Monday, March 26, 2012

Now Hear This

He has taken his seat in the auditorium along with his wife of 25 years. The concert will begin in a few minutes. He comments on the full house or the weather or the evening’s program, when an older woman in front of him turns around. She says, Would you be Harry Isaacs? He nods, Yes, with no recognition. She tells him she was his teacher in 1st grade and never forgot his voice.

I have vivid memories of my years in elementary school. The names of 35 classmates at one time or another and all my teachers from Kindergarten through eighth grade, are stored in my head. I offer this less as a positive feat of recall than a case of arrested development. Unlike me, they undoubtedly grew up and if any one of them sat behind me in a theater and spoke, I wouldn’t know that voice from the mumble of a crowd scene.

I do not have much of an ear, sad to say. When I had the pharmacy it was hard enough to remember customer’s names when they walked in. Occasionally someone would call on the phone without identifying who he/she was. I was expected to know and if I did I might be asked, How did you know it was me, to which I would reply, I only have two customers and the other one just hung up.

Certain voices in the public realm are unmistakable. Vin Scully has been at the mike reporting Dodger games for 62 years. I’d know it anywhere. Sinatra, Crosby, Nat Cole and Louis Armstrong are embedded in my brain matter along with Billie, Sarah and Ella. Then there’s Bogey, Cary, Groucho and I’m sure others if I put my mind to it. I think I’d know our presidents from FDR on, try as I like to forget some.

Impersonators depend on our collective memories for voice and gestures. They always get a rise from me. How one person can get into the skin of another is magical.

Those of us suckled on radio got an earful, attuned to the tones and cadence of voices. With T.V. images this faculty was somewhat compromised. The ratio of our five senses makes adjustments to input, in the same way that print displaced our heightened auditory sense.

The acuity of the aural in pre-literate cultures is remarkable. Their survival depended on sounds of approaching animals and communal calls. One of the astonishing features of our times is the leap they have made into a technology-based world of cell phones. Pre-literate people adapt more easily to post-literate than those of us who grew up in the visual universe of literacy.

We still retain a sensitivity to voice inflection in ways we may not be altogether aware of. An authoritarian tone might stir obedience or defiance in us. If a waitress repeats our order using the same words in the same register he/she will end up with a higher tip.

The anecdote above was told to me by my late friend, Harry, over a dozen years ago. His teacher's discerning ear is all the more notable since his voice changed along the way. How she stored and retrieved his voice is miraculous. I hope she donated her ears to medical science for further study. As for my ears they can be filed on the other end of the spectrum, approaching vestigial. Even if I manage to memorize a lyric or poem it probably happens through my visual sense. My ears don’t take in information well and hardly store it at all. I’ve been known to fall asleep at poetry readings; even my own.

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