ERROL CASTENS: We can be too ignorant to realize it

By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal

It was right in the middle of a church service, and Paul was shaking.
He was standing beside my dad, who was trying his best to focus on the words and notes in the hymnal to add his voice to the joyful noise around him.
But Paul was shaking, and it wasn’t even a charismatic church.
It wasn’t sobs that wracked his body; the guy too tall to hide in the crowd was shaking with uncontrollable laughter. Before the first verse ended, he stepped into the aisle and out of the sanctuary to try to compose himself, returning to his seat only after the sermon had begun. When the congregation began the closing hymn, it happened all over again.
We learned later that Paul’s peals of laughter were from extreme amusement over my dad’s singing. Turns out our friend never stood next to anyone singing a part other than the melody, and Daddy’s bass rendition struck him as hilariously off key. Although Paul had heard mixed-voice choirs many times, the concept of harmony simply did not compute with him.
Daddy and I tried later to help him understand: Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” I carried the melody while my father sang the bass line, only to receive the same gut-busting response from Paul: He lost all composure, utterly convinced that Daddy was comically butchering the song unawares.
Determined to make Paul comprehend that alto, tenor and bass are complementary parts to the melody rather than idiotic ruinations of it, we changed parts: I sang bass, and Daddy sang the lead part. Daddy’s proof that he could competently carry the melody and my duplicating the same harmonic notes he’d previously sung just couldn’t penetrate our friend’s skull: Paul stuck with his original conviction, except that now he was convinced we were both musical nincompoops.
Repeating the illustration with a couple of other familiar songs and switches between soprano, tenor and bass parts only amused and entrenched Paul all the more. He literally didn’t know enough to have even a hint about what he didn’t know.
In retrospect, it reminded me of how, in “Huckleberry Finn,” the runaway slave Jim reacted when Huck tried to explain the concept of foreign language.
“S’pose a man was to come to you and say Polly-voo-franzy – what would you think?” Huck asked.
“I wouldn’ think nuff’n,” Jim replied. “I’d take en bust him over de head … .”
Ought to give you and me pause about where our own such blind spots may lie.
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@journalinc.com.