I get asked this question most weeks, usually by someone who has expressed delight over hearing my choir singing (often in the pub). A conversation ensues where I ask the person in question to consider visiting, and they respond with the explanation that they've never been able to sing. The above question then rears its head.
So why, then? How come some people can sing in tune naturally and some can't? Well, there are many things that get in the way of us being able to sing in tune, but the great news is that they can be dealt with. I have yet to meet anyone with amusia - a musical disorder which apparently affects up to 4% of the population. In my experience, every single person that has allowed me to show them how to sing, has come away able to sing in tune better than they could before the session. I'm not saying that they'd win prizes for singing straightaway, but I've never met anyone who I couldn't successfully teach to produce the correct pitch. Some people take a little longer than others, that's all.
Often this inability to pitch comes from a knock in confidence in childhood. You wouldn't believe how many adults I speak to who mention the fact that they were "told to mime" by their music teacher, or "thrown out of the school choir", or whose parents have told them they have "always been tone deaf". These things, while they may seem to be cause for a little joke or self deprecation, actually cause pain, and often lead to a lifetime of not being able to enjoy the incredible catharsis of singing. I find this unbelievably sad, and part of my mission in life is to re-enable "lost singers". It's amazing how rooted this conviction can be. So many people argue with me because they have a deep-seated belief that they truly are tone deaf, whereas in reality the basis for their "tone-deafness" is merely an off-the-cuff comment from a lazy teacher or ill-informed parent.
Incidentally, another reason for this early labelling can be down to (perversely) actually trying too hard to be accurate with pitch. If you had a male teacher when you were little (pre-voice-changing if you're male, or just generally as a female), and that teacher asked you to sing this line "la la la" (sung at a low pitch), it's possible that you, as a girl or prepubescent boy, tried and failed to sing those notes at pitch (because your voice wasn't capable of singing that low). What you may not have done was to make the octave shift in your head first, and then tried to sing the notes in the corresponding upper register. The teacher may not have realised that you were trying to sing notes out of your range, and instead of singing the notes up the octave to help you find the correct pitch, he probably just thought you were incapable of hearing the pitches correctly and told you to mime.
Let me be clear here: there are also singing teachers today who will tell you that you can't sing. Not everyone understands how this works, and many singing teachers either don't realise that you can be trained to pitch properly, or they only want to teach "proper singers". The latter is fine - we all make our career choices - but I want to make the point that just because you saw a singing teacher and they said you were tone deaf doesn't mean that you are.
Whenever I detect a "growler" in my choirs, I can be reasonably sure that the reason they are not hitting the correct pitch is one of three things.
Firstly, it may be that they haven't learnt how to access that part of their voice. This happens most often with men, but is common in both genders. Men's speaking voices are down near the bottom of their range, and if they're not used to singing, they may never have moved away from that since their voices changed in their teenage years. It's a bit like when you first go to Pilates - "how do I move that muscle? I didn't even know it existed!". You have to learn which bits of your body to move in order to make the pitch go higher or lower.
Secondly, it may simply be that they're not actually listening to the note that is being produced. Quite often I'll ask anyone who thinks they're having issues pitching to stay behind after a rehearsal to let me help them. When I ask that person to sing a note that I sing, they often launch into singing any note, usually not the right one, as quick as they can, without really trying to match the pitch. When I wind down the urgency a bit, and encourage them to really listen to what they're doing, they become much more accurate. I guess it's equivalent to me wildly swinging a tennis racquet and hitting the ball into orbit (which is pretty much what I do!) rather than using some degree of muscle control to shape my stroke (which I've never had the patience to do).
Thirdly, and this is really common, it could be that they are simply not confident enough to trust their voice in that higher register, so they stick to familiar territory (i.e. speaking voice). This goes hand-in-hand with the previous point, as you have to deliberately ignore the notes that you're supposed to be singing, but if your ear isn't finely-tuned, you're probably able to do that. I had this recently with a guy who has joined our choir - he was growling away during the rehearsal, but afterwards I discovered that he's got a great voice and range. He just isn't confident in his upper register, and thus was staying in the "safe zone" where he knew he had some degree of control. We chatted about it afterwards, and he understands and agrees with me that he's just not sure what notes will come out if he sings up there. He's improved massively in the last two weeks, and I know he'll be a real asset to the bass section soon.
In summary, if you don't think you can sing, the odds are that you probably can. Medically, scientifically, it's statistically likely that your tone-deafness is not real and is simply a lack of understanding. You can do something about that. It does take a bit of courage, and involves taking the risk that you may sing a wrong note or two. You probably will. What you need, as with any skill acquisition, is a supportive environment where it will not matter if you get things wrong repeatedly, but which will encourage you and show you how to get it right. Non-audition choirs are a good place to start. Now where did I see one of them recently...?
Originally published on LinkedIn on 19 Feb 2017
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