Who can’t sing?


Sometimes after singing songs with a crowd, I hear friends or strangers compliment me on my singing. That’s always nice to hear. But then sometimes they add something else—“I can’t sing”. And I don’t think that feeling is limited to a few people I talk to; standing on the crowded banks of the Charles River for the July 4 celebration, I’ve marveled every year at how my little knot of friends and I are the only ones in the vicinity who sing along, even to the national anthem.

That’s a sad situation. Singing is fun, singing is a social activity that brings people together, and singing is a tool of expression that social movements from the Reformation to the Civil Rights Movement and into the present day have used for its power to stir emotions and affirm common purpose. I think it’s a recent one, too. A century ago, all kinds of people sang—working or playing, on a ship or at home with friends and a banjo. In those days the most skillful singer you’d hear all week was someone who lived in your community. Today, I think many of those people who say they “can’t sing” really mean they can’t sing like Michael Jackson, or Lady Gaga, or maybe Pl├ícido Domingo. And how many of us can? But why should we have to? Singing is for the singers, and not only for a hushed audience.

So I was intrigued today by the following anecdote from a musician I respect:

Back when I was a touring musician I met a lot of people who insisted they were monotones. Sometimes I had time to sit down with them and with considerable encouragement they matched every pitch I gave them. With still more encouragement they carried a tune. They were victims not of genetic impoverishment but of cultural theft: the theft of their birthright of singing.

May every self-described monotone or nonsinger receive such personal encouragement. In the meanwhile, all of us who do sing should take time to step off of our pedestals, if we have any, and make singing a part of the social life available to everyone.

In this spirit, I love how the MIT Concert Choir sings Messiah each year right in Lobby 10 for passersby to join in. What steps like that can you take?

Written by Greg Price

May 24th, 2010 at 1:16 am

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4 Responses to 'Who can’t sing?'

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  1. As someone who in pretty much all social occasions that feature
    singing (that aren’t, like, “happy birthday to you”) does not sing
    along, I’d like to respectfully disagree:

    I have totally received encouragement to sing. My mother is a
    professional musician. With effort, I could, in fact, sort of match a
    pitch and even recognizably carry on a tune. I would even go as far
    as to say that if I put in practice, I’d probably get somewhat
    reasonable at it. But I don’t have enough interest and time to put in
    the effort to practice and get good, and as long as I ma not good, I
    don’t feel like singing in public will contribute anything positive.
    I personally really enjoy listening to people sing, because generally
    they are good at it and it sounds pretty. Why should I add to it and
    make it sound worse?

    Leonid Grinberg

    25 May 10 at 1:44 am

  2. Huh, thanks for this perspective. My view would be: you shouldn’t have to “practice and get good” in order to sing with people. When the National Anthem is played for a crowd, or even “Sweet Caroline”, the point isn’t to make flawless music—there are other occasions for that, with a genuine separation of performers and audience—rather it’s for people to join in making music together. The anthem, for example, is a way for everyone to express loyalty or affection for our country. That doesn’t require getting all the notes right, or all the words either. (I sure don’t on “Sweet Caroline”.)

    My other thought is that I’d like to say that if you start singing when you have an opportunity in a crowd, you will get better. But unfortunately I don’t think that’s true for most people anymore—there just aren’t so many of those opportunities. That’s a consequence of the erosion of casual, social singing, and it snowballs because it leads people to have reactions like yours.

    Greg Price

    25 May 10 at 2:47 am

  3. There also seem to be a sizable group of people around here that can’t tell when they’re off-pitch. If you _can_ tell, and have the control to correct for it, I for one encourage you to sing whenever you can…

    (I claim to be unable to sing because I _can_ tell when I’m off, and was never able to reacquir the necessary control to fix it after my voice changed.)

    Karl Ramm

    25 May 10 at 1:06 pm

  4. [...] few weeks ago I blogged about how many people say they “can’t sing”, and don’t sing even in a crowd, so they miss out on the fun and stay aloof from the shared [...]

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