A couple weeks ago in ECFE parenting class, our teacher had us do an icebreaker activity in which we had to find other people in the room who: had an exotic pet at home; who had a relative with the same name as one of your relatives; and so on with similar questions. One question asked, “Who in this class can sing?”
When people started asking around it was as if someone had swiped the needle off the record and replaced it with crickets (you know what I’m talking about, right?). No one except myself wanted to admit they could sing. Of course I knew that everyone in the room could sing–I hear them singing once a week in class with our preschoolers at circle time. We all sing “The Wheels on the Bus” and other children’s songs, and as far as I can tell everyone can sing on key.
So what’s the deal? Our western notion of good singing, i.e. opera style or American Idol-style, is becoming a little tiresome. I think most people wrongly assume that if they can’t sing like a professional singer then they shouldn’t be singing at all. Sadly, it may be because a music teacher or choir director from their past told them they can’t sing: that they’re tone deaf, or too nasal-sounding, or not pretty-sounding enough. This happened to an aunt of mine. A few years ago my mom, aunt and I were taking a road trip. Mom and I were singing along to some music, while my aunt stayed silent. We asked her to join us, but she declined, saying that in high school her choir teacher told her she couldn’t sing. So, she hasn’t sung since (and that was fifty years ago).
In piano lessons, I sing a lot: I sing tonal patterns, chant rhythm patterns, sing the songs from their method books, and sing the melody line/bass line/inner parts from their repertoire. I’ll ask them to sing along or to repeat after me, and usually they do, but very timidly–just above a whisper. It makes me wonder: have they ever heard their parents sing? Or their grandparents? Anyone in the family? Any friends? Teachers?
Singing is essential when it comes to teaching kids piano, guitar, or any other instrument. It helps them audiate (learning to hear music in their heads). If a child has trouble singing or chanting in pitch or in rhythm, learning an instrument will be very difficult for them (whether or not they learn how to read notes).
Not only is singing important for learning an instrument, it is also fun for its own sake, and it makes you feel good.
This past summer, a friend of mine who was expecting, mentioned she’d like to put the kid in piano lessons when he/she got older. “Great!” I said, “But the most important thing you can do until then is sing to your child.” She and her husband looked at me sheepishly and said they couldn’t sing (or that they didn’t know any children’s songs). I knew these folks had great taste in music so I told them to sing anything: Radiohead, Johnny Cash, whatever. And it doesn’t matter if they sing in tune or not. The baby just wants to hear mommy and daddy sing.
According to Jon-Roar Bjorkvold from “The Muse Within: Creativity and Communication, Song and Play from Childhood through Maturity”:
“Sing with your newborn child, even if you ‘can’t sing’! We have seen how important the mother’s voice is for the first stage in the development of the child’s ability to communicate, founded as it is on the muse-ical symbiosis of mother and child during gestation. Mother’s voice is the child’s portal to social life…..It would be most unfortunate, therefore, if a mother never sang for her child because she was intimidated by a Western tradition of bel canto singing that says, ‘You don’t sing nicely: do something else!’ That is as silly as if one said to her, ‘Your breasts aren’t pretty enough: don’t nurse your baby!’
“For the newborn there is no more important, no more beautiful voice in all the world than that of its mother. This voice contains the whole of mother’s love in a concentrated form. What opera star would dare to compete with the incomparable wonder that transpires between mother and child?”
I am not a great singer. I never got any major singing roles in high school musicals (I was either a chorus person or played flute in the pit). No one has ever told me I have a good voice; in the same vein no one has ever told me I can’t sing. For the most part I can sing on key, and can sing harmony if I’m singing with a choir. I would never win an audition for a singing gig, solo or group. But when I was young, my mom sang lullabies. She also made up nonsense songs all the time. My dad would try to get my brother and me to sing the harmony parts to Huey Lewis songs or to the “Little Shop of Horrors” soundtrack. So in other words, there was lots of fun singing going on at home, and not one of us had great singing voices.
If I could change only one thing in my lifetime it would be for people to sing without fear, sing loudly, sing often, sing with family and friends, and sing without a care for this western notion of beautiful singing.