Monday, October 26, 2009

COG 83: Tone Deaf in a Family of Musicians

This article is written for the 83rd edition of the Carnival of Genealogy. The topic is musical instruments. Do you play a musical instrument or did one of your family members? What instrument did you or they play? If no one in the family played an instrument, tell what is your favorite instrument or band and what is your least favorite one. Hosted By Janet Iles who authors the blog, Janet the Researcher.

I'd like to think that I got all the good genes and none of the bad.

And then reality sinks in.......

The one thing I've always wanted was to be able to sing....and carry a tune while doing it. As it is, I should really only sing while driving or perhaps in the shower. But most especially I should be only singing while alone so as not to offend anyone else's delicate ears. The irony of this situation is that I am descended from many fine folks with musical talents. Apparently that gift did NOT get passed on to me.

Now this isn't to say that I haven't had some musical training. There was a year of piano lessons using the Suzuki method when I was in about the third grade and then there were the four years of clarinet in the school band (grades six through nine). By the time I finished ninth grade and was ready to transfer to the high school (I went to a three year high school), I decided that band was just not for me. I had no desire to march around the football field at halftime or be in the pep band for basketball games. The musical compositions were becoming more difficult and I was not keeping up to that skill level. And frankly I was having a hard time determining when I was sharp or flat. I knew if I was wildly off key but when it came to fine tuning I simply couldn't tell if I was off key. And so ended my not-so-illustrious musical career.

If I consider all the musical talent in my family, I'm almost embarassed by my own lack of skill. My maternal grandmother grew up in a small town in eastern South Dakota, so there were a lot of long cold winters with little activity. To counteract that they would have a house party of sorts. My great-grandparents each came from a family of 7 siblings, so there were many aunts and uncles on both the Hanson and Hiby sides who would gather with their instruments on a Saturday night and play to the wee hours. As a result, my grandma can play the piano by ear but she never really learned to read music. Her brother can play accordian and piano by ear. He still lives in this rural area of South Dakota and plays for a lot of senior citizen groups. I think he owns at least three pianos and nine different accordians.

If they weren't making music, they were listening to it usually by means of the Grand Ole Opry on the radio on Saturday nights. My grandma also remembers her dad driving the family into town one evening and parking on the street next to an auditorium or dance hall. It must have been summertime because the door to the building was opened and out poured the live music of Lawrence Welk. She even remembers catching a glimpse of him. As a child, I remember having to watch reruns of old Lawrence Welk shows which I found to be incredibly boring. The only thing I really enjoyed were the bubbles and the ladies' pretty dresses. Funny what you remember........

And obviously musical talent does run in my grandma's Hiby line (originally spelled Hoiby), because we are related to Lee Hoiby, famous American composer best known for his work on "Summer and Smoke" by Tennessee Williams. Another famous work he is well known for is Shakespeare's "The Tempest". While the Hoiby/Hiby line is Norwegian, Lee Hoiby's mother's line was Danish and apparently very musically talented.

On my paternal grandfather's side, the McNeills were known to have some musical talent. I previously have written about my great-grandfather, Charles McNeill, and his ability to make his own fiddles. I have long known of his talent and it never ceases to amaze me. I recently caught the tail end of a PBS program on the Queen Family of Jackson Co, North Carolina, which is southwest of Mitchell and Yancey counties where my McNeills are from. The Queen Family has a similar Scots-Irish background and are all very musically talented. I can only envision that perhaps my own McNeills, including my great-grandpa Charlie, may have had this type of talent for the old mountain songs and bluegrass.

Even my husband comes from some musical background, including his own stint in the high school band playing saxophone. His father used to sing in a barbershop quarter. His maternal grandfather, Chester Kosinski, played the trumpet in an orchestra and in the 1930 U.S. Census in Bloomfield, Essex Co, New Jersey he listed his occupation as an orchestra musician.

Alas, it appears that even with all this talent coming before me I am destined to sing off-key. But it hasn't deterred my own love of music.

Did I also mention I have two left feet?


  1. I also remember the old Lawrence Welk shows, which I saw whenever we went to visit a great-aunt and uncle. Bubbles, the Lennon Sisters, and that accordion guy....

  2. Boy can I ever identify with you on this one Tracy. I'm speaking of the wanting to sing but always being off-key part. I don't have the list of ancestors with musical talent that you have but my mom and her sister did sing in the church choir. I didn't even manage that. ;-)

    Interestingly, my daughter is quite the musician and I have no doubt she could have made a career for herself playing violin or drums if she'd so desired. Every time I hear her play I marvel at her talent and wonder... where the heck did that come from?! LOL! I guess those genes can be pretty unpredictable.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I really enjoyed it!