Monday, March 17, 2014

Never tell someone they can’t sing – it is brutal, damaging and untrue

Most of the people who come to my singing workshops are in their 50s and pretty much all of them have a story to tell about the time someone told them they couldn’t sing.

photo by TrueDragon13

Many of the stories date back to the time when they were at primary or even infant school. What amazing power a throwaway remark like “Just stand at the back and mime” can have!

the effect of an unkind word can last a lifetime

I’ve written before about how to protect yourself against unkind words about your singing (see One unkind word can put you off singing forever – how to protect yourself). But what if the damage has already been done?

This post is aimed more at those people (and teachers – it’s so often teachers) who tell people they can’t sing. I want them to realise how damaging it is and how a brief comment can last a lifetime.

Teachers and parents have an enormous responsibility since young children are so impressionable and take seriously any criticism levelled at them. When a young child is told then can’t sing, they believe that it must be true and simply stop trying to sing from then onwards.

If they’re lucky, maybe 40 or 50 years later they might have an opportunity to challenge this view and re-discover the joys of singing. But some people aren’t so lucky.

why would anyone say “you can’t sing”?

There are a variety of reasons, but usually it says more about the person making the criticism than the person singing.

  • it make my life easier – I only work with the best singers in the school choir so I won’t have to spend too much time helping singers who are struggling
  • it shows how important I am – I know all about music and have a ‘proper’ musical education and this is how I demonstrate my superiority
  • I have a fixed world view – I know what ‘good’ singing is and it’s all about trained classical voices. Anything other than that is just not ‘singing’
  • the singers are a reflection of me – if someone sings badly it makes me look bad. I am their teacher/ choir leader so anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

it’s not just kids either

Someone came to a singing day of mine recently and told me a story about how they’d been put off singing in adulthood.

The person taught at a school which had a lively music department. They loved to sing whilst they worked because they loved singing and it made them happy. One day the head of music asked them to stop: “You can’t sing. You’re a bad role model for our students.”

From then on they didn’t sing at school and soon stopped even singing in the car or at home. In fact they gave up singing completely. It was only many years later that they stumbled nervously into a singing workshop and had their love of singing re-awoken.

This person had been deeply affected in their late 40s. Unkind comments can wound even adults.

don’t just use different language

I find it appalling that even in this day and age teachers are still refusing to let kids sing in the school choir and still telling them to stand at the back and mime “because they can’t sing”.

There are many ways to say the same thing, and just because you don’t use the exact words “you can’t sing” doesn’t mean that what you say is any less damaging.

  • I’ve got a special job for you, you can hand the music out
  • why don’t you just ‘la la la’?
  • no problem, just stand at the back and mime
  • why don’t you play the tambourine in this concert instead?
  • I’m sorry but the choir rehearse when you’re having a lesson
... and so on.

be ashamed and never do it again

There are no excuses. Never tell someone they can’t sing. It is brutal, damaging and untrue.

If you can’t handle your own inadequacies, then find someone else who can help your ‘non singer’. Otherwise you are in danger of turning somebody off music for life.

further reading

As they say on TV: “If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article” you might like to read these other posts.

One unkind word can put you off singing forever – how to protect yourself

“Everyone can sing” – what the hell does that mean??!!

Are you tone deaf? Very unlikely

Help! How to deal with choir members who sing out of tune

Singing out of tune isn’t always a bad thing

Why can’t I sing?

If you’ve had a bad experience in the past and have been (wrongly) lead to believe that you can’t sing, then look on the website of the Natural Voice Practitioners’ Network and you’ll find choirs and workshops throughout the UK and beyond who share the ethos that everyone can sing and that singing is our birth right.

Our work aims to counteract these bad experiences and give people confidence in their voices by providing them with a supportive learning environment and a suitable repertoire.

Chris Rowbury




Chris Rowbury


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