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Sunday, February 13, 2005

Songs for Non-Singers

Since 1976 I've taught a course called Songs for Non-Singers. It's always been massively over-subscribed and wildly popular; you'd be amazed how many "tone-deaf" people are actually dying to sing.

Anabel Graetz invented the method I use. I was her franchisee -- Adult-Ed programs through the Boston area wanted her, she needed a clone. So she farmed out some outlying classes to me. Every week I bumped over dark country roads on my moped to Concord. There, I dealt with the first of many classrooms full of anxious, uptight, but hopeful adults who had considered themselves Non-Singers all their lives, but now were determined to sing. I found this incredibly moving, and still do, decades later.

It takes courage for adults to try something they're not good at. Kids are used to it - we make them try new things all the time. But adults specialize. We have jobs and hobbies we've mastered and which bring us satisfaction. We adults are out of the habit of failing. This makes my students' willingness to bare their fears to me, and to each other, and to try something which terrifies them, all the more inspiring.

The people in my classes are competent people: they are professionals and academics and blue-collar workers and college students and retirees and moms. What they have in common is that at some point, sometimes forty or fifty years ago, somebody told them: "you have a lousy voice." Nobody who hears these words ever forgets them. No passage of time dims the pain they cause.

It's amazing how often the person who says: "you can't sing" is a parent or a teacher. A parent or a teacher would not tell a child: "you won't ever walk" or "you will never read" or "you can't do math." Why is it ok to tell a child he or she will never sing? These words, spoken in a careless moment, are internalized as a life-long curse.

Most astoundingly, the person who makes the malediction is often a MUSIC TEACHER. What does teacher mean, anyway? That you reward and encourage those who already know the material, and castigate and reject those who still need to learn it? Music teachers' most common and execrable command to those who decades later take my class: "Just mouth the words, honey." Right, like a math teacher would tell a kid who is struggling: "Just move your pencil over the page, honey - don't bother trying to work the problems."

Obviously I have a lot more to say on this subject, but for today I close by asking you: have you ever told someone - your child, your spouse, your student - there's something he or she is incapable of? You have? Go say you're sorry.

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At 10:22 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Great post - I was/ am one of those who was always told "don't sing" - I'd love to take you class but I'm in Texas!

At 11:01 PM, Blogger Michele said...

Actually I am not amazed at "how many "tone-deaf" people are actually dying to sing," because I have seen a few moments of The American Idol auditions. Sadly, for me, they sound good compared to noise that comes from me when I sing.

As a speech writer and speech coach part of my job is telling people how they SHOULD sound and they pay me to do so. I have done many radio spots and I have been praised on my speaking voice BUT I could earn a living having people pay me not to sing.

Oh, before I forget, "Hello, Michele sent me." Yes, Melinama you are it.

At 11:17 PM, Blogger Mamacita (The REAL one) said...

I come here all the time anyway, but tonight I am here because Michele sent me. Your post is wonderful. I am one of those people who would LOVE to be able to sing well. As things are, I sing, but I probably shouldn't. The acoustics in the shower aren't even good enough to make it sound good. But I sing anyway. Don't even get me started on schools and their arts programs. . . .

At 11:21 PM, Blogger Thumper said...

Hi, Michele sent me. And I'm glad she did! Your post hit verrrah close to home. I could instantly think of several things I wanted to try but haven't simply because of the fear of sucking...and of all the things I was told I couldn't so. Like write. I'd like to find the couple of teachers who told me that and wave my books under their noses...

At 11:24 PM, Blogger SeeingDouble said...

Hi!! Michele sent me!! Hope you are having a good night!

At 11:25 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello, Michele sent me.
Your site is full of goodies I shall return to read.
I love to sing alone, but too afraid to sing in front of others. I would love to take your class, too.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger songstress7 said...

Bravo! Most people who are told not to sing have not had anyone TRY to train them.

Oh, and Michele sent me too.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger Isabella K said...

I'm pretty musical myself and I am greatly relieved to hear my 2-year-old finally be able to carry a tune (kind of). I hadn't realized it would take time to develop. We (I?) tend to treat musicality as a gift — you either have it or you don't, which makes it unlike the universal accessibility we have to the ability to read or add 2 + 2. I can see how you can teach an instrument, combinations of keys, positions, etc – I'm fascinated to know how you teach singing to someone who can't hear how to fix it. My significant other can't sing, but he loves music way too much for me to ever tell him so; I just sing louder to compensate for him. (Michele sent me too.)

At 3:21 AM, Blogger Kimberly said...

Hi Melinama, Michele sent me today, though I've been stopping by daily since her three psycho-therapists mentioned your blog.

I'm very curious about the techniques that you use in your classes, as I have a number of friends who would love to sing, but can't carry a tune. As singing comes easily to me, and I don't remember ever *learning* to carry a tune, I don't know what suggestions to make.

Oh, the name and the Boston connection just clicked! Is Anabel related to morris dancer Shag Graetz? I first got involved in the English/ morris/ contra dance communities in Boston in the early '80s. Might I have seen you on a dance floor or stage around that time?

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Badaunt said...

I'd love to join your classes. I don't suppose you're thinking of moving to Japan, are you?

At 9:52 AM, Blogger Bora Zivkovic said...

Not all tone-deaf adults are shy about singing in public. I have heard many at the time I was doing a lot of karaoke singing a couple of years ago. Nobody laughed, nobody told them they were bad (and they were atrocious), but they LOVE to sing and I wish they could all go to your class and get better.

At 10:49 AM, Blogger Miriam Jones said...

I'm one of those who was told she couldn't sing, by my mother, who was classically trained. I thought I was just getting over it, but I now have a four-year-old who sometimes tells me, very emphatically, to stop singing. Other times, he asks me to sing: talk about mixed messages! I would love to take your class, too, but I'm in New Brunswick, Canada. I guess I'll just have to keep singing when I'm alone in the car.

The odd thing is, I don't think my voice is half bad. Not a classical voice, by any means, but good for show tunes. I think I could have done something with it if I had had some training.

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I too am a non-singer (age 52). I will sing in the car shower, or if I am alone, but not in front of anyone and especially not in church. I had a fairly low voice as a child, so got the "just mouth the words" thing from the elem. music teacher. My best friend's sister became a vocal music teacher, and still calls me "Johnny one-note" when she sees me. To top it off, I married a vocal music teacher. She asked me not to sing in front of our sons when they were little. In short, I have had a lot of folks tell me how bad I am, but in truth, I love to sing. I wish your class was in central Nebraska.


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