Music is math. That’s what our teacher said on our first night of volunteer choir practice. No wonder I can’t sing. I never passed Algebra. And so began my first night as a tenor for the University of Southern California brain research choir. Judging by how annoyed a few of the other volunteers were to find out we were not getting paid $20 dollars an hour, I may be a soloist before long. But I digress. I like research and focus groups. They are fun and pay reasonably well. This one looked pretty darn good on paper. I enrolled in the School of Gerontology at USC as a specimen not a student. The first research project offered involved sticking my head in an MRI machine for an hour and half and playing games while in there. No, thank you, I said, but do keep me in your database for when the project doesn’t involve torture. A week later I got a call from Sara in Professor Habibi’s office asking if I would be interested in a research group on the study of music on old people’s brain and ears. Right up my alley! I have a brain and ears and I’m old. The Email said they would Uber me there and pay 20 bucks an hour for this 15-week project. Whoa!! Cha-ching, the mother load of making a living as a guinea pig! They sent an Uber for me the following Monday. I don’t like Uber. I rarely take one, as I don’t like holding on for dear life as a passenger. I much prefer being in the driver’s seat and having my passengers hold on for dear life.
The three-hour assessment that day was fun. It was done by the same Sara, a recent college grad from Chicago who worked in the USC School of Gerontology research department and Amita, a volunteer/slash singer in a restaurant band doing this for credits to get accepted into the Masters program. I got to sit in one of those nifty hearing test booths and squeeze the buzzer when I thought I heard sounds. I always give a few extra squeezes, even when I don’t hear anything, in case I am actually going deaf and because I hate to fail any kind of test. I also had to do all sorts of memory tests like count backwards by seven and repeat words back to them an hour later. I seemed to be doing well. They appeared to like my results. At some point the chatter turned to the nuts and bolts of this project. There were to be two control groups. One group would get CDs for 12 weeks to take home and listen to them for three hours a week. The other group would come to Cammilleri Hall on the campus of USC and sing in a choir for two hours every Monday night. Now it seemed to me that only this second group was going to get paid. That hope was dashed when I actually asked. Apparently, only the first assessment and the last session to record your brain results involved the cash. O boy. Well, I certainly couldn’t look like I was a research project gold digger, so with the least dejected voice I could muster, I agreed to do it. Don’t put me in the choir please, I pleaded, or there will be major damage to the brain and hearing of the other volunteers. I cannot sing. I love music. I took piano lessons from Sister Agnita in the basement of St. Francis Xavier Convent when I was in the fourth grade. I can read music, albeit really slowly, but I simply cannot sing worth a damn. It’s just the way it is. So home I went with my Uber driver to await my music research fate.
Now, I know I asked if we would get Ubered on Monday nights and Slick Sister Sara I’m sure, nodded in the most ambiguous of ways. The kind where the recipient’s brain is always going to go for what they want to hear and believe. And this brain is no exception. I got the Email a few weeks later and guess what, I got put into the choir control group. Who says those girls don’t have a sense of humor? I asked her what time Uber would pick me up. What Uber, Shyster Sara asks? The one that is now supposed to take me to USC every Monday night for 12 weeks. She giggles and says, we can’t afford anything like that, but we‘ll pay for parking and tell you what, I’ll even get you ten bucks for gas. Dejected and deflated, I still agree to be part of it, because now I am determined she think I am doing this for the good of mankind and not the easy cash.
We arrive at Cammilletti Hall, (why does this make me think that Cher’s old boyfriend donated this auditorium) 27 of us, and just like every school dance you can think of and a night of Match.com surfing, there are way more women (17) than men (10). Our teacher is adorable Andrew, a student going for his Doctorate of Musical Arts in Choral Music. I find out we are not a choir. We are a choral. There is also a pianist named Barry on an absolutely gorgeous black shiny grand piano. We start out with a lecture and a website where we now have to do homework each week. It’s called musictheory.net and it’s free and there are exercises where your screen (computer, tablet or phone) turns into a piano and you hit the key with the actual alphabetized notes on it that matches the round black floating ones on the scale. If you get it right, it plays the note. No need to actually learn these on one of the two real electric pianos I happen to have in my garage. Then it’s all sorts of voice and body part pushing exercises and Adam’s apple touching and humming and it goes on and on.
Next cute Professor Andrew is going to bravely figure out how to actually separate us into the four parts of a choral; alto, soprano, tenor and bass. He has the men sing together first and proclaims them all to be the bass section. No surprise there. The women are trickier. He gives them something higher to sing and separates them all quite easily. Then he comes to me. Was that too high for you, he asks? Ah yeah, can I be with the bass guys, please. Nope, we have a tenor he says and the lady next to me, who also must have smoked her way from a soprano to an almost bass, is a tenor with me. I truly suspected it was because I am Italian and chubby that I’m a tenor, not for any real singing ability. Now we all have to move to our proper choral places, which for me means crawling up the damn stairs to the fifth row from my comfy first row seat that I got by playing the old and crippled card.
We are now ready to learn how to sing by reading sheet music. I must confess this part was pretty cool. Humor me, but I never really thought about the fact that a voice could be like an instrument and you could actually read sheet music and sing. I just thought singers followed whatever instruments they were singing with or made it up. The songbook itself we were given, well, let’s just say no one other than the songwriter and maybe his mother had ever heard of these songs other than the one from the movie/play Oliver. Of course, it would be the one play I have never seen. So we go over singing these together and in our individual groups. This teacher is no dummy. He did a really smart thing. He brought in four of his post grad students to be part of each of the choral groups. This way they can sing really loud and drown the rest of us out. It worked beautifully and I got to do my Milli Vanilli impression. The soprano girl singer- not mob moll- could hold a note into next Tuesday. It was amazing. So we sang and sang and one song, “I Believe” I even managed to go find on YouTube. Apparently, this was a song sang by the Russian Red Army on some death march. Little did they know they were also perfecting choral vocal exercises at the same time.
I went maybe twice more, enough for a hilarious one on one night with Professor Andrew and the great piano player. He said things like push out your stomach when you sing and I said things like I’ve spent my whole life sucking it in, now you want me to push it out. Things like that. After that, I got lazy and tired and the schlep to USC was just too much for me. They called me several times, pleading with me to come back. Why on earth would they want that kind of torture, I wondered? Research is a numbers game, and I guess I wasn’t the only one that bailed on them, but must have seemed the most likely they could sucker back in. I wonder how it all turned out. I hope it went well. They were such nice people. Well, maybe except the very bitter USC employee they dragged in after a bunch of folks left, who did nothing but complain about the fact that neither of her kids wanted to go to USC for free. Yes, we all felt very sorry for her. Even the free donuts couldn’t cheer her up. So I guess music IS math, cause I failed this one too.