(for the musically challenged)
Newton session focuses on the joy of singing, and welcomes the tone deaf and talent free

Lenna Kutner leads a round at her Newton Community Education class, which offers the fun of singing with no worries about talent or training. Lenna Kutner leads a round at her Newton Community Education class, which offers the fun of singing with no worries about talent or training. (Michele McDonald for The Boston Globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / November 17, 2011

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NEWTON - If you didn’t know any better, you’d walk right on by, thinking it was just another community chorus.

But pause at the doorway for a second - that’s when you hear the pitch problems, the lack of harmony, the out-of-time tambourines and foot-tapping.

And then you realize: These people can’t sing. Not one bit.

But that’s the whole idea.

The dozen or so men and women assembled in this second-floor classroom at Newton North High School are members of Newton Community Education’s “Glee for the Musically Challenged,’’ where the inability to sing is not only welcomed, it’s nearly a prerequisite.

“I usually sing in the car with the windows up, so it’s fun to sing in public,’’ said 60-year-old Elayne Baskin of Brighton, who attended the disharmonious six-week class with her husband, Marc. “When you sing, it’s infectious. It just makes everybody happier.’’

It is a refuge for the car crooners, the shower singers, the vanity divas with their hairbrush microphones; the pitchy (to borrow a term for trouble on “American Idol’’), the tuneless, the unmelodic.

“It’s a forum to just sing and not worry about how you sound,’’ said Lenna Kutner, a 54-year-old from Newton’s Auburndale neighborhood who created the course and has been leading its discordant ensemble. “It’s a safe place where people can just sing. No one judges how you sound, no one cares how you sound.’’

Starting on Oct. 12 and held in weekly, hourlong sessions, “Glee for the Musically Challenged’’ is a bit like group karaoke: Members sing along to cranked-up videos - highlighted words leading the way - of well-known rock and pop songs. The first six-week course ended yesterday, but another round begins April 4.

Kutner’s own lack of musical ability was the impetus: As she describes it, while going through a particularly stressful time in her life, she often found herself singing along to whatever was playing on the car radio.

“And the stress would melt away,’’ she said as she sat in a darkened Newton North classroom before a recent Wednesday night class, Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl’’ playing softly in the background.

The only problem? “I have a terrible voice and I can’t carry a tune,’’ the computer instructor and freelance writer explained, calling her tone “croaky’’ at best.

With the world of voice such a demanding place, she set out to start a class that didn’t take singing so seriously; instead of the melodic benefits, she touts the physical, emotional, and social ones.

Studies (most notably one from the University of Surrey in England) posit that singing releases endorphins, works out the lungs, tones the diaphragm and abdominal and intercostal muscles, stimulates circulation, helps with memory, fosters oxygen intake, and releases muscle tension - and all this whether or not you have pipes like Aretha Franklin or Etta James.

“It’s physically good for you, emotionally good for you,’’ said Kutner, who also believes that singing in a group is beneficial for socialization.

And, for the wannabe-yet-warbly Whitney Houstons out there, the come-as-you-are class is a long-anticipated alternative to your everyday chorus.

“I’ve been looking for something like this for years,’’ said 63-year-old lawyer Jayne Tyrrell of Watertown.

Tyrrell has sung in choruses, but because she’s not vocally endowed - she calls herself “tone deaf’’ - she ended up just lip-synching along, she said.

And in other groups catering to novices, she found herself being directed on breathing, key, pitch-correction, and drawing from her diaphragm. But she wasn’t interested in any of that.

“I just want to sing,’’ Tyrrell said.

Her fellow (non)singer Cindy Lacey described a similar experience: The Newtonville 59-year-old was in a church chorus, but the leader was “really nit-picky,’’ critiquing everything and “taking all the joy out of it,’’ she said.

“If you feel like singing, sing,’’ said Lacey, a retirement planning administrator. “Don’t let them steal your joy.’’

Kutner also advised everyone to “just sing, because it feels great.’’

And, on a recent frosty Wednesday night, they did. Over the course of an hour, 11 singers - eight women, three men - moved through a rotation of classic hits, aided by a screen projecting videos from “American Bandstand’’ or YouTube with sing-along lyrics: Jimmy Buffett’s “Margaritaville,’’ the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,’’ “Oh, Pretty Woman’’ by Roy Orbison, Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?,’’ “You’re So Vain’’ by Carly Simon (the group, of course, theorizing about the subject of the song), the Archies’ “Sugar, Sugar’’ (“or, as we say in Massachusetts, sugah, sugah,’’ someone in the class quipped), among several others.

They banged small tambourines and shook maracas, often out of time with the music; sometimes tapped their feet out of synch with drum beats; held notes too long, other times not long enough; spoke-sang or chanted in a monotone; forgot the words; missed their place, voices wavering and cracking.

Still, it was hard not to want to shimmy your hips, tap your feet, or sing along with them.

And ultimately, they didn’t sound nearly as bad as they thought they did - but don’t tell them that.

To find out more information or to register for the program’s next installment, visit

Taryn Plumb can be reached by e-mailing

Jimmy Buffett
“California Girls”
The Beach Boys
“Oh, Pretty Woman”
Roy Orbison
“What’s Love Got
to Do With It?”
Tina Turner
“You’re So Vain”
Carly Simon
“Sugar, Sugar”
The Archies

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