“When I was in kindergarten or first grade, during a singing session, the teacher pointed to me and said, ‘You there in the back, just mouth the words.’ I never sang again until I was nearly 60. Not in front of other people, not in front of the dog, not in the shower. I felt I couldn’t sing,” Steven Duke, a retired Chicago journalist, said.
Duke’s story is familiar to many people. Their experiences — and their efforts to overcome that childhood curse — carry a message for today’s parents and teachers, as well as hope for those still trying to catch a tune.
Whether it’s an offhand comment from a harried classroom teacher, as was probably true in Duke’s case, or a snarky remark from a relative or fellow karaoke singer, “being told ‘don’t use your voice’ scars people. Your voice is so personal,” said Carol Kagy, a Chicago voice teacher who specializes in adult newcomers such as Duke. He signed up for voice lessons to learn more about singing after he discovered during his 50s that, in fact, he can sing. He made this discovery in a group guitar class at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music with an encouraging instructor who insisted that everyone sing together the songs the class was learning to strum.
Other adults have overcome a “can’t sing” phobia by joining community choirs that welcome newcomers and have choral directors who know how to lead warmups that loosen people up and get them blending harmoniously with others.
Experts say that nearly everyone can learn to sing. “For some, singing in tune comes easier than for others,” Kagy said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t get it. I’ve worked with a lot of people who can’t match pitch and I always get them to sing in tune. It can take a while. You have to teach people how to really listen and how to feel the sound in your mouth — not in the throat. The throat has to remain totally uninvolved.”
Luckily, music educators who work with children are taking a more supportive approach now, according to Debra Glaze, chair of the Council for Choral Educators of the National Association for Music Education. “We don’t give up on those who can’t yet sing in tune as was commonly done back in the day,” she said. “That’s the teacher’s job, to keep working at developing the children’s musical aptitudes and inherent musicality.”
Stephen Chinn, a teacher in Mamaroneck, N.Y., has used that approach in more than 30 years as an elementary school music teacher. Many students at first had trouble singing in tune, but, “I’ve had zero kids that can’t learn to do it. We describe to them that a high note feels a certain way, a low note feels another way. It’s like having muscle memory when you do sports. Once you physically know what you’re shooting for, you can get close to it. Everybody sings in my choirs.”
Robert Lyda, an elementary school music teacher in Auburn, Ala., explained how he teaches singing: “I create the music classroom as a safe place to try things and a safe place to fail, where we don’t dwell on it when they fail, but say, ‘OK. We’ll try that again later.’ “
However, he isn’t sure that sidelining struggling singers has disappeared totally, judging from future teachers he’s had as students. When they become teachers, they will be expected to lead children in song, but some had very low musical self-esteem from less-than-positive musical experiences as youngsters, not just in singing class but in band and orchestra too. He had to help them find their own musicality so they could engage musically with children.
“Can’t sing” phobias may also spring from cultural issues, according to Northwestern University researcher Steven Demorest. In many cultures, musical activities are “participatory” — the goal is to be part of a musical group no matter how good you are at music. “Our culture tends to be more ‘presentational’ — the goal is to perform, and perform well,” he said.
An overemphasis on the idea of “talent” also plays a role. Is music a talent that you either have or don’t have — or is music something anyone can get good at with practice? Demorest is a you-can-get-better-if-you-practice believer but notes that TV shows such as “American Idol” bombard people with the talent-or-else idea. If that gets transmitted to youngsters who struggle at singing or other music activities, they may conclude that they don’t have that elusive something called talent and may then choose — as Demorest’s research suggests — not to go on in any kind of music activity.
“They could miss out on many of the social and cognitive benefits of music participation,” he observed. Studies have found that singing with others makes people healthier and happier. So does playing an instrument.
To prevent “can’t sing” phobias, Demorest recommends that parents sing with their kids from the time they are little — without worrying about how good anyone sounds. Sing for fun at home as the stereo or radio plays, or sing on a car trip. Sing songs the parents loved growing up or the youngsters’ favorites from movies or TV.
If an older child starts to shy away from singing, see if the school music teacher could offer some encouraging help. Or look for a community youth choir the youngster could join. The joyful energy that comes from singing with others can help uncertain singers of any age discover that they’re pretty good singers after all.
As Ted Dawson, an Arizona resource room teacher who started singing as an adult, said: “Turn off those singing shows on TV that make fun of ‘bad singers’ and go find a song to sing.”
Amy Nathan is a choir member and author of “Making Time for Making Music: How to Bring Music into Your Busy Life.”