A smarter person would have given up. And there were many times when I nearly did (which, I suppose, suggests I am nearly smart). The idea was a bit goofy to begin with: a really bad singer learns to sing and writes a book about it. But that would have allowed me to spend a lot of time researching, thinking about and writing about music, one of the two enduring passions in my life (the other is hockey).
The idea first struck me in 2007, but I had to finish a couple of books-in-progress before I could devote any serious attention to one about singing. Finally, in 2009, I wrote a proposal and showed it to the man who’d just edited my book That Good Night, on end-of-life ethics. Over a beer, he was encouraging but he gave me a lot of “notes.” My pitch was to use the story of learning to sing as a narrative spine for a book about music. But I had never been a music journalist and my editor said, “You’re not the right person to write this book.”
I needed to make a lot of changes. Although I might have stopped right there, I kept at it and a year later, I had a proposal I thought was more focused, sensible and appropriate for me. My agent sent it to several publishers. All but one passed on the idea. So I met with the editor at the one publishing house that asked to meet me. He said he was interested in the subject, but not the way I’d pitched it. He passed, but was open to looking at a revised proposal.
Instead of ditching the idea altogether, I changed strategy. I proposed an article to Maisonneuve hoping a magazine feature would help me make the case that I had an idea worthy of a book. I also applied for and received a Canadian Institutes of Health Research journalism award, which meant that even if I didn’t have a book deal, I had the money to do some of the necessary reporting.
"She’s the pioneer of congenital amusia research so I wanted to study what she does. But it turned out she wanted to study me."
The idea was to look at the science of singing, including tone deafness—or as the researchers call it, congenital amusia. I’d always thought I was tone deaf, but when I did a little research, I discovered the disorder—which is in the brain, not the ear—wasn’t common. At the time, the standard figure was four percent of the population had amusia (by the time I finished the book, the revised research number was 2.5 per cent and even that may turn out to be high). While many bad singers call themselves tone deaf, most are bad for other reasons. I figured I just needed training.
After two singing lessons with musician and vocal coach Micah Barnes, I headed to Montreal to interview Isabelle Peretz co-director of the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research (or BRAMS) at the Université de Montréal. She’s the pioneer of congenital amusia research so I wanted to study what she does. But it turned out she wanted to study me. I was amusic, after all. That was certainly dispiriting news and my next singing lesson mostly consisted of Barnes convincing me I was still trainable, so I shouldn’t quit.
So I didn’t. Barnes and I laughed a lot during our sessions, but I hated practising. I could never hear if I was singing the right notes or not and that sapped my motivation. Seven months later, I returned to BRAMS to take part in more experiments. After a day of failing test after test, I decided to pack it in. Although I had enough for the article, I finally admitted a book was impossible.
But I’d promised to return to the lab the next day. I kept my promise and just before I left one of the researchers—Sean Hutchins, who is now director of research at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music—sat me down to go over some of the results. The data showed moderate improvement in my singing. He said that while I shouldn’t get my hopes up too much, I should continue my lessons.
That was moderately encouraging, but I took a break from my sessions with Barnes to focus on writing the article. Then I interviewed Frank Russo, the director of Ryerson University’s SMART lab (Science of Music, Auditory Research and Technology), who also wanted to study me. His experiment tracked my progress scientifically as I worked with Barnes. I started to practise harder and that paid off in some measurable improvement, but I was still a bad singer and I still didn’t have a book deal.
After the Maisonneuve article ran, I set about revising my proposal with all that I’d learned. A couple of people who looked at it suggested my idea would work better as a radio doc than as a book. I’m an author, not a radio guy, but by this point I was having serious doubts that I’d ever write a book again, let alone one about music. So I sent a pitch to CBC Radio’s Ideas.
I was too stubborn (or stupid) to completely abandon my dream project, though. Now agentless, I sent the proposal to the editor who’d met with me three years earlier. He liked the way I’d written the new version, but said the problem with a book like this was he wanted to hear it. He passed again.
Finally, I contacted Sarah MacLachlan, the president and publisher of House of Anansi Press. I knew her a bit socially. Who was Anansi’s non-fiction editor, I wondered. Send the proposal to me, she said. Before long, Sarah asked me to come in to meet Janie Yoon, who would be my editor.
Nine years later, I have a book on store shelves and I’m delighted that I was never smart enough to give up.
Tim Falconer is the author of Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music and three and a half other books. He teaches creative non-fiction at the University of King’s College and is an editor in the Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program.
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