I once heard talent defined as being able to do something easily that takes the average person a great deal of effort. The list of talents I wished I possessed is far too long to list. Suffice it to say, one of them is music. Strangely enough, I love music and think I have rather good taste in music as a listener. But I have a strange affliction. I am tone DUMB. Not tone deaf, tone dumb. (I thank the British comedian Stephen Fry for identifying this particular ‘condition’ of mine). In other words, I can hear the fact I’m off-key but am woefully unable to correct myself. When I’ve tried to play a musical instrument, I can hear that I’m slightly behind the beat and flat as a pancake (okay, flat as the first sacrificial pancake you make before moving on to making the real pancakes for brunch). Yet I can’t seem to correct myself.
I think that music is partially a genetic gift, so there aren’t many people I can blame for my tone dumbness. My mother, perhaps, given that she is even more off-key than myself when singing? Or perhaps my grade school music teacher, Mrs. M?
But I can’t be too harsh to dear old Mrs. M. Mrs. M was instrumental in inspiring my love of British literature. Not because she talked about it or was much of a reader. But because if I hadn’t had Mrs. M as a instructor, I would never have loved Jane Eyre and Richard III quite so much. How else could I have understood how young Jane felt when the headmaster made her stand before the whole school of charity children with a sign around her neck, proclaiming ‘I am a liar?’ Or when Richard looked at the young heir to the throne of England and said, beguilingly: “So wise so young, they say do never live long."
If Shakespeare had wanted to write a tragedy about a grade school music class rather than the war for the English throne, Mrs. M. would have been the star. One of Mrs. M’s legs was slightly shorter than the other, and she walked with a limp. I have had other teachers before and since who have had physical afflictions—my sixth grade teacher had a severely curved spine, one of my college professors had a stutter—but their personal charisma was such that I forgot about any small supposed imperfections, about a week into my classes. Mrs. M, however, constantly told and retold the story of how she had been playing on a kitchen counter as a child and had fallen. The moral of this story was not how strange and terrible accidents could happen even to the innocent, but what would happen to all of us if we disobeyed our parents and teachers.
We caroled the refrain “bluebird/bluebird/in and out the window” over and over until the words had no meaning to us, and were just tones to bleat out to Mrs. M’s piano. “Oh, Joh-nny I am ti-red.” Mrs. M could hear an off-key voice in the back of the room, even if you sang in a whisper. If you tried to mouth the words, Mrs. M would correct the way your lips moved. When we sang: “Lincoln was our Pres-I-Dent/ Many years ago,” Mrs. M would screech “Enunciate! Enunciate! It is LEEN-CON! Smile when you say LEEN-CON!” We had to sing a song about Lincoln, individually before the class, and when each student did so to Mrs. M’s satisfaction he or she would get a penny, bearing the proud face of the 16th president. Those students who did not pass had to sing the song again, standing beside Mrs. M’s piano, day after day, until they finally were approved to get the penny.
Guess who was the one girl who never got a penny from Mrs. M?
Christmas was always pronounced ‘CHRIST-Mass.’ (“Even if you were Jewish,” a friend of mine remembered, many years later. “ESPECIALLY if you were Jewish.) Students who didn’t pronounce Christmas as such were severely rebuked. This didn’t bother me, because I loved Christmas carols—what I didn’t love was playing the mini xylophone—a requirement of the class—and the flutophone. The flutophone—a white and red plastic clarinet—was my nemesis. I hated the taste of the thing—the cheap plastic was rank with old spit—and not even young Wolfgang Amadeus himself could have made tooting out “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” on the flutophone sound tuneful.
You see, I do love music and know what sounds good—I just can’t make the sounds myself. So it was painful to be constantly off and to know that even the people who were musically talented in the class sounded dreadful on the glorified toy whistle we were all forced to play.
One day, Mrs. M asked me to stay after class.
“If you can’t play ‘My Country ‘Tis of Thee’ CORRECTLY, you won’t pass the class.”
I stared at her, mouth slightly open because my lips hurt so much from blowing the flutophone.
“If you can’t learn to play this song—this song about OUR COUNTRY,” said Mrs. M, “you’ll be left back. And won’t you feel stupid, being left back and having to repeat second grade?”
Kind of like a television show, where someone’s mind turns into an echo chamber, the word ‘stupid’ resounded in my ears.
“Being left back with all of the first grade babies,” said Mrs. M. “So you need to get some extra help. You need to apply yourself.”
Still not knowing what to say, I chewed nervously on the flutophone.
I wasn’t left back, but I still loathe the taste of plastic in my mouth.
Many years later, when I was at Harvard Divinity School, getting my graduate degree with a concentration in religion and the arts, I literally stumbled into a class on religion and music with four other students. Unlike myself, who was getting an academic degree, all of the other students were going to be ordained and wanted to work as church organists. There were no other classes in my concentration that semester, however, so I had to take the subject. I was intimidated, to say the least. Yet because the class was a music history class and because of the support of my fellow students, I got an A.
During the semester, my professor took us to the church where she worked and played some of the songs we were studying on the organ. I still can’t play an instrument. But I still remember the way the music reverberated from the mighty instrument through my body, as if the music was playing me. The stained glass windows cast warm blue, purple, and yellow shadows on the hardwood floors and the faces of the saints concealed the sight of the muddy April Boston snow, and for a brief minute or two I thought, perhaps this is what it is like, to have the gift of music.
This is an easy cake that takes absolutely no talent to make and tastes much better than a flutophone. Although it quite moist--make sure you chill it overnight before serving it. It's best to make it in the evening, and eat it the next morning.
Easy Orange Breakfast Cake
Adapted from All Recipes
1 cup white whole wheat flour
1/ 2 teaspoon of baking powder
1 /4 teaspoon salt
3/ 4 cup unsweetened smooth applesauce
3/ 4 cup turbinado sugar
3 beaten eggs
1 /2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon orange zest
1 /4 cup regular, skim, or almond milk
(Optional) 1 cup chopped walnuts or almonds
- Preheat the oven to 350F. Line a 9 inch cake pan with parchment.
- Sift flour, baking powder, salt
- Mix the applesauce and the sugar. Add the cinnamon and orange zest, eggs, milk, and fold in the flour. Fold in the nuts, if you are incorporating them. (Dust them lightly with flour, to prevent sinking).
- Pour the batter into the pan. Bake for 40 minutes, until a toothpick can be extracted ‘clean.’
1/2 cup regular honey, orange blossom honey, or Lyle's Golden Syrup
1/ 4 cup water
1 tablespoon orange juice (squeezed from the orange you zested)
- Combine honey or syrup and water. Bring to a boil. Add orange juice. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 minute. Pour on cooled cake. Spoon carefully--focus on the drier outside of the cake, rather than the moist interior.
- Cool cake overnight.
Note: You can also forgo the glaze and simply dust the cake with a light coating of powdered sugar.