Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Why can’t I sing?

This is an updated version of a post which first appeared as But I can’t sing! in December 2007

“Why can’t I sing?” The short answer is: “You can. Everybody can.”

The whole of my singing work is based on the belief that everyone can sing. All my choirs and workshops are open-access, no auditions, no experience necessary.

FHM choir

Choir of the Munich University of Applied Sciences by Mark Kamin

Yet very often when I say that, I get the response: “But not me – I can’t sing at all.”

Some time ago I came across a blog post which mentioned a guy who seldom hits a wrong note, knows lots about music and how it works, is very keen, but who still thinks he can’t ‘sing’.

It turned out in this instance that the guy believed he couldn’t sing musically. He thought that in order to ‘sing’ it’s not 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.

In my book, this guy can sing! He’s pretty advanced compared with many people and clearly wants to go onto the next level. But there are complete beginners who believe they can’t sing and that stops them from even trying in the first place. And that’s a terrible shame.

It got me thinking about what people might mean when they say they can’t ‘sing’.

Here are some persistent myths that keep people believing that they can’t sing:

  • ‘real’ singers only have to hear a song once, then they will know the tune perfectly
  • I don’t sound like Pavarotti/ Lady Gaga/ Elaine Paige/ Thom Yorke
  • I haven’t had any training or singing lessons
  • my friends told me once that I sounded awful
  • I’m just an amateur, only professionals sing properly
  • I can’t hit the really high notes
  • ‘real’ singers can learn lyrics in a few minutes – it takes me ages
  • I don’t like the sound of my own voice
  • I can’t hit the very low notes
  • it takes me a long time to learn a new song
  • I can’t sing in harmony
  • sometimes I make mistakes – I’m not as good as other people I know
  • I can’t hold a tune to save my life
  • I hate hearing a recording of my voice
  • I wouldn’t want to inflict my voice on anyone else!
  • I’m scared of singing in public
  • my teacher asked me to mime in the school concert
  • my husband can’t bear me singing around the house
  • I don’t have a beautiful voice
  • I can’t read music

All these are, of course, myths. But quite prevalent and persistent myths. It’s quite hard to disabuse some people of these erroneous beliefs.

Here are a few truths:

  • Billy Holiday had a very small range of notes she could sing – it’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it!
  • Thom Yorke/ Lady Gaga, etc. are admired because they sound unique – what’s the point in sounding like them? Use your own voice!
  • ‘beauty’ is in the ear of the listener – one friend will like one voice, another will hate it. One teacher can’t bear a kid singing, whilst another simply loves their sound. You may think your favourite singer has a ‘beautiful’ voice, but I might hate it.
  • professional singers can take up to six months to really get a new song under their belt, before they feel that they can really perform it
  • Pavarotti (and Paul McCartney and LOADS of other professional singers) couldn’t read music
  • many of your favourite pop stars and even  musical theatre stars have not had any kind of training
  • some people try to shut you up because they are jealous or scared to reveal their own singing voices

One way to help people realise they can sing is to offer workshops to people, but don’t tell them that they’ll be asked to sing. 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 a very simple three-part round.

Point out afterwards 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 we’ll learn a song. Always works!

Have you got any handy hints on how to persuade people that they can sing? Do you think you can’t sing? Do you have any more reasons why people might think they can’t sing? Do drop by and leave a comment.

You might also be interested in a discussion on The Mudcat Cafe forum:

Why can’t I sing?


Chris Rowbury's website:


Chris Rowbury


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