“Can everybody gather in the kitchen, please?”
This announcement can mean only one thing here at Pennebaker. Cake!
Yes, we’re a tight-knit team that likes to celebrate. Anniversaries and weddings, new arrivals and fond farewells, sure. But more often, and less enjoyably, birthdays. Despite all the sugar, our birthday celebrations have left a bitter taste in many a mouth. The culprit? The obligatory singing of the Happy Birthday song. Or, to be blunt, our pitiful renditions of it.
I’ve been here long enough to remember a time when our small group pulled this song off nicely. Over the years, however, we’ve grown, ending up with a combination of voices and personas that now collectively manage to create a more godawful, unbearable and embarrassing cacophony than should ever be forced upon a birthday person.
It isn’t for the lack of trying. There are always the few enthusiastic voices who magnanimously try to carry the song on their shoulders alone, deaf to the attempts of neighbors trying to do the same. Then, there’s the Murmur Choir — those uncertain about their abilities who barely open their mouths as they hum the entire tune, in perfect monotone.
Until our recent epiphany, the clapping that followed these excruciating performances was a genuine expression of joy and relief that the monthly ritual was over.
One song too far
March 2016 was the birthday celebration that broke the camel’s back. Jeffrey, aka the camel, called a mandatory agency meeting.
“I can’t take this anymore,” he said simply, among other things, including, “This is just wrong.”
He was fed up with our birthday serenades and determined to take action. The simplest solution would have been to ban singing. Fine with me. But no, he wanted to take the high road: Singing lessons.
Jeffrey’s enthusiasm was isolated. Grudgingly, we agreed to join him.
“Align your vowels”
We sat in a circle facing an instructor with a tambourine. We stomped, we tapped and we clapped in unison. I had flashbacks to my kindergarten days. I felt goofy and out of place, and I wasn’t alone. (Ward, on the other hand, quite naturally assumed the role of choir conductor. Surprise, surprise.)
Succumbing to the process, as we all came together, letting go of our inhibitions and willfully making complete fools of ourselves, we learned why our group sounded so awful. Improper vowel alignment. Of course.
“Some of you sing ‘happy’ and others sing ‘hoppy,’ explained Mandy, our patient and knowing singing coach. “The sound and length of your vowels need to match if you want to sound like a choir.”
That wasn’t our only problem, but it was representative of the larger issues. And so, we tuned in to each other, mindfully mimicking pronunciation and attempting to match tempo and volume. We learned to work as one, allowing no solo artists to steal the show, and we found our voice together.
That can be a tricky proposition in an environment like ours, where standing out in a crowd is typically encouraged. In fact, these singing lessons became a powerful team-building exercise before we even knew what was happening. We learned new and interesting things about each other. Abby plays the violin, for example. Or used to be able to. Shannon has no rhythm, which he freely admits. Crystal is extremely self-confident. Ask her. Darith can’t dance, no matter how convincingly he tells you he can. Ask Susan. And Ian is not above lying to his boss to avoid potentially uncomfortable situations, but he also strums a pretty mean acoustic Happy Birthday tune these days. Even Jeffrey agrees.
Our motley crew has a lot more in common now, thanks to this experience. We have a newfound respect and appreciation for each other, and I challenge any design firm in Houston to top our rendition of the birthday song.