Can anyone sing?

What a question! I actually dread this question and I get asked this ALL this time, and I know that most of my fellow singing teachers do as well. When posed I find that there is a really strong instinct to reply “of course!” and I’ve even heard singing teachers assure people that there really is “no such thing” when it comes to tone deafness, which is a pretty risky statement and potentially damaging. There are many blog posts and website “FAQ” pages out there that declare anyone can be taught to sing. That it’s just a combination of finding the right teacher, with patience and practice. But I have discovered that for a number of reasons the reality is very different, which makes the question, “So, can anyone sing?” very difficult to answer.

Why it’s difficult

Firstly, you have to know what the questioner is actually asking. Usually they mean, “Can anyone sing with a tone and a range that is considered normal and acceptable within a strict set of culturally defined parameters” – and the answer to this question is an emphatic “No”. And here’s why.

If only the singing voice was comprised of 6 strings, a neck and a body like the guitar (disclaimer – not saying guitar is easy folks). If only it had 88 polyphonic touch sensitive keys like a piano. But it doesn’t. Physically, it is an incredibly complex set of tiny muscles and ligaments housed within a cartilage container that is suspended in the airway. Its primary role is to help regulate our breathing and prevent foreign bodies from entering our lungs. It just so happens that the vocal cords not only open and close to protect the lungs but when exposed to air-flow from the lungs they vibrate and produce sound waves.

Now if you lopped off someone’s head (again disclaimer), exposed their vocal cords and allowed air up from the lungs to pass through them, the sound that you would hear would be a buzz-like one, similar to a tight-lipped raspberry. The sound waves that the vocal cords generate don’t actually become words until they bounce around the various resonance spaces of the throat and mouth, and it’s here that we run into our first problem. Not everybody has the same shaped head, same neck-length or 101 other variables that contribute to making up a person’s sound. It could be that an individual can sing in tune (more on this later), but actually doesn’t produce a particularly pleasing tone. This may be due to a number of anatomical structures that have not been serendipitously aligned in a configuration that’s conducive to what we might consider to be “singing”. We all know these people. They are in our families, our friendship circles, at the gigs we attend or sat behind us in church. .

Here’s the question though, “Can THESE people sing?” Yes! Of course they can. “SHOULD they sing?” Yes! Of course they should! If nothing else other than to experience the various well-documented health benefits that are associated with singing – but do they fall into what we would classify as a singer? No they don’t. In the same way that my having legs in no way classifies me as a runner (although an angry bear/lion/wife could rapidly change that assessment). It is true to say that a good singing teacher should be able to help them to improve some aspects of their overall sound production, but it is unlikely that they will move into public singing performance. See why this is difficult?
Secondly, we have the whole issue of tonality and being “tone deaf”. “Tone Deafness” absolutely exists as a concept, although the accurate term for it is “Amusia”. According to research that has been carried by BRAMS, which is the International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research based in Montreal in Canada, 4% of the population could suffer from the condition Amusia, which is essentially a clinical tone-deafness. Amusia may be congenital, in that you’re born with it, or acquired, due to some kind of head trauma for example. Either way, people who have Amusia really struggle to process and replicate musical sounds, which makes the act of singing in tune a virtual impossibility. Fortunately for those that suffer with Amusia, music generally is a bit of an irritation and therefore a desire to sing is not something that most of them aspire to in the first place.

So what about the remaining 96%?

That’s another great question. If we take the BRAMS research as fact, then a whopping 96% of our population should be able to sing – in that they have the facility to sing barring any vocal tract injury or birth defect. So why isn’t singing more commonplace, why don’t more people actively and publicly engage in singing? Why don’t more men engage in singing? This is a question for another day.

