Oh, I could carry a tune, all right. And I knew how to read music and follow a part – Mom saw to that. She made me take piano lessons until I could play three songs from our church hymnal. And she was good enough friends with Mrs. Page, the children’s music leader at church, that I knew I would hear about it if I didn’t participate fully during singing time.
And that was fine, because I actually liked to sing. Bud, my big brother and hero, had a beautiful voice and was always singing. His “Hawaiian Wedding Song” – during which he accompanied himself on guitar – was as much a Walker wedding tradition as stealing the bride and groom’s jammies from their honeymoon suitcases. I used to think it would be cool to sing with him. I fantasized about being like the Smothers Brothers — I even learned to play the bass to go with Bud’s guitar. The way I saw it, he could be the handsome one who sang like a bird; I could be the dopey one with big ears.
I never figured I had to sing as well as Bud. I just needed to sing well enough. So it didn’t bother me when my first couple of attempts at singing in public were less than Bud-like. My first solo came during a church musical. I was 13 and big for my age, so I was cast as a rebellious 16-year-old. Unfortunately, my voice hadn’t changed yet, so I had to sing the part as a soprano. I hit all the notes, but somehow those tough teenage words lacked impact in the treble clef.
My next solo was in high school. I was the Rabbi’s son in our production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” and I had a stanza all to myself in one song. I worked hard on it and thought I was doing OK until dress rehearsal, when the director suggested that I might want to consider talking my stanza instead of singing it. I did, and it worked out . . . you know . . . well enough.
During the next few years I sang in groups a lot, but I was still nervous about singing alone. So when I was asked to sing a solo in church when I was 20, I was apprehensive. But if the Walker Brothers were ever going anywhere, I had to start catching up with Bud. So I practiced and practiced, and when at last I stood to sing, I felt that a star was about to be born.
“The years roll on,” I sang, “some days are good, some ill.”
All things considered, the song went pretty well — right up to the “ill.” “Ill,” however, was a problem. My voice cracked, and “ill” sounded . . . well, ill. A couple of friends in the congregation laughed. Everyone else looked at their laps, embarrassed for me. The sick “ill” infected the rest of the song. Notes became increasingly weak. Suddenly, my singing career was terminal. By the time I got to the end of the song, the Walker Brothers were DOA and I had taken a solemn vow of silence.
For a couple of years I didn’t even sing during congregational singing in church. Eventually I began to miss the music that had been part of my life for so many years. But when I tried to sing again, the music was gone. Whatever talent was there previously had been lost to inactivity. It took years before I felt I could sing with Bud, and even then it wasn’t anything to get excited about. It was just “well enough.”
Talents — even little ones — are sort of like muscles that way. Use ‘em or lose ‘em. Of course, the planet managed to keep on spinning without music from me. But there are others who have been touched by God, and whose significant talents might make a meaningful difference in the world. How sad it would be if the gifts of the next Mozart, the next Einstein, the next Twain, the next Curie or even the next Smothers Brothers remained latent, unused and undiscovered. Who knows what we’d miss if remarkable skills destined for greatness were allowed to develop only “well enough.”
Only in that case, “well enough” wouldn’t be . . . well, enough.