"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


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.