Education

"I Can't Sing", "I Don't Sing" and "I Won't Sing"

This post is a preview of content from my upcoming book:S.I.N.G. A 4-Step Process For Finding Your Voice

singer-mic

Do you sing?

We live in a culture filled with “non-singers”, people who claim they don’t sing, or hate singing, or can’t sing, or just won’t sing. In my years as a professional singer, choir director, and vocal coach I have run into thousands of people who make these claims the second they hear what I do. I once introduced myself at a PTO meeting in a new school district and was immediately greeted with three parents saying, “You won’t make us sing, right? You’re not going to make us sing. Just so you know, I can’t sing.” While most of the others shared similar fears in hushed tones.

How interesting that singing is at once a joy and relaxation for many, and a terror for others. We can hardly make it ten feet or ten minutes in the modern world without hearing song, whether on the radio, television commercials, youtube, iPods, elevator music, or any of the dozens of popular shows featuring singers from Glee to American Idol to America’s Got Talent. We hear singing all day long, we teach it in schools, we used to do it in church every Sunday, we did it around the campfire as kids and on the bus on the way to summer camp. What happened?

I don’t believe in people who can’t sing. I believe there are people who can’t sing yet, but I’ve never met someone who had tried the books, audio programs, choir, classes, and lessons for a few years only to still have no ability whatsoever. I have met people who can’t ride a bicycle yet. I have never met a healthy person who has been taught for weeks, months, or years how to ride a bike, slowly shifting from tricycle to training wheels to the big time, who still fell every time.

I’m more likely to believe in people who don’t sing than people who can’t sing. However, I’m suspicious of these as well. Let me tell you the story of my brother, a first rate army medic and a classic bro.

Tim loved racing fast cars, snowboarding, dirt-biking, getting into fights and hitting on girls. He still does. He wanted to be a firefighter for a while, eventually deciding to enter the army, and is now the top medic in his squad. He went from almost flunking out of high school to actually flunking out of college to earning top scores on his medical exams and being recommended to the West Point Academy.

Tim was the man’s man (and a bit of a ladies’ man too). I was polar opposite. To this day we look nothing alike, sound nothing alike, and act nothing alike. If our mom didn’t insist on showing the pictures to anyone who will look, I wouldn’t believe we were born of the same woman.

He loved sports, I loved drama and music. He struggled with math and spelling, I had near perfect SAT scores, perfect AP scores, and qualified for MENSA. He went to all the parties and was the popular kid, I was mostly home playing video games or memorizing lines. He was in shape, I was 300lbs (luckily that changed).

All this is to say we could not be more polar opposite. My singing was always demonized by him, he hated music, thought anyone who sung was a disgrace. I never heard him sing a note through our entire time living together. He was the classic “non-singer”.

Then one day we were driving across the state together, talking about pretty girls (the only topic we share an appreciation of) and listening to the radio, and I notice something odd. As some popular songs come on, there’s this monotone drone coming from the driver’s seat. I asked cautiously, without any judgement, and found to my surprise that he admitted he would sing along with the radio sometimes, and when he’d party his friends would all belt out the chorus like crazy.

This paired with my “non-singer” mom and grandmother singing their hearts out at a concert I put on, showed me that people who say they don’t sing often mean they won’t sing.

It’s not that they can’t sing, it’s that they can’t sing yet.

It’s not that they don’t sing, it’s that they don’t sing in public.

It’s that they won’t sing unless it’s totally safe (i.e. In private, at a loud club where they can’t be overheard, or when they’re drunk enough not to be held accountable).

In the last several decades I’ve worked with dozens of people who call themselves “tone-deaf” or some variation. There is some truth to it, some people have more experience and ability with matching pitch than others. If you are one of those people who “can’t carry a tune in a bucket”, rest assured, I have never found a person who couldn’t learn to sing decently in a matter of months or at most a year. If you are free from severe physical or mental disabilities, know that you can’t sing yet, but you can sing.

And if you say you don’t sing, I’m not sure I believe you. Never? Not even once? Not in the shower, or the car, or the club, or happy birthday for your son? Not even when the whole crowd screams the “ba ba ba’s” of Sweet Caroline?

You do sing, you just don’t sing in public or on your own… yet.

If you won’t sing, that I believe. I have seen the crossed arms, pursed lips, angry expressions, and “just try to make me open my mouth” eyes on children, teens and adults when they find out what I do. If you won’t sing, know that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that I understand your apprehension, and that you can slowly break out of the shell and find your voice again.

Why won’t you sing?

Every “non-singer” has a story, it might be one moment, or a series of comments that led up to the decision to never sing again. We all sang as kids, children of all cultures are observed to make up their own songs while playing and often just sing things to themselves during the day. These children’s songs share a lot of interesting similarities which are starting to be explained by advances in the science of music and acoustics as well as study of neuroscience and how the brain processes sound. Suffice it to say, kids are musical, and chances are good you where humming and mumbling tunes before you were speaking.

