At the weekend I was at a friend’s birthday party when the inevitable question popped up:
“Can you teach anyone to sing?”
As usual, this question was followed up with a statement that I hear people saying all the time:
“I can’t sing. I’m tone deaf.”
Once I’ve reassured them that everyone can sing, I would usually go on to say that our society has a very strange attitude towards singing – encouraging the belief that singing is something that only special, talented people are able to do, and that the rest of us should stay quiet and let them get on with it. I’d then offer up the evidence that this view is false by pointing out that we all use our voices in incredibly intricate and finely balanced ways all the time, making minute adjustments to pitch and rhythm in order to convey complex meanings. We call this ‘speech’. Singing, of course, is no different – it’s just a variation on the same theme. And, just as people can be coached to improve their diction and projection for public speaking, so too can anybody be tutored in the ways that singers use their voices to create narrative through melody and harmony, rhythm and tonal colour.
“But, I was told when I was a child that I couldn’t sing. My junior school teacher kicked me out of the choir because I have an awful voice.”
I know this might sound like a cliché, but the only way to break the cycle of the entirely unproven and unscientific certainty that you definitely can’t sing is to recognise that everyone’s voice is unique. Just as we are all different heights, have different coloured eyes, sizes and shapes of nose and mouth etc, every single person has a different tone of voice and this is determined by the physical characteristics – the size and shape – of their larynx, throat, mouth, tongue etc. We hear this in spoken language (I could recognise the sound of my son talking even when he’s surrounded by other children), and the same is true of our singing voices. My job as a singing teacher / choir leader is to help people firstly to accept and then to love their unique sound. And, finally, to help them make the most of the instrument that they carry around with them everywhere they go.
“But, I saw someone on X Factor who hasn’t had a single lesson and she sounded brilliant. I could never sing like that.”
No – you could never sing like her. Because her voice is her unique instrument. But, you can sing like you!
And, while I’m on the subject, let’s deal with the urban myth of the untrained musician who magically got out of bed one day and could just sing / play a musical instrument brilliantly. I don’t believe that such a person exists. Don’t get me wrong, people can teach themselves how to play piano or to sing a particular song without necessarily needing formal lessons, but they still need to go through a process of listening, trying, mimicking, adjusting, repeating, tweaking, reassessing, trying again……. otherwise known as practising. If there’s such a thing as ‘natural talent’ then this is a shorthand way of describing a person’s genetic predisposition to being able to carry out particular mental and physical actions. But, even the most ‘talented’ of people still need to spend many many hours working on a skill before they master it.
“However hard I try, I couldn’t sing in public because I don’t have the confidence.”
Many, many people go through life believing that they have an awful voice, just as many people think that they’re ugly and unattractive. These beliefs are misplaced because they’re rooted in unfavourable comparisons with others, and an unfair and excessively critical attitude to one’s own image and abilities. These negative thought processes can be self-perpetuating but I suspect that they’re often the result of unkind things others have said – about us and about other people. We so often hear (and read on social media) the armchair critics slagging off the way others look and sound, and we assume that the same would be said about us if we were brave / stupid enough to put ourselves ‘out there’. Likewise, we look at models on the covers of magazines (after they’ve spent hours in makeup, been dressed in the most stylish of clothes, then having been photoshopped to within an inch of their lives) and notice that the image in the bathroom mirror doesn’t look quite so polished.
An unhealthy response to all this could be to conclude that I am in fact ugly and have a terrible voice. But, better to see things the way they truly are: that the images and sounds presented to us on the internet, on TV and in magazines are often not what they seem, and that it’s convenient for big business for you to have self confidence issues because that sells a lot of products.
The response I try to have myself (and encourage in my students) is to be kind. Start by being kind to yourself – recognise that you are unique and beautiful, and that you have all the equipment you need to do whatever you want in life, including singing. Your voice is not like anyone else’s in the world, and even if you initially find it difficult to control you can really enjoy singing by choosing songs that speak directly to you, by really listening to the way other singers manage a particular melody or phrase, and by practising. Just as the only way to get confident at cycling is to do lots of cycling, so the way to enjoy singing is to sing as often as possible.
And to dismiss the critical voice inside your head telling you that you’re no good at this; that the neighbours must be thinking a cat’s getting strangled. Be kind to yourself, and when you listen to others be kind to them too.