I believe in the power of singing. Like laughing and dancing, it is a simple and joyful expression of our humanity that is best shared with other people. There is something intrinsically good about singing with other people, on a musical and human level. So why do so many of us stop singing?
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. 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 someone else should do. I’d like to dispel a few of 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 that I have a bad voice and shouldn’t sing. This is possibly the most common reason that people give 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 they even had to wear 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 then 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 that 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 don’t have the time. There are many different ways to engage in group singing, and not all of them involve a lengthy evening rehearsal each week. 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 time slots. 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 that you would free up extra time for reading, exercise ... or joining a choir!
When you sing with two or three other people and you get it right — everything lifts a couple of feet off the ground.
To make singing more open and less scary we need to start thinking about it in a different way. We need a model that is more inclusive and normalises group singing as part of everyday life. I call this everyday singing, which is also the name of my blog. The four principles of everyday singing are:
- The belief that singing is something that we can all access without the need for special training.
- That it takes place in visible, everyday spaces such as community centres, workplaces, hospitals, schools, cafes.
- That singing experiences are integrated into the fabric of our work/social life such as community or workplace choirs, singing groups, festivals.
- An emphasis on the process, rather than the product — the holistic aspects of the experience are more important than a final performance.
Singing is for you. It’s for everyone. And you can do it anywhere. Singing together isn’t the preserve of a particular culture or musical tradition. Or a particular place. Quite simply, where people gather, people can (and should) sing. It has been heartening to see the rise of organised everyday singing in recent years, and it is my hope that everyday singing will continue to move further into mainstream consciousness, so that singing will be thought of in the same way as everyday exercise or healthy eating. In fact, I can find many parallels between the realms of group singing and running.
Why singing is like running
Singing, like running, is part of our collective history as a human species — it’s part of our DNA. Singing and running are immersive experiences that significantly contribute to individual wellbeing. We can access them both freely — we already have the equipment. However, until a few years ago, I was very much of the opinion that running wasn’t for me (just as people think that singing isn’t for them). Like many non-singers, it stemmed from a childhood experience in which I was ridiculed in public by an authority figure. In my case, it was my PE teacher telling me, ‘My toddler can waddle faster than you can run.’ I believed him and didn’t consider running again for another two decades.
I used to think that running was about technical perfection and competition, as many people think about singing. But as I tentatively worked my way through the couch-to-5K programme to my first Parkrun, then from 10K races to running half-marathons, I started to realise that, for me at least, running is basically about creating headspace and feeling good, both physically and mentally. And I’ve now found a lovely running group where I live in North Wales that enjoys the experience of running together without feeling the need to compete and compare times. Sure, there is a focus on technique and self-improvement, but not at the expense of the bigger picture. And it feels great to have a support network.
The most important thing is the doing and not thinking too much about it. With running, it’s simply putting on your kit and heading out the door. With singing, it’s about opening your mouth and allowing yourself to become immersed in the sound. It’s that simple.
James Sills is a musician and vocal leader with a passion for bringing people together to sing. He runs weekly open-access choirs and delivers workshops across the UK with an emphasis on fun and inclusivity. Over the last decade he has led thousands of people in song in festivals, workplaces, schools, cathedrals and pubs. He is choirmaster at The Good Life Experience, has led choirs at Creative Mornings New York, and is a member of the all-male a capella troupe The Spooky Men’s Chorale, with whom he has performed at festivals around the world. James lives in the hills of North Wales with his young family and vinyl collection.