When did that change? For many it was before school even started. An exhausted parent shouting at you to keep your mouth shut. A brother or sister telling you to cut that awful noise. A friend laughing when your voice cracked or didn’t sound right. For many it came later, most boys never sing again once their voices start to change and they lose control of the sound. Many girls get very shy in the adolescent years and refuse to risk embarrassing themselves in front of peers (or worse, in front of boys). Some of us were told by the music teacher to “just mouth the words in the concert, you’re not a singer, honey”. Some auditioned for the choir or the musical and didn’t get in. Some forgot the words on stage once and never sang again.

What was your moment? When did you decide singing was a thing other kids did but not you? When did singing become something to listen to but never do?

Gordon McKenzie worked for Hallmark Cards, and his story is often told but worth repeating.

He’d often visit schools to talk about being an artist. After introducing himself, he’d ask the students, “How many of you are artists?”

In kindergarten almost every hand shot up immediately. A few less in first grade. About three-quarters in second grade. In third grade there were a few hesitant hands barely lifted from the desk with eyes on the floor.

By the time he got to sixth graders, the story goes, not one of them raised a hand. Being an artist had become “uncool”, art was a thing to look at, not do.

I’ve replicated this experiment with singers, and the results are much the same. You still get the occasional kid in the choir, the star of the musical, or the one who’s been taking lessons since before they were born. The vast majority, though, decide by middle school that singing isn’t for them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t want it though.

Earn a person’s trust, and ask in confidence if they would say no to a magic genie who could make them sing well in an instant. You’ll never get a no.

The hitch is that our culture believes there are “singers” and “non-singers” and that it is mostly genetics and luck. The media perpetuates this by showing us the top 1% of amazing singers and the bottom 1% of absolute embarrassments (Often decent singers deliberately sounding terrible to get on TV). If all you see are the top 1% and the bottom 1%, over and over again, for years and years, it doesn’t take long to forget about the 98% in the middle, where most of us (you included) lie.

I know you are a 98%er. You must be. If you were a top 1%er you’d be out touring with Beyoncé and Pink. If you were a bottom 1%er you’d have had your moment of fame on the American Idol blooper reels by now.

Realize that your view of singing is warped by the singers that you’ve been exposed to. If you haven’t regularly sung in choirs, musical theatre, garage bands, or other informal gatherings, you’ve likely only heard the polished studio recordings, the live concert professionals, and the absolute train-wreck national anthem performances on YouTube. You have yet to be exposed to a singer like you. One who hasn’t sung much but who can learn with a bit of practice and guidance.

I can’t provide the practice, you have to be willing to put that in, but I can provide the guidance.

S.I.N.G. is a strategy for bringing you from never singing, rarely singing, or poorly singing to the level of a decent amateur. I’m not making claims to make you the next pop sensation, get you a record deal, or even give you the ability to win the next karaoke contest.

If you follow the S.I.N.G. process, though, I can promise you will feel more comfortable singing on your own, have a new fun hobby, and probably gain the confidence along the way to branch out and sing with others. People watch movies without becoming film critics, cook meals without becoming chefs, play flag football without getting signed by the NFL. You can sing without worrying about being a star, and you’ll probably enjoy it more than the stars do.

What does it mean to "Read Music"?

Lofty title, I know.  Bear with me, as this will be a brief primer of deeper material to come.

I have trouble with the term "reading music", as no one really agrees on what it means.  When a teacher says that they teach their students to "read music", most of the time this translate to "they can look at notation on a staff and identify the letter names, sometimes with accidentals".

I don't consider that reading.  That's like looking at the opening to the constitution and saying "that's a w, and then an e, then there's a space, and a t followed by an h and a e", even being able to say "We the people..." doesn't mean you know what it MEANS.

When I think of "reading" English, I don't think of sounding out and identifying letters, or even of saying words correctly, I think of looking at symbols (writing) and HEARING the words inside your head and KNOWING what those words mean.

To translate to music, this would mean a "reader" can see the symbols (notation) and HEAR what it will sound like (audiate) and understand the MEANING of the sounds (pattern/tonality recognition)

I know, big words, and I'm not defining most of them, did I mention I need you to bear with me?

Music literacy encompasses so much, but at the end of the day I believe the most essential skill is audiation.  When you visualize, you create visual input in your head when it's not present in reality.  When you audiate, you create aural (sound) input in your head when it's not present in reality.

Let's try an experiment to see if you can audiate:

"Sweet Caroline...."

If you heard "BAH BAH BAH" in your head immediately after reading those words, congratulations!  You're audiating!

