More Loud and Deep

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

God is not dead nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail,

The right prevail

With peace on earth, good will to men.

My dad is a gifted storyteller. One of my favorite stories he tells is about his college roommate, Richard Zeller. As I understand it, Richard and my dad sat up late one night talking in their dorm room, and somewhere around 1:00 am, a disgruntled neighbor from three or four doors down banged on their door to complain that he had clearly heard every word Richard said for the past several hours, and could they kindly please shut up and go to sleep.

As you’ll know if you followed the link above, Richard Zeller is now “one of America’s foremost baritones.” He’s got a resonant and glorious instrument in that barrel chest of his. And that instrument is the reason his voice carried through three cinderblock dorm room walls to disturb his neighbors. One of the occupational hazards of having that kind of lung capacity is that you don’t always recognize when you’re emitting sound waves strong enough to knock out a musk ox.

I’ve been asked to lower my voice at least twice a week since I was a small child. Not in a nasty way or anything. But there were many occasions when I was asked to stop shouting when, from my own perspective, I obviously wasn’t, and it did happen often enough that I’m still pretty sensitive about it. Case in point: just yesterday, I was dropping something off at my parents’ house and was standing in the living room talking to my mother, and one of my brothers made a comment to the effect that he already had a migraine before I started talking. I may or may not have stomped out of the house.

Granted, things did get better for me once we all understood that, in my mother’s words, I have “Richard Zeller lungs.” In other words: my inherent volume issue it not just an obnoxious and useless personal trait. It’s an obnoxious personal trait which ensures that, most of the time, my voice reaches every seat in the house without a microphone. When the house is a theater or a church, this is a spectacular asset. It is a slightly less spectacular asset when the house is somebody’s actual house… especially when one of the residents of that house already had a migraine.

Another of the stories I’ve heard my dad tell is Grace Paley’s The Loudest Voice. In it, the loudest voice belongs to Shirley Abramowitz, a young Jewess cast as the narrator in her grade school’s Christmas pageant (because of her particularly resonant instrument) much to her mother’s consternation. There’s a scene wherein her father says to her mother, “Does it hurt Shirley to learn to speak up? It does not… she’s not a fool.” To which Shirley replies, albeit not aloud, “I thank you, Papa, for your kindness. It is true about me to this day. I am foolish but I am not a fool.”

I can’t help being naturally resonant. I can’t help being a bit foolish. But I try not to be an all-out fool. So about ten seconds after stomping out of the house, I went back and tried to patch things up… and lower my voice. Well. I did at least manage to patch things up. But rather than get discouraged at my inability to modulate my volume, I am making a choice right now to be grateful that my big voice, like Shirley Abramowitz’s, will soon be used to tell a story—a story that deserves to be told out loud.