Outside Edge: John Elenor saviour of the deaf

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Rhubarb, rhubarb . . . Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb after the tone'. That's the message on John Elenor's answerphone. It's kooky, it's post-modernist, but it's practical: many of Elenor's callers find it hard to get to grips with complicated sounds.

For these people, John Elenor's phone is a life-line. It's there for those who still break into a sweat at the mention of 'School Assembly'. For those who find weddings a headache-inducing experience. And for those who have never even contemplated the possibility of wearing a Walkman in a public place. But who'd like to.

John Elenor is there to help the tone deaf.

'It mostly starts at school,' he says. 'Someone tells them they can't sing and that they should shut up and, publicly humiliated like that, they tend to do so - for good. It can be quite traumatic.'

The technical definition of tone deafness is an inability to distinguish between high and low notes and consequently to hear - and, more noticeably, to relay - music as nothing more than a rhythmic noise. Some of us might feel that an instruction to shut up under such circumstances is an act of kindness. But Elenor disagrees. 'Singing is a basic human instinct,' he says, 'a means of self- expression. Being deprived of it is a serious deprivation.'

And, anyway, let's come clean here. The class that Elenor runs (at the Mary Ward Centre of adult education in Bloomsbury, London) may be titled 'Singing for the Tone Deaf', but how many of his pupils really classify? Sitting in the Centre's hushed canteen, he looks a bit sheepish and clutches his carton of apple juice to his leather-jacketed chest. 'Well, most of them are just too embarrassed to sing, or they don't like the sound of their own voice,' he says. 'They're people who think they can't sing, so never sing and never exercise the right muscles.'

Enter Elenor and his well-oiled, healthy baritone. 'In class, we start with noises which have the effect of extending their vocal chords, we get those working, loosened up,' he explains. 'Then we might explore actual pitch, learning the difference between notes. Then we might go on to scales and arpeggios and then we might start with a song. Something with a small range that moves up in steps.' No key changes, then? A look of horror flutters across his face: 'Oh no, nothing like that.'

Some of Elenor's students never quite make the top notes (lazy muscles again), but they nearly always go home singing. So successful are his classes that they've spawned copycat groups in Hammersmith and Birmingham, Maidenhead and Petersfield. 'Singing,' Elenor concludes, 'improves the quality of people's lives.'

He is packing up to go when a former pupil sweeps past and shouts, 'Don't forget to include the fact that he's a genius.' Elenor looks chuffed. 'He's in the Music Hall class now,' he says.

John Elenor: 081-740 5972