If they said you could not sing

I’ve run assorted things – workshops and longer term projects, to help people find their voices and get signing. In doing this, I have met a lot of people who, as younger humans, were told they couldn’t sing. Someone announced they were tone deaf, or had an awful voice. I’ve been through this myself – as a child I was told I sounded like a cat. As an adult I’ve had a stretch as a semi-professional folksinger.

In fairness, I have met two people who were absolutely tone deaf, and for whom nothing could be done. Two. On the other side I’ve met more people than I can count who believed they couldn’t sing, but on closer inspection, clearly could.

Where most people fall down is when they try to sing something on their own in front of other people. There are a number of reasons this brings out the worst in a voice.

First up, it’s scary, so nerves will mess with you and make it harder to remember the words, stay in tune and so forth.

Secondly there’s nothing to cling to – if you’re used to singing along to a recording or singing with a group, some of the work is being done for you. Now, the good news here is that if you can sing in tune with a recording or another singer, or an instrument helps, then you are not tone deaf. It’s just going to take more practice because you need a really good ear and good voice control to stay on the tune. The more you do it, the easier it gets. There’s also the issue in this of remembering the tune all by yourself, and you might not know it as well as you thoughts you did! Again, practice solves this.

Singing is one of those things people seem to imagine that people ought to be able to do naturally. And like all the things we assume are ‘natural’ if you don’t get it at first try you can end up feeling like there must be something wrong with you. Singing, like walking, writing, dancing, taking, is all learned. About the only things we know how to do when we turn up is shit, scream, breathe, suck and sleep. Anything else you have got to learn. If you’ve not had opportunity, safe spaces, support, or good input to draw on, then the odds are you haven’t learned, and just need some time and resources to fix that.

When it comes to chanting, here’s what I tell people at the start of a workshop: There are two kinds of harmony that can happen when we’re singing together. There are warm, safe, familiar harmonies, and there are exciting, crunchy, challenging harmonies. That’s it. Nothing else exists.

What I find, over and over again is that permission to make sounds, to play with sound and to share it, without fail, results in making music in a group that is both full of moments of sweetness, and with plenty of exciting, and genuinely good crunchy bits. There are magical effects that only come with a certain amount of discord in the mix. And the people who told me they couldn’t sing, do sing, and do it very well.

This blog was written as a response to Kevan Manwaring’s recent piece on ballads, where he says “Told as a young man I was ‘tone deaf’ and discouraged by my peers at the time, I gave up trying to be musical for many years.” He’s taken the plunge and started singing anyway, and singing to good effect.

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About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

2 responses to “If they said you could not sing

  • Ziixxxitria

    I really like this, especially the bit about crunchy harmonies. Coming from the other direction, I’ve been raised with the praise that I can sing (learned from my grandma, a music teacher, early on just like my siblings and her children).

    However this can leave a sense of anxiety also in situations when I need to sing for strangers/friends. I don’t want to seem like I’m showing off, or trying too hard, taking it too seriously, etc. I didn’t realize, but a lot of those impressions came from that hidden idea that it is “natural”, which means someone who can sing is “naturally better” than someone who can’t. Even though I would never make that assertion, I worry that it’s how the unspoken idea will make it seem.

    There is also just a lot of shared worry on both sides of singing in a group setting, everyone trying to make sure they’re doing well so others listening will enjoy it, rather than enjoying the moment of singing. I suspect that when you speak about two kinds of harmonies to people, you are freeing not just the supposed “tone deaf”, but everyone present to open up more to the joy of singing rather than being aware of their “quality”. That sounds much more relaxing!

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