Life of a Rooster

Memoirs of a psychiatrist, journalist and educator

Moonlight on the Colorado

on July 2, 2014

Music class was a new discovery.

de terre en  vigne

I had always been at the top of the class in music back in France and Turkey. I was told I had a good voice, and I did love and enjoy singing “la voila la jolie vigne au vin…”  or “Loch Lomond” and “Moscow Nights” usually with Part I. In Taiwan, I discovered that everyone could sight sing.

I am not even joking. Every single student, the first day of music class, picked up the textbook, opened to the assigned page, which showed the score of a song in a key that was not C major, and proceeded to sing it on the spot, what with the sharp signs and all. I was stupefied. In the French schools, the teacher would simply play it on her hand organ, and sing. We would then listen and repeat, and learn it by rote. Oh, we did learn music notation, at its simplest. I knew of sharps and flats only because of piano. I was the only person I knew who could learn a song by reading it and having never heard it. But I did that after poring over the score for hours, and figuring out the tones of each note painstakingly.

All of a sudden, even in Music, I was again at the bottom of the pecking order. I had to learn all 24 keys in a crash course from my classmates. The good part was that since the entire class sang together, I could just lip synch the first couple of times, till I learned the tune.

The second huge eye-opener was the discovery that young students could actually have trained voices! One girl in my class came from a private elementary school that specialized in art and music. She would open her mouth and the sound would fill the classroom. I loved it. I thought only opera singers had trained voices, and it had never until then dawned on me that a young student actually could learn to do that too. Thinking back, I didn’t even know there was such a thing as voice training until then.

The curriculum was well laid out. The textbook indicated which songs to learn, which parts of music theory to practice, and which pieces of music to listen to. Our singing repertoire were an interesting mix of world folk songs, classical lieder, and Chinese songs. Right at the front of the textbook were the National Anthem and the Flag Song — so bright and perky it was unanimously considered among my classmates as a better candidate for national anthem– for which I was very thankful. That helped me memorize them quickly for the morning assemblies. Then came a selection of patriotic songs, mostly dull but with the occasional gem, such as “Plum Blossom”.  The plum blossom symbolizes Chinese spirit because it blooms in late winter rather than early spring, thus seemingly braving the snow and low temperatures, striving hard when others have given up.

Flag Song, Republic of China (click here to listen to the Flag Song)

The Plum Blossom / Anthem of the Republic of China (click here to listen to these patriotic songs)

The world folk songs were my favorite. That year we had a number of American folk songs. These, by the way, have been made famous throughout the Far East by the early returning visitors from the West in the 1920s and 1930s. They were compiled into collections entitled “101 Best Songs” and such. I have not met a single American born and bred citizen who knows as many “American  folk” songs as a Taiwanese or Japanese does. Really. How many of you, dear Readers, can sing right off the bat “Moonlight on the Colorado”, and “I Dream of Jeannie with the Long Brown Hair”, and “Beautiful Dreamer” (all required songs for Grade 9), as well as “Home on the Range”, “Home Sweet Home”, “Yankee Doodle”, “My Old Kentucky Home”, and “Yellow Rose of Texas” ?  Well, once I discovered Stephen Foster, I went to the stores and bought all the collections of “Best Songs” I could find and learned them. Through sight reading.

moonlight on the colorado

I must insert here some comment on Chinese translation of English lyrics. However poetical one may think American English lyrics are, the Chinese have to trump them. Chinese poetry and song lyrics, at least classical ones, are extremely romantic. There is no way they could have translated as is, “We were to wed in harvest time you said / That’s why I’m longing for you / When it’s moonlight on the Colorado / I wonder if you’re waiting for me too.” Way too plain and sordid. And so, the Chinese version improved this to: “Come back, Friend, return to my side/ in the night sky, stars are twinkling / the bright moon in the heavens / is whispering to me / oh, Colorado, beautiful homeland…” and I’d sing the song to myself night after night, enjoying rolling the syllables “ke-luo-la-duo” (Colorado) around my tongue, with absolutely no idea of where that was. The overall tone of the song was romantic and almost classical. When I heard this version recently in its original Western country style, I was taken aback. So that’s what it was supposed to sound like?

