News and Interviews

On Writing, with Tim Falconer

They are plenty of us who dread our turn at karaoke, who wouldn't let anyone hear our shower singing for love or money, who are, to put it plainly, bad singers. Writer and journalist Tim Falconer however, wasn't going to let being literally tone deaf keep him from enjoying music to the fullest — including belting out some favourite tunes. In Bad Singer (House of Anansi Press), Falconer takes readers along on his journey from getting diagnosed with "congenital amusia" to ending up performing at a house concert in front of his friends and family. He explores our social and emotional relationship with music, and tries to discover why and how he can so love an artform that seems so out of reach.

We're pleased to have Tim on Open Book today to talk about Bad Singer. He tells us about his two greats loves, how he structured the book like a double-sided album, and the singing coach who made his performance possible.

Open Book:

How has being tone deaf affected your life? How would you describe your relationship with music?

Tim Falconer:

Like most people, I’ve had a few passions in my life. Some came later in life; some have come and gone. But two have stayed with me since I was a boy: hockey and music. I love to watch hockey and read about hockey and talk about hockey, but nothing beats playing it, which I still do. And while I love to listen to music and read about music and talk about music, my tone deafness — or congenital amusia, as the scientists call it — means I can’t make music well enough to do it in front of or with other people. The architecture of my brain means I will never be able to do something I’d really love to do.

While I can’t hear small variations in pitch, that hasn’t diminished my ability to enjoy music (though most tone deaf people are indifferent to music or even find it unpleasant). Fortunately, music is about much more than pitch. I think we undervalue timbre, for example. and it may be that what I miss in the pitch-related aspects, I make up for with a stronger sensitivity to timbre.


How did this book begin for you? Did the project change significantly as you wrote and researched?


I first had the idea for this book when I had to water a piano. In 2007, I spent a month at the Banff Centre as a writer in the Literary Journalism program and my studio in the Leighton Artist Colony featured a baby grand piano. A couple of times a week, I had to pour water into the piano’s humidifier and it struck me that here was this beautiful instrument that I couldn’t play and yet a few feet away, my laptop had nearly 10,000 songs on it. The incongruity of my love of music and my inability to make music finally struck me.

I’d always assumed I was tone deaf, but I didn’t really know what that meant. When I discovered that it’s actually not that common — just 2.5 percent of the population — I figured I wasn’t really tone deaf and just needed training. Maybe that could be a book, I thought.

After I started taking singing lessons with Micah Barnes, I visited Isabelle Peretz, the pioneer in congenital amusia research, at the Université de Montréal. She gave me the diagnosis that was the last thing I wanted to hear. That spurred me to learn about the science of my problem. And her surprise at my love of music compelled me to explore what we really hear when we listen to music.

So the book I ended up writing is not the book I initially imagined I’d write. I teach creative non-fiction at the University of King’s College and do a lecture on structure. I show chapter outlines from various drafts of the book proposal — there were several because the book took a long time to sell (some of the early outlines are cringeworthy) — and then I show how the structure changed as I wrote. The decision to structure the book like a double-sided album came fairly late even though it was such an obvious idea.


You explore our social and emotional relationship with music in the book. What role do you think music serves in most people's lives?


Our emotional response to music is so powerful. Not everyone is a music nerd always searching out new artists and spending too much time and money in vinyl shops, but music plays a crucial role in just about everybody’s life. It’s part of so many rituals, including weddings and funerals, but also so many good times: road trip and campfire singalongs when you’re a kid, slow dances at your high school prom, the tunes you partied to in university, the song that reminds you of an unrequited love, the one you and your partner consider “our song.” When you start to think about your favourites, as I did at the request of ethnomusicologist Gillian Tunrbull, you quickly realize how many come with a story.


What was it like to undertake the experiences in the book — voice lessons and a public singing performance? How did they compare to your expectations?


Definitely harder than I expected. I’ve never been much for practicing anything and having to practice something I wasn’t good at was especially unfun. But Micah Barnes was a great singing coach: understanding and encouraging, but also demanding enough that I had to take it seriously.

My goal from the beginning was a public performance. After my diagnosis, I realized singing at an open mic night was too ambitious. But karaoke didn’t seem ambitious enough. So a house concert in front of friends seemed like the perfect solution. I was terrified, but the terror was half the thrill so I’m glad I did it.


What recommendations would you make to someone who wants to try getting into singing as an adult?


Go for it. Yes, I am scientifically tone deaf, but the vast majority of bad singers aren’t. Many are just uncoordinated and singing requires a surprising amount of coordination. In a lot of cases, training will help. No-audition choirs are also increasingly common in a lot of cities so that’s a good option for aspiring singers.


What will you be working on next?


I guess you had to ask that question. I wish I knew the answer to it. For a long time, I thought this would be the last book I’d ever write because the industry doesn’t have much enthusiasm for mid-list authors these days. But before I’d even finished the last draft, Janie Yoon, my fabulous editor at House of Anansi, started talking about another book. I’m going back to Banff in July — this time as an editor in the Literary Journalism program — and maybe another idea will strike me there. I sure hope so.

Grace O'Connell is the Contributing Editor for Open Book: Toronto and the author of Magnified World (Random House Canada). She also writes a book column for This Magazine.

For more information about Magnified World please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.