Sunday, April 29, 2007

When and why do we stop singing?

The average age of people who attend the choirs and workshops that I run must be in the mid-40s. I would say that about a third of any group is of retirement age, and the majority of the rest are in their late 30s/ early 40s. Most of these people sang at school.

There were always plenty of opportunities (certainly in my early school days in the 1950s): morning assembly, “music & movement” on the radio, the school choir (especially at Christmas), cubs and scouts, local church choir. I sang in all of these regularly. I even persuaded my Mum to go to my primary school and complain when I didn’t get into the school choir! They relented (my Mum is a force to reckon with) and I joined.

When I was about 15 or 16 I started a band with my mates and we sang lots of Beatles songs. I distinctly remember sitting in the garden on the swing singing along with “I wanna hold your hand” on the radio when it first came out. I loved singing and used to harmonise automatically with all the pop songs on TV (“Juke Box Jury”, “6-5 Special”) and radio. So it’s not as if there weren’t any role models for adolescents.

Then it all stopped and I didn’t really come back to singing until I was working in theatre in the early 1990s. They say it’s often because boys’ voices break and during that embarrassing transition they find something else to do. But I have heard similar stories from many women who join choirs or come to my singing workshops. Only this weekend at an open workshop a woman came up to thank me and said it’s the first time she’d sung for 50 years!

These people obviously love singing, but have let it lie dormant for such a long period. There is clearly a strong desire to re-connect with their singing voice as it’s quite a brave thing to walk into an open workshop when you’ve not sung for such a long time. I often wonder what has compelled that person to come back to singing at that specific moment. After 50 years, why now? Why this particular weekend?

Many people who come back to singing were put off in some way when they were kids: “stand at the back and mime”, “will you stop that awful racket!”, “you can’t be in the choir, you’re not good enough”. We have such a personal relationship with our voices that this can cause a huge set-back and put people off singing for a long time. But the desire must still be there to express ourselves through our voices otherwise people wouldn’t come back to singing in their later life.

One approach is to “catch ‘em young”. The theory being that if we turn kids onto singing and music, then it’s a lifelong bug that will stay with them. But clearly it’s not as simple as that. Next week I’ll talk a bit about the government’s new school singing initiative and why I feel that it’s misguided (Children and special interest groups first).

In the meantime, if you came back to singing later in life, perhaps you’d like to let us know your story. Why did you stop singing from when you were a kid?

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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