“Dad,” he says, “you don’t sing the regular way.”

“Uh. What do you mean?” I fumble for whatever stupid knob or button or touchscreen-thingy controls the volume in this ridiculous new car.

“I mean, when you sing along to the Beatles, it’s like you’re not singing what Paul and John are singing. You’re not singing the main tune.”

I was actually hoping he’d notice. “That’s called harmony,” I say. “I really like to sing harmony. I think it’s usually George’s part.”

“What’s George’s last name again?”

Miles knows McCartney and Lennon so well that he’ll probably name our next two pets after them. He even knows Ringo, because…Ringo. But poor Harrison. He just can’t seem to remember that name.

“Harrison,” I say. “George Harrison.” I then jump at the chance to teach him a little something else. “He wrote a few good songs, but most of the time he just played guitar and sang harmonies. In fact,” I add, “they never even gave him his own microphone. When it was time to sing harmony he had to share Paul’s.”

He turns it back up, listening closely. John and Paul sing, “She said you hurt her so…” Then George and I belt out the high harmony, “…she almost lost her mind.” For emphasis I go quiet on “But now she says she knows…,” then boom back in for “…you’re not the hurting kind.”

“Yeah, I hear it.” he says. “But I think I like the main part better.”

“The melody?” I say. “Of course. That’s what most people know.” Defiantly, and louder this time, I join George again, a third up from John and Paul: “With a love like that, you know you should be glaaad.”

I want him to notice the harmonies. I want him to hear them clearly. I want him to realize how much better the song is because they are there.

I have vivid childhood memories of being in church, of laying my head in my mom’s lap and hearing her sing alto. All around us women sang the strong soprano melody while Mom walked behind them carrying the low harmony like a bridal train. To me it always sounded like helping, like musical humility.

I remember once asking her why she sang alto. She told me that her voice was too low for soprano. Maybe so, but even as a little kid I suspected there was more to it than that. She had an aversion to spotlights, my mother, to any situation that put her center stage. It’s why we always sat in the very back even as Dad stood in the pulpit. She didn’t want to be noticed. So alto made sense.

But that doesn’t mean I liked it. I always wished she’d sung soprano instead. I didn’t hear the beauty in the low part, not back then. I wanted her to stand out, to be bold, to shine. Alto sounded like shyness to me, and I found that frustrating. You don’t want your parents to be shy when your’e a little kid, you want them to win Miss America and throw touchdowns in the Super Bowl. Or at the very least to sing the main part of the song.

But now, thirty-mumble years later, here I am driving down the road and shoving harmony in my nine-year-old boy’s face.

And it slowly occurs to me (as most things do) that this isn’t really just about music. What I really want him to hear is something about the beauty of humility, of helping, of playing the supporting role.

I wonder if it’s just the nostalgia of an old man or if there’s really something to it, this feeling that the happiest times in my life have been when I was singing harmony. When I was a lineman on a football team, an associate minister, an apprentice in a wood shop, and yes, a backup singer in a rock and roll band. When I walked behind, when I helped someone else, when I added to the beauty without shoving my way to the front.

All I know for sure is that these days I’m at my absolute-dizzy-happiest when I’m in the kitchen cooking dinner and singing loud harmonies with Sufjan Stevens, or Paul Simon, or Jackson Browne, or Crowded House, or Wilco, or the Shins, or…the Beatles.

In the past six years I’ve been in business for myself, with my own name on the door. And that has its own joys and satisfactions, for sure. But sometimes I miss the supporting role, the teamwork, the low harmony. The pleasure of helping create something beautiful without the responsibility that comes with leading, the ego that goes with carrying the melody.

I finally feel what a noble, joyful privilege it is to sing harmony.

And right now, following along with George, I just want Miles to feel it too.



76 thoughts on “Harmony

    • Mark,

      I’ve been reading your posts for a couple of months now. Your words of “Harmony” definitely “struck a chord” for me. I am the pastor of two small (in numbers) United Methodist churches just south of Columbus, Texas. I would like your permission to use the “Harmony” (duly attributed) in place of my own words in the upcoming monthly newsletter for these two churches.

      Past or Ron Shott

  1. One hymn had the alto singing the same note for a whole phrase, and you called me
    “Johnny-One-Note.” Funny the things one remembers. Sorry I never threw for a touchdown in the Super Bowl!!! :)

  2. “musical humility”… Never heard it put that way before. I was always the alto in church choir, it took me years to learn it, to enjoy it. But now I embrace singing harmony and love picking it out of the music like threads to weave. Funny how the growth and joy of that ability has directly reflected how I work professionally. Something in that Love. Leave it to you to point this out, good one.

  3. My mom sings alto, and has a really beautiful voice. When we sat next to each other in church I loved to hear how we sounded together.

    Thank you for your beautifully-written post and for bringing back nice memories for me.

  4. I’ve always been drawn to the harmony as well. I sing with Ava all the time… and I almost always sing harmony to her melody. Songs feel richer, more meaningful and complex with the harmony. When everyone sings the same it sounds like mindless droning. Thank God your mother was blessed with the ability to bring that to you! I never remember a car trip with my father that lasted more than a half hour without us bursting into song. And I thank my 1st grade chorus teacher for forcing us through a song called “Alto’s Lament” that introduced me to harmony part by forcing the sopranos to relinquish the melody! 35 years later.., thank you Rhonda Leathers!

  5. I love singing alto and will never, ever forget the person who told me, ‘You make everyone else sound better’. His words remind me that harmony is a calling, and it is not confined to singing. Thank you for your beautiful words, Mark.

  6. So beautifully written … and a timely read considering I just finished praise and worship practice at church this evening. I’ve always preferred singing harmony. Now that fact makes me go hmmmmmm.

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