Tone Deaf

By Tony Greenfield

Tony Greenfield responds to Tom Whipple’s boasting: My perfect pitch (Body and Soul, The Times, 13 October, 2008)

‘I’m tone deaf,’ sang Peter Katin, ‘I can’t tell a B from an F’.

The great concert pianist, still a student, was entertaining at the RAM’s Christmas show in 1951.[1]

‘I’m tone dumb,’ I countered, sotto voce, ‘I might as well sing through my bum’.

My mind drifted back to my infant school. I was six. The class stood before the teacher and I was in the front row where she had put me. She lifted her hand to conduct our song. Her hand dropped and we sang, as loud as little people can.

‘STOP!’ she shouted. ‘You are still off key, Tony. Sing in tune.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Everybody else can, and so can you if you try.’

‘I can’t. I am trying but I can’t.’

She shouted at me again. I cried. The room and the teacher went blurry and red. I picked up a chair, one of those tiny chairs for tiny children. I threw it and it hit her. She grabbed my arm and neck and pulled me out of the room, along the corridor and into the head’s room.

‘Leave him with me,’ said the head.

Her room was huge, it seemed to me. There was an open fire, a desk near the door, other chairs, a coffee table and a big soft settee. She sat on it and stood me in front of her.

‘Stop crying,’ she said. I didn’t, so she hit me on the hand with a stick, a long thin wooden stick like a giant pencil.

I cried louder. She hit me again.

‘Stop it,’ I shouted.

‘I shall when you stop crying.’

I cried and I cried. She hit and she hit. I can’t remember when she stopped or what happened next.

I never sang again until I was 14.

Dr Probert hyphen Jones was head of music at my public school. He believed that anybody could sing or could be taught to sing. Like Tom Whipple who wrote the article My perfect pitch (Body and Soul, The Times, 13 October) and who was taught by Richard Frostrick. Also like the head master, Humfrey Grose hyphen Hodge, who didn’t like me anyway because I had a Sheffield accent. Hyphen number one knew he had the support of Hyphen number two when he decided to prove his point.

I stood beside the piano in Probo’s room. He played a B. I knew it was a B and not an F. I sang something. ‘Up a bit,’ he said and replayed the B. I sang something different.

He persevered, and so did I, for an hour or two, and gave up.

‘I’m sorry but I can’t include you in the combined choir with the High School.’

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, I am NOT tone deaf. I CAN tell a B from an F. I can even tell if the trombone in a hundred-piece orchestra plays a bum note. And I know when I sing a bum note but I can’t do anything about it.

Anybody who says that anyone can sing and ‘I can teach anyone to sing’ is stupid and ignorant and cruel and a bully and should be prosecuted for war crimes. I have met a few Frostricks.

Which takes me back to when I was six.

My brother, Denys, was a few years older and went to the junior school up the road. The boys called it the Ringworms school because the caps had rings round them. Denys liked the teachers except for the ex sergeant major who taught PT by making them march and wheel and about turn and dress from the right. He caned the boys if they didn’t do it properly. He was vicious and caned some of the boys, Denys in particular, two or three or sometimes even four times in a lesson. The cane stayed in his hand all the time. He wasn’t very big and he looked like a weasel.

One night, as Denys was just about to sit down in the bath, Father asked: ‘What’s that on your bottom old man?’ Denys didn’t know what he was talking about so Father sent the maid for a mirror so Denys could see for himself. Father was fuming when the maid returned and, with the mirror, Denys could see why.

‘There were weals that were red on the outside and purple in the middle,’ he told me 60 years later. ‘It hurt like hell, particularly when I sat down. But in those days we just didn’t let on.’

‘Father was livid and all puffed up and demanded to know who had done it to me. I just said I was beaten at school.’

‘The next morning at abut ten I was in Mr Ogden’s class and a boy came in to say that Greenfield was wanted in the headmaster’s study. Old Oggy waved me out without a word. I still didn’t know what it was all about and was really surprised when I knocked on the head’s door and Father’s voice called “Come in.” Father stood in the middle of the room, raging with anger and swishing a long cane he’d found somewhere. The head was not cowering, though. He sat behind his desk looking concerned. He was lovely. All the boys liked him. I hadn’t known what crumpled tweeds were until I met him. He had big bones on the sides of his wrists and his fingers were covered with chalk and he was very, very old (about 45).’

Father said ‘Come in, my boy. Now just drop your trousers and show the headmaster your bottom.’

‘It was pretty embarrassing for me to do this even though I made sure the door was closed. Father was still furious when I went out and I don’t know what happened next except that a few weeks later caning was abolished.’

Rumour said that Father had met the board of governors and that he had canvassed some of the parents. The weasel kept his job but he produced something to replace the cane: a strip of ridged rubber car mat. He called it his “persuader” and he used it to hit the palms of our hands. His idea was that it didn’t leave a mark except to redden the skin, so he hit the other hand to make it match.

Denys told me “I should have told Father but as a nine-year-old I thought I’d caused enough trouble.”

Denys, like our parents and grandparents and uncles, aunts and cousins, could sing. He played leading roles with the Bournemouth and Poole light opera company for about 30 years. I told him that it was unfair that I was tone dumb. He said “Perhaps. But I can’t do maths.”


1 – RAM = Royal Academy of Music

(More about Tony)


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