Believe it or not, yes! Through training and practise, everyone is capable of learning how to sing!
While it’s true that the physiological components of our voice determined by genetics, such as vocal tract shape, size and build will influence our voice, it doesn’t impede our ability to learn how to sing in tune, in time and obtain our own beautifully unique sound!
To provide further insight, we have covered a some of the topics that are common concerns raised by those who would like to sing, but fear they are inadequate or don’t believe they can.
“I’m pretty sure I’m tone deaf?”
This is something that sadly we hear a lot! There is unfortunately a great propensity for people to assume or believe they can’t sing or are tone deaf, based solely on what someone tells them, or upon their own judgement of the sounds they hear themselves making.
Whilst it’s completely understandable that some people believe they are tone deaf, strong evidence reveals that for the majority of people, this is not the case. An article published by Harvard Medical School, states that only 1 in 20 people suffer from true Amusia (tone deafness), and are legitimately pitch perception deficit, meaning they have an impaired ability to discriminate between different notes. The remaining 19 out of 20 people are relatively on par with the ability to perceive music and decipher whether or not it is in tune. Whilst this does not necessarily mean that they are able to sing the correct note right away, as this requires practise, it does mean they can hear it, and with guidance will be able to match it.
Why do some people find it more difficult to sing in tune?
Like any skill, some will find singing in tune more challenging than others, and will find they need to be resolute in their efforts. This should not be a deterrent from learning to sing as virtually everybody (believe it or not!) can learn to sing in tune.
The acquisition of skill necessary to sing in tune involves the development of fine motor skill. To match notes with our voice, the larynx has to execute several responsibly complex movements. As with any motor skill, such as picking up a pen, learning to hold a spoon, learning to stand to stand on one leg, the key to mastery is to develop sensory awareness of what it feels like to carry out the task, and embed that feeling through repetition.
Vocalists may find pitching notes above or below their natural speech range more difficult at first. This is due to the fact that you are carrying out movements of your larynx and vocal tract structures that aren’t all intrinsic in natural speech. This will in turn, require time to develop the necessary muscular awareness required to change pitch on command.
For those that speak primarily at a higher pitch, they will more than likely find they have developed a strong kinesthetic (sensory) awareness of how to maneuver their larynx to acquire those high notes, and therefore often experience greater ease in producing the higher notes of a song that fall into a similar register. Similarly, if someone is accustomed to speaking in their lower range, (the male voice for example), they may feel at ease navigating pitches within the lower register, but require guidance in understanding of what is required to obtain higher notes.
Why do some people appear to have natural rhythm but I don’t?
There’s no denying that good rhythm and timing are hallmarks of a good singer, and indispensable when it comes to learning to music. Does this mean if you don’t have it instantly, you just don’t have it? Absolutely not! Research shows that only a nanoscopic portion of the population legitimately suffer from beat deafness (known as a form of congenital amusia). The condition is even rarer than those suffering from tone deafness, and only affects a miniscule amount of the population. For the rest of us, rhythm is another fine motor skill that can be taught and learnt.
What if I have no ‘natural talent’ - can I learn to sing?
Absolutely, yes! There is an enormous misconception held by many that singing is something we either can or cannot do. The term ‘natural talent’ is often incorrectly assigned to individuals that started out with no more ‘talent’ than the person next to them, only they spent countless hours practising, singing at every opportunity around the house, in the car, and overall general immersion in music at every opportunity. Those labelled ‘natural talents’ are also often recognised as having greater musical aptitude, simply because they are able to assimilate concepts faster than others, and therefore progress more rapidly. While progression at a moderate or slower pace may mean it takes longer and requires more practise, it certainly doesn’t mean you have less ability!
There are many cultures and households that celebrate and encourage music and singing, however conversely there are many that don’t. Subsequently these factors will inevitably impede or nurture a person's ability to develop and strengthen key musical concepts such as pitch and rhythm.
Curbed vocal development can many times be traced back to a critical juncture when an individual, somewhere along the line was told they can’t or shouldn’t sing, simply because they sang out of tune or were not producing sounds that are considered ‘aesthetically pleasing’. Many are convinced they can’t sing after receiving criticism. This criticism often leads people to become self-conscious about their voice, and stop singing in front of others, or all together for fear of further criticism.
Let’s pause for a moment, and imagine the outcome, if conjectures about other basic skills that we work to obtain were given out as freely as people give out their opinion of others voices. If we ponder for a moment, the ramifications of telling a toddler they shouldn’t speak because weren’t good at it, or a primary school child that they are no good at maths because they didn’t remember their times tables as quickly as the child next to them. Yes some things come faster to some, but this is not a reason to dismiss anyone's ability at any age!
Unfortunately when it comes to the voice, people hand out judgement far too freely, and although they may have no ill intent, it often leaves a trail of destruction for the person on the receiving end. Nobody has the right to deprive us of the true joy inherent in singing.
You may be reading this article right now and the voice in your head says ‘only belligerent cats and squawking birds are capable of exuding more despicable sounds’, however I can assure you, that unless you are one of the minuscule portion of the popular that legitimately suffers from tone deafness, singing is a skill and one that you can absolutely learn. As the great singer, teacher and voice scientist, Jo Estill said:
“Everybody has a beautiful voice, you just need to know how to use it.”
If you have a passion for singing, I urge you to avoid getting caught up in how you sound at present, as with guidance and practise, all of that can change to reveal something you never realised you had!
In the below video, Ed Sheeran humbly shares live footage in an interview with Jonathan Ross of what he once sounded like prior to his career being launched into stardom. He corroborates that “when people say artists are born with talent, you’re not. You have to really learn and really practise.”
Is my voice able to be trained?
Yes, absolutely! Learning to sing, can be likened to learning to walk, talk, tie your shoelaces, learn your times tables, and a host of other skills we kept working on until we got. Learning to sing largely comes down to becoming proficient at the required motor skills through regular and dedicated practise. In doing this, we learn how to voluntarily control the musculature responsible for generating sound.
How can I improve my voice?
Seeking the guidance of a qualified, well informed teacher is a great place to start. If you don’t have the funds to seek professional one-on-one coaching, you might consider starting with small group lessons. Whilst group lessons may not be as focused on your individual vocal needs as one-on-one training, you can still reap a lot from these lessons and it can serve to get you started.
Once you have found a great teacher and commence lessons, the key to improving is practice! The acquisition of skill requires regular practice. Even if we intellectualise the concepts on how to use our voice during lessons, being proactive in our practise is really the only way our voices improve. We don’t all have the same time to allocate to practice, however if we are pragmatic in our approach and integrate small increments each day/week, our efforts are cumulative, and over time this practice will add up and most certainly payoff!
Everyone deserves to enjoy singing to their favorite tunes and feel good about it! I have witnessed singing alter lives in the most profound and extraordinary ways, and wholeheartedly believe it is unequivocally the birthright of every human being to be able to sing and feel good about it.
If you have the passion for singing, it is worth its weight in gold pursuing! Remember to try not to be hard on yourself if you don’t like what you hear at first, or don’t instantly grasp a concept right away. Enjoying the process is really important and you won’t do this if you are beating yourself up! With the acquisition of any skill, it’s about learning to walk before you can run. With practice and patience, you will get better at it!
For further information, please contact Melbourne Voiceworks at firstname.lastname@example.org
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