Vocal leader James Sills dispels six myths that are keeping you from joining a choir
Humans have always sung. In fact, there is evidence that singing developed before spoken language. There is no known human culture that does not sing. Some anthropologists believe that because singing in a group is a sociable, inclusive and co-operative activity, it provided an evolutionary advantage for early humans. The Greek philosophers also understood this. Plato asserted, ‘All well-bred men should have mastered the art of singing and dancing.’ In the sixteenth century, English composer William Byrd argued that ‘the exercise of singing is delightful to nature, and good to preserve the health of man’.
However, in the modern world, many people have become estranged from singing. People tend to view themselves as either a ‘singer’ or ‘non-singer’. And there seems to be a lot more in the ‘non-singer’ category. Most people who come to my choirs or workshops tell me that they haven’t sung since their school days.
For many, the idea of singing in public is associated with thoughts of anxiety, judgement, fear, embarrassment. Sounds familiar? I get it. I’ve met a lot of people who feel like this. And I want to tell you that it’s perfectly normal. There are a lot of (incorrect) deeply held beliefs and myths that lead us to believe that singing is something that someone else should do. But here I’d like to dispel those myths and show how singing really is for everyone. It’s time to reclaim your voice.
I’m tone deaf – I can’t sing
Do you enjoy listening to music? If so, then you are not tone deaf. The technical name for this clinical condition, amusia, affects approximately 4 per cent of the population, and those with the condition are unable to process and replicate musical sounds. Therefore, if you derive pleasure from listening to music, you are indeed capable of singing. Linked to this is a belief that singing is something you simply can or can’t do. In my days as a school teacher, I explained to my pupils that singing is like any other skill. You start simply, you go from A to B to C. Don’t run before you can walk. There are simple steps you can take to do with your breath, body and voice that will help you prepare for singing.
I was told I have a bad voice and shouldn’t sing
This is possibly the most common reason that people give to me for stopping singing. And it’s the one that runs the deepest. This humiliation, often by an authority figure, typically happens in school years and can be very damaging indeed. I heard a story once about a public school that divided pupils up into categories of bird according to their singing ‘ability’, with nightingales at one end of the scale and crows at the other. I think there might have been badges. I’m wincing just at the thought of this. Because the voice is one of the most personal things we have, it is part of our identity. It is the instrument that we all carry with us, all of the time. And so when our voice is criticised, we feel personally criticised. But for many people, this is a watershed moment in their singing life. They believe what they are told. And let me tell you, you can sing.
I’m worried what people might think if they hear my voice
The great thing about singing in a group is that you become part of the bigger whole, which means your voice will only be heard as part of the choir rather than as an individual. And the bigger the choir, the more you will be supported by the other voices. So many of my choir members say something along the lines of, ‘I think I’ve got a terrible voice, but together we sound great.’ And this is the beauty of group singing. Sure, there are some choirs that might give opportunities for soloists should they wish, particularly in classical and musical theatre styles, but in a choir the emphasis is on the communal, not the individual.
I can’t read music notation
While many singing groups, particularly more formal or classical-based choirs, use musical notation, the majority of singing global cultures do not. Musical notation is a much more recent development than singing. The sound is the important thing. Think back to that time you sang nursery rhymes as a child. Or were in the crowd watching your favourite band. None of these experiences required musical notation. There are many choirs that teach by ear, which means listening and copying back. Some will distribute lyrics sheets and make learning materials available online, which is what I do with my choirs.
I’m too shy to join a choir
If Pitch Perfect and Glee are held up as the standard, you might think that to be in a choir you have to be all-singing, all-dancing, all-jazz-hands. Those among us who identify as introverts may find the thought of being part of this completely overbearing (for the same reasons that those with more extroverted tendencies might find this appealing). Firstly, not all choirs are like this. For example, I know many groups that are devoted to gentle, meditative singing and chanting. But whatever the genre of music, singing in a choir is always a collective experience, where the individual can be subsumed into the whole. This can provide a safe, secure and supportive environment for people who might think of themselves as naturally introverted. A good choir director should help you grow in confidence as a singer. Indeed, in my experience it can often be more difficult for extroverts to blend into the choir dynamic.
I don’t have the time
There are many different ways to engage in group singing, and not all of them involve a lengthy weekly evening rehearsal. For example, workplace choirs are becoming more and more commonplace, many of which take place at lunchtimes or at the end of the working day. I have run workplace choirs in both timeslots. One of the first choirs I led was a staff-and-student school choir, which rehearsed for thirty minutes once a week during lunchtime. One of the regular members was a deputy head, who described choir as her ‘weekly therapy session’. Despite having a huge number of responsibilities, she resisted the temptation to work through her break, and engaged in singing, knowing what the benefits would be. Other alternatives to weekly rehearsals include one-off workshops, monthly singalongs and residential singing holidays. There is also the fact that, to an extent, we all choose to prioritise how we spend our time. If you spent less time on social media and television, chances are you would free up extra time for reading, exercise… or joining a choir!
Adapted from Do Sing: Reclaim Your Voice. Find Your Singing Tribe by James Sills (DoBooks, £8.99). Buy a copy here.
James Sills is a guest on A Drink with the Idler this Thursday 16 December. Join us for a very special Christmas singalong. Register here – it’s free for members.
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