sixties and, like many of our folk heroes, especially Pete Seeger, we often invite our audiences to sing along with us. Almost every time we do, I see some people not singing. I wonder if they too may have been teased about their voices. Some have shared stories with me about music teachers who told them to just mouth the words—stories that never fail to infuriate me.
Laz and I sometimes give workshops for pre-school teachers on how to use music in their classrooms. We always tell them that they don’t need to be able to play an instrument, and then demonstrate by singing a cappella. We also tell them they don’t need to sound like professional singers for their children to enjoy singing with them. Yes, we tell them about our father’s voice, but we also tell them about our mother and how, with her joyous enthusiasm, she too fostered our love of music, despite her own limited abilities. How, despite the fact that she had no great love of opera, she made it a point to take us to the Met at least once a year because she knew how much that meant to us. And we always tell them how when my brother and I were babies, and would sometimes cry at night, our father tried to sing us to sleep with his glorious voice. Nothing doing. We cried harder. But our mother could always lull us to sleep with her tuneless crooning. Our father would mutter, “They will never be musicians.”