Sunday, December 02, 2007

But I can't sing!

The other day I was reading one of the few blogs out there about choirs and singing – Podium Speak – which mentioned a guy who seldom hits a wrong note, knows lots about music and how it works, is very keen, but who can’t ‘sing’. (Do check the post out as it has a really good description at the end of what it means to be part of a choir)

It got me thinking about what people might mean by ‘sing’. In the Podium Speak blog entry, the point being made was that the guy couldn’t really sing musically. i.e. it’s not just enough to sing on pitch, get the notes in the right order, be exact with your timing, etc. there’s also a need for musicality. It’s partly to do with phrasing, feeling, going with the flow, expression, meaning it, etc. – things that are somewhat intangible (although you can teach some of them!) but which we notice very clearly as an audience. It’s like the X-Factor: you know immediately when someone’s got it, but also when they haven’t. This particular guy seems to approach the whole act of singing very mathematically and technically whilst forgetting the humanity that needs to lie behind the singing voice.

This ability to bring musicality to a song is something that we all want and is the main thing that we look for when auditioning people. (I’m going to be writing about auditions in a later post) But what about open-access community choirs where everyone is welcome? All the choirs that I run are open-access and founded on the principle that everyone can sing. However, there are still people who won’t join such a choir because they believe that they can’t sing, even though there are no auditions, no particular standard to adhere to, and no expectations other than to have fun! Why is this?

It’s clear that such people believe that they can’t ‘sing’. Whatever that means. When asked, it turns out that they each have their own particular notion of what being able to sing actually is! Some people believe that real singers only have to hear a song once and will then know it (and the words!) perfectly; some people think that the only proper singing is professional or opera singing and anything less is forbidden; some people think that because they can’t hit a particular high note it means that they’re no good at singing; some people don’t like the sound of their own voice and because they don’t sound exactly like the singers on TV they shouldn’t ‘inflict’ their voice on anyone else; and some people think they can’t sing because they think they can’t hold a tune, even though they can sing Happy Birthday note perfectly.

All these are, of course, myths. But quite prevalent and persistent myths. It’s quite hard to disabuse some people of these erroneous beliefs. One way (which I have tried!) is to offer workshops to organisations but don’t tell them that you’ll be doing singing. Start off with a few warm-up games, some running around and being silly, being playful with the voice (call and response silly sounds, for example), then quickly teach them a very simple three-part round. Afterwards I point out that they’ve just been singing unaccompanied three-part harmony which is a very, very difficult skill. In the process they’ve proved that they’re all excellent singers, so now I’m going to teach them a song. Always works!

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Chris Rowbury


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