what makes you think you can sing?

Talent – “A marked innate ability, as for artistic accomplishment.”

Really? And how does one know if one has ‘innate’ ability? Are we born being able to read? Are we born being able to write? If no one spoke a word to us, would we ever learn to talk? I don’t think so. Obviously most of us have the ability to learn to read, write and speak. So why do we tell ourselves that singers have to be ‘born with it’ as though it’s a skill that can’t be learned? It’s an easy way to avoid the artist process, that’s why.

Our society is so interesting. We follow actors on twitter, and flock to the movie theatres, we listen to radio, download stuff to our ipods, read blogs, catch every episode of Lost… enjoy watching the Grammy’s and the Oscars… we are great consumers of art. Yet most of us see the act of doing or producing art to be very much beyond us. Especially when it comes to singing.

I’ve had this discussion many times and the next thing that usually comes up is the example of dreadful singers on American Idol auditions. Yes, there are some that definitely sing as badly as possible to get on television. But there are others who clearly believe that they have a voice; they are stunned and often devastated to be told they are horrible singers who can’t carry a tune. What about those people? They can’t sing, can they?

Let’s put together these circumstances. You got up at 3 am to get down to the area to get in line. You’ve been out in the open air for hours. You are running low on sleep. You’ve been eating fast food and drinking pop. You’ve been talking to everyone in line around you. You’ve been screaming for the camera when it comes by. Then you get into the arena. There’s a lot of noise. You have to speak up to be heard. You try to maintain your level of excitement but you’re flagging. You get moved to another room. Your time in front of the judges is coming. This is the most important audition of your life. You keep chatting with everyone around you and yelling for joy when someone gets a gold ticket. Finally it’s your turn. The camera is now on you. They interview you a bit. They film you going into the audition. Now you get to sing.

You’re tired. It’s been a very long day. You haven’t had enough sleep. But it’s your moment. Everything is riding on the next two minutes. You have to do well. You have to win over those four people, including the sardonic Simon Cowell. But you’re vocally exhausted from talking and yelling. You say something stupid and grimace to yourself. You announce the name of your song and you begin to sing it. Your throat is tight and dry. Simon’s eyes are on you. He doesn’t look impressed. You can barely breathe, knowing this performance might be broadcast to millions of people. But it’s your dream, to be a singer. They vote, they say no. Simon says you shouldn’t give up your day job. You leave in tears.

Is that a fair test of ability? It’s really just an endurance test. The sensible ones don’t talk at all. Maybe even get someone else to stand in for them while they go rest and warm-up in the hotel room. The sensible ones eat healthy food and stay hydrated. The sensible ones have been working on singing for at least a year or more, with a good voice teacher, and/or in a choir or other group. The sensible ones also play an instrument and perhaps even have worked on songwriting. The sensible ones get some experience performing and recording before facing the challenge of competition.

It’s very easy to have a dream. But the real truth is that people who make it in any walk of life usually have to work at it, for a very long time. Singing scales, every day. Working with a vocal coach, every week. Taking dance classes so they can stand tall and move with grace. Singing at open mics and coffee houses and birthday parties – anywhere they can get experience.

Let’s find another example. A 7-year old child, whose brain is still developing, who can barely read, is asked to sing with the rest of the class. She sings loudly off key. In this instance, the repeated act of singing in a group will eventually lead to the brain to develop the complex mathematical skill of matching pitches. But instead of allowing the experience of singing in a group, over time, to be integrated so that the child sings correctly with the rest of the class… that child is asked to stand in front of the group and made to sing alone. They are told in front of the group that they can’t sing. They are told they must sit out of the class, or that they can still be in the group but must only mouth the words. That one embarrasing experience puts an end to any musical aspirations they have. They avoid singing for the rest of their lives. Or at least until they are in their 40s and the desire to be in the music brings them to my studio. Can they be helped?

Yes, I believe that anyone who can talk can also sing. If they are willing to do the work. Even if they sing off-key to start. I know because I work with tone deaf singers and every single one of them has learned to sing on pitch. The key is process. The key is consistently thinking about and working on the art form. The key is understanding the instrument and becoming aware of the subtle ways we think about ourselves that interfere in the natural activity of singing. The innate ability to sing is within each of us. Simply put, everyone can sing because – unless there is a physiological challenge - we were made to sing.

Does that mean we each have what it takes to be a professional singer? Maybe. No one can decide that for you. Only you. Only you can get up every day and work with your instrument, use it to express something in a unique and interesting way. Only you can want to be aware of habits that inhibit you and then want to work for as long as it takes to change them. Only you can dedicate the days and weeks and months and years to the act of something that gives you joy and lights you up inside.

Personally, I believe that if you do that work, you will find a way to live your dream. It may not be as a winner of American Idol. If you are open to the process and follow your path, you could end up doing things that were so far outside the possibilities that you never even thought of them at all. Like singing a season with a professional opera company. Like becoming a voice teacher. Like learning how to write and produce music for film & television. And then writing about those experiences in a blog.


M. Campbell said...


I love your blogs. This is so inspiring, and so well-written. Thanks.



Vikki said...

Thanks, M!

martina said...

Really wonderful post!...

Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.Thanks for all your great posts.

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