When I was conducting research for my Masters, I managed to find a small group of self-proclaimed “tone-deaf” individuals. I tested them for Amusia, because it was important that they fell into the 96% category of people who should be able to sing. Once I began working with these people, I was able to get them to sing in tune really quickly. Note, I didn’t produce any Beyoncés or Stevie Wonders, but there were some really promising results. In fact some quite life-changing results, because many of them had been told or believed their whole lives that they couldn’t sing but really desperately wanted to. I quickly discovered that I had to come up with a different term to “tone-deaf” because it was clear that was not what was going on. “Persistent Tunelessness” is the closest that I could come in terms of an accurate diagnosis.

So what was the cause of their persistent tunelessness. For every single member of this group, the primary cause was fear. An irrational fear of singing that had originated in childhood due to an individual, usually a parent, teacher or other authority figure humiliating them in some way or another for not being able to sing. Critically, this experience caused the individual as a child, and before puberty, to disengage with singing. This fear, I dare say, was intensified and emotionally internalised during the nightmare that is puberty, and therefore carried on into adulthood. This fear prevented the individual from learning how to navigate their pubescent voice through all of its changes leaving the emerging adult with very little control over their singing voice. This fear is called “Adophobia”, the fear of singing.

How debilitating or not Adophobia truly is, is a topic for further study, but I think it’s serious enough to cause a significant amount of anxiety. Plus as I mentioned above, there are very well documented health benefits, both physically and emotionally that sufferers of Adophobia are missing out on.

So back to the original question

When asked “Can anybody sing?” in future, respond with, “What do you mean by sing?”. This will help you to formulate your answer. If the question is changed to “should everybody sing?” then you can emphatically state “yes!” Whether the person is terrible at it or not, engaging with the singing voice is a great thing to do and is a great for adults to do especially around children. Another relevant question is “Can everybody be taught to sing well?” The answer to this question, in my opinion, is “No”.

So, what then as singing teachers/vocal coaches can we do to help?
You will no doubt get somebody in your studio who suffers with persistent tunelessness and quite probably Adophobia. The key is to make that individual feel as comfortable as possible. It will be incredibly important to feel assured that nobody else is able to overhear the class. Don’t record the lesson in this first instance and resist the urge to demonstrate how great your voice is! This will only intimidate them further. You have to encourage them to laugh, especially at themselves, and try to enjoy the process of making sound. Really emphasise that what you are doing with them is just making noise. I’ve found the straw to be completely essential to the process.

Singing a 5-note major scale through a straw always achieves great results and brings the individual’s voice right into tune. I’ve also found that clients are usually fine singing the scale in ascending iterations, but often struggle pitching the descending iterations, so you will have to be patient with this. Once they can sing the scale up and down through the straw, get them to just rest the straw on their bottom lip and repeat the exercise on an “OO”. You will generally find that you can quickly progress to getting them to hold the straw in their hand for security, and then eventually putting it down altogether. Using numbers is also a great way to engage them with singing in tune.

Yes, you will have to be patient and yes, you may find that you have to “counsel” many of these individuals. But if you persist and encourage the student to also keep going, the results will be very rewarding, for both of you.

Can anyone sing? No. Should everyone sing? Yes. Should we help those 96% who should be able to sing? Absolutely.

Ian Davidson is a Singing Teacher and Vocal Coach based in Liverpool and Manchester in the UK. He the co-director of Balance Vocal Studio and the Education Director for the Vocology in Practice global network of singing teachers, and one of 5 certified BAST (Be a Singing Teacher) trainers in the world.

Ian Davidson is a Singing Teacher and Vocal Coach based in Liverpool and Manchester (UK). He the co-director of Balance Vocal Studio and the Education Director for the Vocology in Practice global network of singing teachers, and one of 5 certified BAST (Be a Singing Teacher) trainers in the world. Ian regularly lectures at a number of different universities and colleges, most notably the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts and he holds a MA in Music from the University of Salford. His thesis entitled “Can’t Sing, Won’t Sing – Afraid to Sing?” earned him a Distinction in his studies and continues to help people to overcome their fears and find their voices on a regular basis.

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