It’s been more than 20 years since Alanis Morissette released her hit single “Ironic,” and even though I’ve heard it a thousand times, it still makes me smile when I hear it on the radio. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m still a big fan. I’ll turn it up and sing out loud, and if anyone who’s within earshot finds it ironic, because I’m utterly tone deaf.
Which is ironic isn’t it? I love music, and I love to sing, but I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.
I lost most of my hearing when I was in the second grade, and I’ve been hopelessly tone deaf ever since. No one’s quite sure what happened, other than I woke up one morning, and I just couldn’t hear anymore. My parents spent most of that year hauling me back and forth across Iowa to different doctors and clinics, looking for answers. I’ve seen the inside of more MRI tubes than your average NFL lineman. Testing revealed I’d lost nearly all the hearing in my left ear, and more than half in my right.
Hearing aids technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, but things were still pretty primitive in the mid ‘80s. I was outfitted with two over the ear hearing aids, and at school I wore an auditory trainer, essentially a one-way walkie talkie. The system consisted of a microphone my teacher wore around her neck, which transmitted to a belt pack that was wired into my hearing aids. Pretty advanced stuff for mid ‘80s but then again, cordless phones were considered advanced technology back then.
Those early hearing aids didn’t do much more than amplify sound, and they lacked the sophisticated processing our brains have. Instead of blocking out the white noise to prioritize speech, they just made everything louder.
When a big chunk of my hearing disappeared overnight faster than Milli Vanilli’s music career so did my ability to hear different tonal ranges. Unable to differentiate between different musical pitches, I was as flat as a 2x4.
You might think this meant I wasn’t able to participate in musical activities, but au contraire, you’d be wrong. Bless their hearts, I was allowed to join the school choir, and I sang my heart out. If you attended any of those concerts, and you’re reading this, I’m sorry.
Even though I was terrible I still had the opportunity to try. I’m still trying, and although I’m hopelessly tone deaf, it hasn’t stopped me from singing along with the radio, or singing in the shower. In college, I decided I wanted to learn how to play the guitar, which meant singing and playing alongside the entire class. I got through the class only because my friend James was a guitar savant. Before each playing test James would meet me outside of the classroom and tune the guitar for me, with my hearing loss it was impossible for me to hear the chords and tune by ear.
I’d always try to be the first person to play for the teacher, worried that a shift in temperature or some other random occurrence would knock the guitar out of tune. I’d sing each song as loudly as I could while my classmates alternated between contemplating suicide or staring at their shoes. At the end of the semester our instructor pulled me aside, and told me he’d give me C if I promised never to enroll in another music class.
I have a guitar at home, and I’ll play it once in awhile. I wrote an entire album of country songs for a writing project years ago, and I’ll sing them out loud to myself while I’m working. I live alone now, so the boos from the audience aren’t as loud as they used to be.
Isn’t it ironic? Life has a funny way of sneaking up you. You don’t have to be greatest to do what you love, you’ve just got to keep trying.
Contact David Dolmage