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On ‘Not Being Able to Sing’

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I have had conversations recently with three different women about the phenomenon of ‘not being able’ to sing. Each had brought the identity of ‘non-singer’ with them from childhood, but each now had a different relationship with that identity.

The first has been singing in a choir for a few years now. She joined when she was in her fifties, having believed since the age of 11 that she couldn’t sing, because somebody had told her so. But she always rather wanted to nonetheless, so went along to join the choir with much trepidation and discovered to her pleasure that she could after all.

The second was a participant in a workshop I ran recently who had come along to accompany her daughter. She confessed to enjoying the session, but was worried that she was spoiling it, because she couldn’t sing. ‘But of course I sing to my daughter,’ she mentioned as an afterthought.

The third was a friend who has recently had a baby. She was telling me that she is terrible at singing, and indeed so bad at it that she can’t hear how bad she is – but she knows she is terrible because she was told to mime during the hymn-singing in assembly at school. She was saying that her son had no chance of growing up musical with her example singing to him – ‘he’ll have no sense of what in tune should sound like!’. (This sounds quite depressing in plain print – you have to imagine it said with a laugh in the voice – my friend is one of those delightful people who can find the humour in any situation.)

Two things struck me about the resonances between the stories. The first is the theme that people don’t choose to become ‘non-singers’, but have the label bestowed upon them by others. This resonates with some research presented at the Phenomenon of Singing Symposium I went to in St John’s last year, in which a study of adult ‘non-singers’ found that all participants could identify the moment when they became one. And these stories usually involved a judgement from others too.

These other people annoy me immensely. Now it may be true that a particular child hasn’t yet developed the self-awareness to notice that what’s coming out of their mouths bears only an approximate relationship to the song in their heads. But it is absurdly short-sighted to brand them as therefore congenitally incapable of singing. What ever happened to the idea of education? If a child is participating in singing, that shows they have a musical response – and anyone who responds to music can learn to become more skilled at it with a bit of guidance and attention.

The other thing that struck me was that even having accepted and assimilated the judgements of these other people about their complete lack of talent, doesn’t stop mothers singing to their children. Isn’t that wonderful? The instinct to sing to your baby is so basic, so deep, it seems, that it can’t be suppressed by even the most damning indictment of your so-called ability (or lack thereof).

And the mother-child song reminds us that the point about singing together with others is about bonding, about an interpersonal connection that is simultaneously visceral and symbolic. It is about shared meanings, and it is a direct experience of shared meanings. The high-art end of choral singing in all its complexity is glorious and wonderful, but it is an out-growth from the basic participative form, not a replacement for it.

It is not surprising then that adult non-singers can usually identify the occasion when they first learned that they ‘couldn’t’ sing. You’d remember the day you were told you weren’t fully human too, wouldn’t you?

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