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So you think you can't sing?

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

I'm going to be a little blunt. Almost every time the subject of singing comes up, which, given my job, is frequently, someone will say something like "I can't sing", or "My boyfriend/Mum/child/brother/sister's dog can't sing". I often reply, "I believe everyone can sing", then get a response like "No, I seriously can't sing - I can't even hold a tune". Or there'll be comments about "talent". Maybe you're reading this thinking "Yes Zoë, you're describing me perfectly. What's wrong?" What's wrong is that we are all inherently musical. We are all inherently creative. And in almost all cases we have a voice. (Can you speak? Then you have what you need in order to sing.) But we have watched shows like the X Factor, which operates on a model of the "cans" and the "can'ts" and internalised the message that we're supposed to idolise the cans and ridicule the can'ts. I can't think of anything more stupid and less true, except buying into that lie. Everyone can sing. Sometimes a hearing problem from childhood may affect ability to pitch, but that's extremely rare. If someone can't hold a tune, the chances are they haven't learned to co-ordinate the parts involved - mental processes, external hearing, internal hearing of pitch, and then all the parts involved in reproducing that pitch and making sound. A bit like if you picked up a tennis racket for the first time and tried to hit the ball. Chances are you might miss, or send it to the wrong place. You might continue to do this for a while. Does this mean you "can't play tennis"? No, it means you need to learn how to hold the racket, watch the ball, swing the racket, and aim the ball across the net to land inside the box. This usually takes a mixture of observation, lessons and practice. Focusing on "talent" simply absolves us of responsibility. If it's all about talent and being "gifted", then we don't have to face up to our own desire to sing and the messy reality which is that no-one is very good at something until they've done it a fair bit. "But what about the ones who are just so gifted from an early age?" I get asked. Well, have you looked into what learning they'd already been doing before they were identified as "gifted"? Mozart is often held up as a prodigy. But his father was a composer and one of the most sought after music teachers around Europe at that time. Chances are that Mozart was learning while in the womb and from birth, and that his achievements were consistent with that. Young people who are very good at something have often grown up around the thing they're good at, spent a lot of time watching other people doing it, or practised a lot. Of course there are ingredients like passion, interest and motivation. Of course not everyone is going to be Pavarotti, or Beyoncé. But music is important. It unites us. It teaches us so much. It makes us happier. It helps us to make sense of complex situations and emotions. And it makes the world more beautiful. And I've had enough of watching people peddling the idea that it's only for the "few". It's time to stop putting up barriers to music making and allow every child (and grown-up) their birthright of music making.

Zoë is a singer, and founder and director of B'Opera Baby Opera in Birmingham. B'Opera is a partner on the Birmingham Early Years Music Consortium, shaping the way music is delivered to children age 0-5. Zoë is an ITM Alexander Technique teacher, spent 8 years as Choral Director and Singing Teacher at Trinity Laban Conservatoire Junior Department in London, and leads workshops and mentors vocal leaders for Welsh National Opera.

Photo credit: Kristina Flour


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