When I say that my students are learning to "read music" or develop "music literacy", the measurable skill I am referring to is audiation, to ability to create sounds in your head without them being present in the real world.  When they see a sequence of pitches on the staff, they have the tools to decode those and know what they will sound like.  Not what the letter names are, but the actual musical sound, because we are reading music, not letters.

I think knowing letter names is important, and I do cover it as well, but I think 90% of students forget this skill the minute they are out of our classrooms.  What they won't forget (at least not immediately) is the increased skill in ear-training and music reading that result from proper aural training.

Here's the core of it:  We don't have time to teach everything.

If my students can learn only one thing while in chorus, it's going to be how to hear.

The best tool that I've found is handsign solfege, with a movable do

I have never seen letter names help a musician without years of lessons learn how to actually hear and reproduce pitch without an instrument.

More to come, stay tuned!

Why Many Professional Musicians Discount Solfege

"All those weird words just get in the way, just look at the notes and sing them!"

It is very common in discussions of ear training and music teaching to find professional musicians who feel that all forms of sight singing training relying a syllables (solfege, numbers, letter names, etc.) is a waste of time or even detrimental.

There is a reason for this.

When you have spent your whole life speaking only one language, say English, and then try to learn another language, say French, you go through three steps for each new word or phrase:

1) Hear/See the French word

2) Translate it to the English word

3) Discern the meaning

For example:

You see the word "chat"

You translate that (in your head) to "cat"

You see the image of a cat in your head

Mastery of language doesn't come until you can see/hear "chat" and immediately see the image of a feline in your head WITHOUT the intermediary step of thinking the English word "cat"

There are many philosophies of language education, and of music education as well.  Many language teachers agree that it is helpful for some students to learn how to translate the foreign language into their native tongue.

This is where solfege (or any sight reading method) comes in:

You see the note

You translate it to a syllable (do, re, mi; 1, 2, 3; A, B, C)

You hear the pitch in your head

OR

You hear the pitch

You translate it to a syllable (do, re, mi; 1, 2, 3; A, B, C)

You see the notation in your head

The problem is that many professional musicians learned music without an intermediary step (Like learning French without knowing English) so the process of translating makes no sense to them, and seems like an unnecessary extra step.

If you can see a pitch and immediately hear it in your head, or hear a pitch and immediately know what the notation is, then these systems weren't created for you.

They are for those of us who grew up without the language of music, and could use some assistance translating it. Want a free lesson in solfege and music reading?  If you live in the Boston area you can come to my studio, and if you don't, I do online lessons around the world via Skype, the first lesson is always free!  Let me know in the comments, or check out www.ChristopherGKeene.com

Why The Dedicated Always Win Out In The End

"I'm just not as talented as he is"

In the first weeks, months, and even years of competition between peers in any field, the advantage goes to the 'naturally gifted', the 'talented', the 'gifted'.

We've all seen it: the highschooler who gets every lead in the musicals, the young salesman that consistently outsells his coworkers, the kid on track team that no one can seem to keep pace with.

But what happens 10, or 5, or even 2 years down the road?

Let's take our imaginary "talented' youth, say they are a gifted dancer, and name them Billy.

And let's take another, shall we say "less gifted" (read: clumsy) dancer, named Zoey.

For at least the first few years of their dancing lives, Billy will consistently outperform Zoey, that's just the way things are, some people are better than others, and you need to accept there's always someone better than you.

But what does Billy learn about dance by being so good?

In many cases, Billy learns that dance is easy and requires no work or discipline.  While others in the studio must practice for hours to master a move, Billy practices for 5 minutes and nails it.  While other students need help from dance teachers and coaches, Billy thinks he's already got it all figured out and doesn't listen to the voices of experience.  Even when Billy is more amenable to instruction and hard work, he rarely learns to spend the kind of daily practice time most professional dancers do.  Billy started out as a 8/10 dancer, and after 3 years is still a solid 8/10.

Zoey on the other hand, sees that while she is not fantastic, when she practices (a lot) she gets better.  With proper encouragement and a supportive environment (good teachers and parents) she is rewarded for dedication and hard work, and has the intrinsic reward of getting better at something she loves.  She starts out as a 1/10 dancer, and every 6 months gets one level better through hard work and discipline.  3 years later, she is a 7/10 dancer.

Zoey is still not as good as Billy.

At this point a lot of Zoeys give up, and are encouraged to do so by well-meaning parents, friends and teachers that say "it's just not your thing, find a safe career".

BUT THIS IS THE TIPPING POINT

This is the moment where, if the dedication continues, she will start to match Billy's ability, and soon OVERTAKE him.

Zoey CONSISTENTLY improves, and eventually that will ALWAYS win over "natural talent"

Now the topic of whether or not "natural talent" even exists is a whole other blog post, I personally don't believe in it, but even if you do, take solace in the fact that with hard work and dedication, you can surpass any "natural" at anything. What did you used to be terrible at?  What have you worked your butt off to improve on?  Share in the comments!