Original American version: Moonlight on the Colorado

Chinese version of Moonlight on the Colorado

Then Saadia and I discovered the magic of pirated music. In those hefty days, copyright was still as irrelevant to industries in developing countries as traffic signs were to drivers in the Middle East. There was a record store right by the movie theater on the main road, and we spent many hours there browsing happily through the thousands of cheap pirated records and purchasing them for pennies. Now I could listen to those songs I had hummed to myself and relish the harmonies, accompaniments and instrumental renditions. 

It was through this record store that I discovered the Vienna Choir Boys. Entitled the Wiener Sangerknaben in German, they are pretty much the world’s most famous boys choir. In my fuzzy memory, I am not sure whether I found them first on record on through a German-language movie about the Vienna Choir Boys. I fell in love with the movie, its corny plot, and most of all, the lovely singing. I sniffed and blew my nose and wiped my profuse tears all the way home. Now I would grab any new LP that came out, and memorize every single word of the German lyrics on the back of the cover. Yes, even the entire text of the Blue Danube!

Moving Moment — Clip from the movie “Der Schönste Tag meines Lebens”

vienna choir boys

Of course, the lyrics were all in German. Which was just wonderful, because I had undertaken to learn German. All my ex-classmates from the Ecole Lamazou were taking now German in addition to English, and I felt terribly inferior to them for not taking it. So to remedy this deficiency, I found a German textbook and a set of records that went with it. On Sundays, I would be listening to the records and writing out German grammar exercises and drills instead of learning my classical Chinese. And so, those lyrics were a welcome exercise in verbal German.  It did not matter that no German would be walking the street saying, “Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein stehn, Röslein auf der Heiden,…” (Saw a boy a little rose, little red rose on the heath, …); or for that matter, “Danube so blue, … your silver ribbon links country to country…”

But no matter, it was music to my ears. Literally. And I’d be standing by the phonograph (record player), imitating the little boys’ treble voices the best I could, holding the record cover, imagining myself in concert.

Mama must have been observing me secretly. One day, she showed me an ad in the paper. Voice lessons! Would I be interested? And here, I have to blame the debilitating shyness that paralyzed my life then. The fear of yet a new teacher, and even more so, the fear of being different and standing out were so predominant that I did not hesitate one second. “NO!” I replied to Mama, “absolutely not!”  She never mentioned it again.

After a lifetime of being the alien, the outcast, the outsider, I was trying very hard to blend in, disappear in the human sea of overpopulated Taipei. And so, I struggled very hard to appear “normal”, so no one could tell I was different in any way.  I managed to not stand out at all in Music class till one day, we had a monthly test, and had to take turns singing solo the assigned song. My turn came. I stood by the teacher, who banged on the piano the introductory bars. I started singing. The teacher’s head suddenly jerked upwards and stared at me. Oh, my! Did I come out too special? I immediately toned myself down, modulating my voice into the monotonous flat vocals that most people produce. She looked slightly puzzled, but bent her head again, seemingly thinking, “Must have misheard her. Plain as always…”  I breathed a sigh of relief and slipped back into my seat, incognito again.

 


One Response to “Moonlight on the Colorado”

  1. Saadia Mai says:

    This is amazing, your recollection of the music classes. I don’t think I ever caught up with sight reading of music. I am still stuck in some primeval singing world and cannot read notes at all, never mind singing!

    Yes, I remember the world of music opening up to us. Our home had a record player and stacks of music records, and we had an amazing selection of lovely music playing all the time. I remember Andy Williams, and some other US albums. I loved listening and humming but never could remember any lyrics, to this day.

    I had no idea you were such a developing singer, sweetheart. This is a lovely memoir.

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