In the land of opera, a choir for the tone deaf

Maestro Maria Teresa Tramontin coaches a member of Coro degli Stonati, a choir for the tone deaf, in Milan, on Feb 9, 2017.
Maestro Maria Teresa Tramontin coaches a member of Coro degli Stonati, a choir for the tone deaf, in Milan, on Feb 9, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

MILAN (NYTimes) - On a recent February evening, a shopkeeper, a former marketing director, a philosophy professor and several dozen others braved Milan's bone-chilling dampness to do something that many had been told as children they could never do: sing.

Meet some of the freshmen of Milan's Coro degli Stonati, or choir for the tone deaf, a consortium of vocally challenged individuals who are forcing themselves to overcome long-standing inhibitions in order to warble in public - hopefully, but not necessarily, in tune.

"From the time I was in elementary school, teachers told me to pretend to be a fish whenever we had to sing," said Nicoletta Corsini, a local shop owner. She would open and shut her mouth, making sure no sound came out.

But after a few months with the choir, Corsini said, she feels like a changed woman, and her newfound singing voice has her "blowing up like a Michelin blimp with pride". Italy, the country that invented opera, surprisingly does not have a strong musical curriculum in public schools, said Gianpaolo Scardamaglia, the choir's organiser, and most Italian children do not take choral classes. Perhaps it was fitting that a musical institution in Milan - home to Italy's premier opera house, La Scala - aimed to change that.

Maestro Maria Teresa Tramontin has directed the choir for the tone deaf since its formation, in 2010, at the suggestion of Luigi Corbani, who was until recently the director general of the Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi, known as La Verdi. "He believed that tone-deaf people didn't exist," Tramontin said.

"She has given me a charge and self-confidence," Corsini said of her instructor. "She tells us that we're doing the vocal exercises Maria Callas used to do, so now we all feel like Callas."

Tramontin is particularly qualified for the job: A mezzo-soprano in La Verdi's symphonic choir and director of its children's choir, she is also a music therapist.

"In many cases, tone-deaf people have to be unblocked from a psychological point of view," Tramontin said during an interview in the choir's rehearsal space, which is in a multipurpose structure annexed to a municipal bus depot.

Often, people believe they are tone deaf because they have been told that they are, she said. But real tone deafness - amusia, the inability to recognise or reproduce musical tones- is rare, she added.

"Most people who come to the choir only have to learn how to listen, though that is the most difficult thing," Tramontin said. Learning to sing is about concentration, thinking about sounds, and emitting them the correct way. People who think they are tone deaf, she said, are actually "not allowing their brains to capture sounds". The course focuses on the basics of how to sing on pitch, starting with an understanding of the human anatomy and how it produces sound, from the diaphragm to the vocal cords.

To better understand the mechanics of the voice, Tramontin recently urged the choristers to visit an exhibition in Milan of human corpses, "if that sort of thing doesn't upset you", she said with a chuckle.

Correct breathing is fundamental to singing, and Tramontin has brought into the class a homemade model of the respiratory system, complete with a diaphragm, lungs and a trachea.

"I don't want people to pass out, but I don't want to see you breathe," Tramontin barked to one class, which was crooning a song about a rooster in the dialect of the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region in northeast Italy. "Figure it out. Use an oxygen tank if you need to." One run-through of Gabriel Fauré's Pavane had the basses hitting three different notes at once. None were right.

"You have to listen before singing," she chided gently, easing each bass up the scale until the pitch was right.

"That's the note, don't worry," Tramontin told one chorister, who beamed with pride, and some relief. "See, you got there. Bravo."

The groans that greeted David Byrne's main title theme for the 1987 film The Last Emperor were soon replaced by laughter and giggling as Tramontin reassured the choristers that they shouldn't feel disheartened when the tune was less than - tuneful. "It takes time," she said.

"It's like expecting someone who is 60 to jump hurdles for the first time without falling; it's impossible, physically it's impossible," she said during the interview. "It's the same when you're training your voice at that age and you've never done it before." "In the end," she continued, "the pleasure you get from singing is the most fundamental thing. You can improve, but you can also get pleasure even if you're not completely in tune."

The choir, which numbers about 280 members and is divided into four classes, has drawn out-of-tuners from all walks of life. Members pay 220 euros, about S$330, for the course, which runs from October to June. Their ages range from 25 to 81, and most are women.

Joining the choir starts with an audition, which gives Tramontin an understanding of the individual's vocal range and serves as "the first psychological breakthrough", she said. "They have to expose themselves in front of me and others, and they come to realise they are all equal." "The fact that there are others worse than you is a great consolation," Maria Bettetini, a philosophy professor and first-year chorister, joked on a recent evening.

La Verdi, the musical institution behind the choir, was formed in 1993 by a deep-pocketed consortium of Milanese patrons and businesspeople after two Milanese orchestras folded.

If La Scala offers the city international prestige, La Verdi serves a more social purpose, and has always held education as a core value. Apart from the tone-deaf choir, there are an amateur orchestra, a junior orchestra and the children's choir. There also was a choir at a local prison, but the programme ran out of money.

"We believe everyone has the right to make music, clearly according to one's own competence and capacity," Tramontin said.

By joining the choir, Tiziana Minoli, a retired marketing director, is fulfilling a lifelong dream. (Her previous vocal exploits involved singing off key to opera records behind closed doors, she said, "to avoid problems with the family".) She's not a diva yet, Minoli joked, but she feels she's on the right track.

The choir will have a concert at the end of the course to give the choristers experience in front of an audience. By the fourth year, most of the choristers can hit notes with confidence. And by the sixth year, most inhibitions are gone.

"It's an open-ended programme," Tramontin said, and choristers can stay as long as they wish.

Rehearsals for the June concert were already underway for several pieces, including a Blues Brothers version of the song Rawhide. (Without giving too much away, dark-rimmed sunshades will be involved.) After stumbling through the rapid back-and-forth refrain of Rawhide, Iliano Geminiani, a retired school board administrator, confessed that he had always wanted to sing. But, he said, it was only when he found a choir for the tone deaf that he knew he had found a place where he would feel comfortable.

"So far, the results have yet to be heard," Geminiani said, after struggling to hit a note during a rehearsal. "But I am hoping they'll come."