I Am Not Tone Deaf

Some of our newer church members have joked about my singing. After his baptism, one member gave his testimony and said, “Before I started coming to this church, I had heard some of Pastor Chai’s sermon tapes. I thought his sermons were pretty good. But his singing voice was terrible.” On another occasion, a new female member said, “I like Pastor Chai because he is tone deaf, just like me.”

I admit that my voice quality isn’t great. The church sound technicians have mentioned that my voice is… “unique”, so it is hard to adjust the sound system to get good quality sound. I’m not a bass or a tenor. But my voice doesn’t have the qualities of a baritone either. My wife wryly comments that when I sing, the pitch is correct but there’s no feeling to it. It’s the sound of an engineer singing – precision without emotion.

I admit that I am guilty to all these charges. But let me make one thing clear. Though all these things are true, I am not a tone deaf!

My uncles and aunts recall that even at the tender age of 4 or 5, I mastered many songs. My singing was a major source of entertainment for our guests. My repertoire was wide, they said, ranging from university fight songs to American folk songs my maternal grandfather taught me.

But because of the Korean War, I didn’t have an opportunity to have formal voice training or learn to play a musical instrument. The only musical training I received was given by myself when I served in the Navy after I graduated from college. There was a kindergarten near the naval base where I was stationed, and a kind teacher allowed me to practice on their piano. I taught myself using Bayer I, the most widely used piano instruction book for beginners in Korea.

Despite my lack of formal musical training, however, I had numerous opportunities to serve as choir director. I started when I was in high school. The director of our youth choir left after graduating from seminary. There was no one to replace him, so the responsibility fell on me because I was the only one who could read music. My “choir directing” consisted of selecting a song from our hymnal (the only music I had), helping choir members practice their parts, and sort of waving my hands in front of them when our turn came during Sunday service.

When I was in college, one of my closest friends became president of the Student Council. Each fall, the engineering college had a music festival and he asked me to direct the college choir. So I had the honor of performing at the City Music Hall.

When I became a Christian during graduate school at Ohio State, the Korean-American church I attended was so small that they didn’t have a choir. So I formed a male quartet which sang every Sunday. When the church became larger I formed a formal choir and directed it.

Strangely enough, recently some people have claimed that I am a sort of musical genius. This started after a church member found out that I performed at the City Music Hall in Seoul and posted this on our church bulletin board. Others have told people that I have perfect pitch.

The truth is that I am not a musical genius. But I am not tone deaf either.

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