“You can’t sing. You have a bad voice.” It’s always so shocking to me when I find out how many of my students have been told this at some point in their lives. It never fails to make me cringe and curse the person who is somehow such an expert in singing that they alone can deem who has a “good voice.” Where are all these incredible vocal experts hiding?
On a Saturday morning, sitting in on a festival chorus rehearsal with several ConVal singers, the guest conductor asks these singers, “Why do you sing?” I watch several of my strongest singers raise their hands. Surprisingly, they share that someone in their lives told them they couldn’t sing – that they had a bad voice. Yet, here they are.
Singing in public appears across many lists of “Greatest Human Fears.” Countless articles appear online about overcoming stage fright. Singing competitions pervade our culture, with “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “The X Factor” and a slew of others shows insisting that only one person or one voice “has what it takes to become a star.” Somewhere in our lives we got the impression that only one type of singer is good; when we open our mouths to sing and that ideal sound doesn’t come out, that’s it, we’re just not a good singer, we can’t sing.
Despite this common fear and anxiety, when talking to new students in the hallways or during lunch duty, I’m always looking to scout new singers, hungry to convert them into lovers of singing. I do this because I know that so many people secretly love to sing. When you’re alone in your car, I bet you do it. You bust out in song because it just feels good. My scouting conversations typically go like this:
“Do you like to sing?” I enthusiastically ask.
“No. I can’t sing.”
“Yes. Yes, you can sing. Everyone can. You have a voice that you just used to speak with me. That means you most definitely can sing.”
“You don’t want to hear me sing. I’m a terrible singer.”
“What do you know about singing? How can you say that you’re a terrible singer then?”
“I don’t know how to sing.”
“Then you should join chorus to learn. It’s the same reason you take a math class, to learn how to do math.”
“Nope. I’m not a singer.”
And sometimes I don’t get past that response, since the student is avoiding eye contact and is willing me away with every part of his or her soul.
If that sounds like you, here’s my response. Yes, you can learn how to sing! The voice is a trainable muscle (coordination of muscles actually…). But really, how does one learn to do anything? Through study and practice. The voice is no exception. Why is it we all seem to have a list of things that we convince ourselves we cannot do, that we don’t have the talent for?
This is the attitude that we teachers, and artists especially, like to attack head on. Students know that the most guaranteed way to get me off topic in class is to claim that someone cannot sing or participate in music because they don’t have the talent. This triggers my (minimum five-minute) rant around all the reasons they’re wrong, and how consistent practice and hard work are so often misrecognized as “natural talent.” Teachers want students to see the immense potential inside themselves, no matter the task. We want them to see how good they could be if they commit to something with relentless pursuit.
At ConVal, chorus class is no exception. Our class is not a club just for people who are already good singers. It’s not an elitist activity or a place for just the “talented ones.” There’s a place for every singer in one of our choirs. From the first-time singer to the one who started in the womb. For the ones who have been told they can’t sing, or for those who struggle to match pitch. The only prerequisite: You should enjoy singing and making music.
Choirs provide such a great opportunity for students to discover their own potential because we’re working to develop something so personal. We study our own bodies and their magical ability to create and deliver sound. We work on expressing emotion through our voice and body. We work to interpret and to communicate text with intent and nuance. We work to listen closely, to cooperate effectively, and to make decisions that will benefit the whole group. My students are pushed to develop the courage to stand alone in front of me and sing solo, as well as to stand together in front of an audience and share their passion and hard work.
In looking to find what inspires my students to be a part of choir at ConVal, I asked them to write an end to the following statement: “Choir at ConVal is…” Here are some of their responses.
“… a safe place for anyone and everyone.”
“… the time of the day in which I’ve been given the privilege to become reliant and to pursue something I love.”
“… an environment in which creativity, expression, and acceptance flourish.”
“… a place where I can learn about myself and express myself. Choir is the place where I’ve gained the most self-confidence.”
“… a place for people with very different backgrounds and lifestyles to come together and create something beautiful.”
“… a place where you can work on your improving yourself. How you express emotions, your physical posture, self-confidence and cooperating with so many different people. It’s a place where you can become a better human.”
“… a place to receive constructive criticism in a supportive environment where you don’t have to have just one type of voice to be a good singer.”
“... a place where we’re united by our voices and a passion to deliver some sort of message through song, and it’s really a wonderful way to grow as a person. You learn to rely on and listen to people and it’s really just one big community.”
“… a place to overcome your fears and have fun doing so.”
These are the attitudes and perceptions that pervade the music program and the entire ConVal school community. It’s what makes me excited to go to work every day in an environment where students are pushed to discover what is possible within themselves.
Krystal Morin is a music and chorus teacher at ConVal High School.