If I had a pound for every time someone gave me this as a reason for not joining a choir or not singing at all, I would, honestly, be considerably richer than I am now. I’d certainly take one of those holidays where you hire a castle and invite all your friends…
The kicker to this phrase is that it is very rarely true, and hides a lot of things behind it. Here are some – but not all – of what it can mean.
- “I don’t want to, and I don’t know how to make you stop asking me.” This is quite common, especially when confronted publicly by family and friends asking them to join in with something.
I find it particularly common in men. I’m about to generalise hugely here, so please forgive me. Men are – in my experience – much more scared about being emotionally vulnerable in public than women are. Women join a choir, make friends and find emotional release in singing. Men do not have the same freedom. Often they join with wives/girlfriends and finding their own voice can be a real struggle. Singing is one of the most emotionally vulnerable things you can do in public, I think. Many men really struggle with opening up like that. And the phrase, “I can’t sing” is aimed at deflecting that call to be vulnerable. The phrase is very common in men, but can come up across the gender spectrum – very often linked to the fear of public emotional vulnerability. I don’t ever want to pile stress onto something that obviously does not make them happy, so when someone says this to me, I will (depending on setting) either tell them very gently that I believe they CAN sing, and if they ever wanted to explore that with a group, I’d love to help, OR I will try to find more information about where that belief has come from. Which leads onto the next point…
- “I was told I couldn’t sing when I was a child. I was really awful!” This makes my heart bleed. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the person before you as a small child being told to shut up, and believing that their voice has no value. I could cry with the sadness of a voice lost to shame and ignorance. I’m an ex-primary school music teacher. I’ve taught LOTS of small children, and I’m happy to say that very, very few of them have absolutely mastered their voice by the time they leave primary school at 11. There are exceptions, and it is mostly down to the environment the child grows up in. My own kids are very musical and have a really solid sense of harmony, and have done since they were very small. Are they genetically musical geniuses? No. They just grew up in an environment of continuous music and no judgement. They made mistakes and learned from them without anyone telling them to shut up and that they couldn’t sing. If you didn’t grow up in an environment where music and participation was constant and normalised, you can’t possibly hold yourself to the same standards. Most people start to get control of their voices around 12 or so. And then puberty kicks in and makes everything impossible again for all genders. What you could do as a child, and what you can do now are very different things. Think about the things that you are truly excellent at now, as an adult. Maybe you are an amazing baker, or can knit intarsia patterns, or rewire a house, or train a dog, or name all the films of Humphrey Bogart…. But whatever it is, I’ll bet a penny to a pound you weren’t amazing at it when you were 6, were you?
- “I can’t read music. I wouldn’t know what to do.” Music reading isn’t necessary. It *can* make things much easier, but it can also make things MUCH harder. As I’ve said on many occasions, though, reading music is nowhere as difficult as most people make out. You don’t have to be fluent, and you don’t have to have the ability to hear the notes in your head as you read them. Some people do. Some people don’t. Personally, I don’t. I don’t read music fluently – I read to the level I need for what I do. I recently handed music and lyrics out to a choir and one lady asked for the sheet music and said, “I can’t read music, but it is really useful to see where the notes go up and down and when we start singing compared to the other lines.” Well, I hate to say this and puncture your self-image here, but if you are seeing where notes go up and down and when your part comes in, you are TOTALLY reading the music. People who tell you that reading music is complicated and hard, and you need to have been taught by a teacher when you were 7 are just trying to big themselves up. You are absolutely able to do it. I read, but I don’t read as well as my husband, who played viola for years. But just because he can hear thirds and fifths without thinking about it, that doesn’t minimise my ability to do what I do. The wisest piece of advice I was ever given was this: “Play your own football”. In other words, don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Do what you are happy and able to do, and to heck with the rest of it.
There are other reasons and thoughts, and I’ll come to those eventually, but right now – sing. The best time to start singing was when you were a toddler. But failing that, the best time is NOW!