Can’t sing

Woven into memories of Christmas past, the festive season is incomplete for most without a favourite carol or drunken wail along to Slade. For me, Christmas provided the opportunity for my first vocal solo. Once in royal David’s city still stirs in me a spiced cocktail of emotions: the pride at being picked to sing; the magic at the start of the candlelit service; my breathless terror when the organ played my start note. It’s these memories each year which remind me how different it could have been. One teacher’s gentle encouragement thankfully overruled the crushing words of another. It gave me the opportunity to shine, not just for that brief moment, but (as cheesy at it sounds) a lifetime. It’s these memories that have prompted me to write this article about the truths we learn as children and the reality of the gift of music. Can’t sing? Well I’m sure you can.

Photo by Ryk Naves on Unsplash
Photo by Ryk Naves

My first audition

I was around 10 years old when I decided to audition for the school Christmas solo. I anxiously awaited my turn. The teacher called me forward and informed me to stand there, look over her shoulder as she played the piano, and sing along to an easy carol that I would know. It would be fine. (Get on with it.) Looking back, now a teacher myself, she was probably on her lunch break, tired at the end of term, and had been made subject leader simply because she played the piano. She was no expert. She could however have been kind. I quickly discovered I didn’t know We three kings. The teacher sighed, frustrated, and gave me another chance to helplessly mumble along to the tune.

Photo by David Beale

When I did no better the second time, she announced she had no idea why I had decided to audition. I may as well go. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t know the song, but couldn’t get the words out. I left the room with the humiliating feeling of dismal failure: I couldn’t sing the song I “knew”. I couldn’t sing.

My first solo… and my second

I continued, however, to sing regularly in my church choir. One of four junior choristers, I discovered my love of choral singing, was patiently instructed in the art of psalms and evensong, and reprimanded for playing hide and seek in the choir robes. Out of the blue the following year, my choir director asked me to sing the solo verse in Once in royal David’s city at our carol service. I was over the moon. Word spread and the next thing I knew, the organist’s mother (who taught music peripatetically at my primary school) put me forward for the school solo as well. The gentle encouragement from my choir director and the visiting music teacher meant I was given a second (and third) chance… and the boost I needed to continue solo singing.  Thank goodness for and a hundred thanks to Paul Jeffery and Mrs Morris!

Can’t sing

Photo by Jessica Arends

The reason I decided to write about my first audition experience, was because of the effect it almost had on me long term. The amount of people who tell me Oh, I can’t sing… I wish I could sing… I’m tone deaf, no really… breaks my heart.

This learned truth is often due to a similar experience as a child. It is usually incorrect. According to Harvard Health Publishing, less that 5% of the population actually suffer from amusia (tone deafness). I believe that if you can speak, you can sing: It might not be the song of a nightingale or the natural talent of Beyoncé (although boy, does she work hard as well), but it’s a voice. So what’s the problem?

Why can’t I sing (well)?

I believe most people who “can’t sing” learn this in childhood. This may be because:

  • the songs they were given to sing had too big a vocal range: The voice is a complicated mechanism and doesn’t stop growing until our mid-20s. Demanding it to sing a song beyond its young capabilities could cause it to crack, sound strained, out of tune or simply miss the note. It is so important to give children songs with a narrow, comfortable range.
  • the songs they were given to sing were in the wrong key: This clearly links with my first point. Choosing a comfortable key is vital. If a singer is continually struggling to reach notes which are too high or low for their voice, they won’t get to hear themselves singing in tune. If the singer doesn’t come in on the correct start note, this may be sign that it is in the wrong key for them. The teacher should pitch match their start note and try again in the singer’s (subconsciously) chosen key. This often solves the problem. It also develops the singer’s aural skills as they hear themselves singing in tune (even if they don’t know why!).
  • of voice shaming by peers or teachers: My husband (who is an accountant by trade) told me recently, and to my horror, that his childhood clarinet teacher told him he sounded like he was playing a toilet brush. It was one of the reasons he gave up lessons. My husband believed the teacher to be correct. A gentleman in his 50s came to me for a lesson. He wanted to find out once and for all if he could sing. He was told as a child, in front his whole class, that he had ruined a school hymn with his tone deaf singing. He hadn’t sung in front of anyone since. That lesson was very emotional for us both: It turned out he could sing. His teacher robbed him of the joy of singing for over 40 years.
Photo by Caleb Woods

Other causes can develop at any time, but often begin in childhood:

  • A lack of confidence or emotional difficulties: Singing is intricately linked to our emotions. When I’m low, I really struggle to sing. It just won’t come out. When I’m going through a tough time, I sometimes find that singing releases some tears that I hadn’t realised had built up. Lack of confidence can also build a barrier. A good part of singing well is psychological. I have had students with lovely voices whose main obstacle was their hang ups not their larynx! Memories of forced solos at school and the emotions that followed, may create a block as an adult.
  • A lack of vocal flexibility: Without getting technical, singing purely in a speech-like way usually indicates a lack of flexibility. We obviously don’t access those “coo-eeeeee” notes in our day-to-day interactions. Our voices, especially if male, change as we age. Gaining some flexibility between what some recognise as “chest” and “head” voice and learning to access the latter confidently, really helps increase vocal range and confidence.
  • The truths we tell ourselves: Have you noticed how society loves to categorise? Our obsession with putting people in boxes is helpful on one level. “I’m a singer, a teacher, a dog owner… How about you?” But it also limits us and increases our fear of failing at new things. I still make the excuse for my lack of exercise with “I’m not sporty.” Just because I’m not an Olympian sprinter, doesn’t mean I can’t attempt the Couch to 5K app. I’ve nearly completed it by the way. (But I’ll wait until the weather picks up a bit…)
Photo by Set Macey

This blog idea has somehow morphed into a Christmas essay. What I ultimately wanted to say was this:

If you think you can’t sing, you probably can. Don’t deprive yourself of the joy. Seek out a teacher and give it a go!

Try the teacher directories here (Association of Teachers of Singing ) and here (Incorporated Society of Musicians).

If you’ve noticed a change in your voice in the last three weeks, make sure to seek medical attention. It could be a symptom of something that needs addressing.

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