What About Those Who Can’t Sing?

For some people, singing is a challenging part of worship. For those who feel they can’t sing well or who fear to sing around others, music can sometimes be a barrier rather than aid to worship.

This was a challenge for me in my early days. I think part of the problem was that toward the end of my second-grade year in Boise, Idaho, my teacher worked with school officials to get me instantly promoted to third grade. They told my parents I needed to move up a grade because I was so smart. Mom and Dad were so proud of me. But there are other theories. Perhaps my sweet second-grade teacher was spared a nervous breakdown by throwing me into third grade. Whatever the cause, I skipped most of third grade, and I fully forgive all those involved. Actually, I think it was good for me and gave me opportunities later that I am grateful for, but it came at a price.

Parents, if you have children in third grade, please make sure they attend and pay great attention. Third grade, from what I can tell, is where some of life’s most important skills are developed. This must be where kids become athletes, develop social graces, learn how to write legibly, and also learn how to sing. I pretty much skipped all that.

Without the benefit of a third-grade education (yes, I can see this statement being used against me), I soon found myself in fourth grade. The eager and overly confident little second grader still dwelling in me, so used to getting straight A’s and being praised for minor accomplishments, was about to face a complete shock on his report card with a “D” for handwriting and a “D” for singing. The nice fourth-grade teacher I started with took time off to have a baby and was replaced with a harsh substitute for several very long weeks.

One day she announced that we needed to have a singing test, and that each of us needed to prepare by choosing a song that we would sing to her. What? This was a total surprise to me. She reminded us one day that the test would be tomorrow. Yikes. So I went home and sought help from my father, who sings beautifully, as does my mother, neither of whom bothered to pass on any musical genes to me. I had turned to the one source of vocal music I could find at home, the LDS hymnbook, and dutifully searched for a really short song. “Upon the Cross of Calvary” was the fateful choice. Another crucifixion song such as “There Is a Green Hill Far Away” would have done just as well for brevity and thematic content.

My father had me sing it, tried hard not no chuckle, and spend some time giving me helpful tips. After another try or two, he gave me some encouragement and hoped I would do OK.

I tried to imagine how the test would go. I wondered if she would bring us into her office or take us out into the hallway or some other remote room for the individual singing evaluations. When the topic of the test came up the next day, she announced that each child would stand, one at a time, and sing in front of the entire class of 30-something children (my estimate). This was to be a very public shaming, and my row was first.

I suppose that the four or five kids who sang before I did were all budding Josh Grobans and Whitney Houstons. I could hardly concentrate on what they were singing, but it sounded better than what I could do. When I finally stood to accept my fate, I tried to sing but felt it was somewhat worse than how I had sung for my father, but maybe, hopefully maybe OK. The two verses I sang were over quickly (I seem to recall she let me finish sooner than I expected, with no complaints from me) and I sat down, glad that I had survived. Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it? I felt OK about it somehow, until a few weeks later when I got the report card with my first ever “D.” Two of them, one of singing and one for handwriting. I don’t recall, but perhaps some kind of writing test was conducted right after the singing test. Trembling does not make for a steady hand.

After that, my response to public singing became one of evasion for several years. I remember in fifth grade, now in Salt Lake City, the teacher caught me trying to hide behind the piano when it was singing time. Silly. I was a vocal and enthusiastic student for the most part, just not for vocal music. I recognized that singing was part of worship and wanted to do better, but didn’t spend a lot of time at it and really felt I just lacked the talent to improve much. I can do better now and sometimes really enjoy it, but don’t give me a public test, please, at least not a solo.

Fortunately, for those of who you share my awkwardness about singing, there is new hope from scholars. My favorite science news service offers this headline based on newly published research at Northwestern University: “Can’t sing? Do it more often.” The tagline is “Regular practice may be as crucial to singing on pitch as it is for learning an instrument.” A new study published in a February volume of the journal Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal offers new hope for me and others. The online information doesn’t yet include the February issue, so be patient. For now, we can rely on the printed version or third-party commentary such as the report at Eurekalert.org, from which the following excerpt is taken:

Published in a special February issue of the journal Music Perception,
the study compared the singing accuracy of three groups:
kindergarteners, sixth graders and college-aged adults. One test asked
the volunteers to listen to four repetitions of a single pitch and then
sing back the sequence. Another asked them to sing back at intervals.

The three groups were scored using similar procedures for measuring singing accuracy.

The study showed considerable improvement in accuracy from
kindergarten to late elementary school, when most children are receiving
regular music instruction. But in the adult group, the gains were
reversed — to the point that college students performed at the level of
the kindergarteners on two of the three tasks, suggesting the “use it
or lose it” effect.

Singing on key is likely easier for some people than others. “But
it’s also a skill that can be taught and developed, and much of it has
to do with using the voice regularly,” Demorest said. “Our study
suggests that adults who may have performed better as children lost the
ability when they stopped singing.”

Great news!  Science has once again given me something to sing about.

Meanwhile, I would encourage Latter-day Saints and all of us to be sensitive to the challenges that some people may face when they are shy about singing. One positive thing parents and teachers can do is encourage people to practice. All that singing in Primary and elsewhere can make a difference and help people do better.

Author: Jeff Lindsay

5 thoughts on “What About Those Who Can’t Sing?

  1. Singing in confined spaces helps, too. I think it's something about reverberation, though shame on me as a physicist for not really knowing just what. Some people sing in the shower. As kids we used to sing in the car on long road trips. When there's nothing else to do for several hours, you sing along. At some point it's fun.

  2. Hey, I skipped the third grade too. And have the handwriting to prove it!

    But, the best thing that can be done immediately to help people sing? Have an organist who plays up to tempo and loud enough that nobody needs to fear that his voice will be heard.

    On the other hand, play softly and slowly and watch the singers without confidence disappear into silence.

  3. Huh. An interesting one. For many people singing is something that you either learn young, or never learn. Religions, of course, are like that as well.

    If that's the metaphor, it's kind of biased in favor of religion, because music really exists. Harmonies are frequency ratios. Some people are really talented at singing. A few even have perfect pitch — they can hear tonal intervals, or even absolute frequencies, very accurately.

    Some people are tone deaf. Ulysses S. Grant famously stated that he knew only two tunes: one was Yankee Doodle, and the other wasn't.

    Tone deaf people may well have the impression that everyone else is just imposing arbitrary likes and dislikes on equivalent sounds, in the bizarre delusion that the difference is somehow significant. Maybe some people have an analogous inability to perceive religious phenomena.

    Or of course this musical metaphor for religion may not fit reality, because maybe there really isn't anything there, in the case of religion, the way there is with music. But it's interesting to consider that maybe, even if religious experiences are indeed real, there might be some people who just do not and cannot get them.

  4. Yes, an interesting metaphor indeed…

    Consider this sentence from the post:

    "Regular practice may be as crucial to singing on pitch as it is for learning an instrument."

    Then these verses from Ephesians 4:17-19 (particularly 19)

    17 This I say therefore, and testify in the Lord, that ye henceforth walk not as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind,

    18 Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:

    19 Who being past feeling have given themselves over unto lasciviousness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.

    And this rather remarkable one from 1 Nephi 17:45

    "Ye are swift to do iniquity but slow to remember the Lord your God. Ye have seen an angel, and he spake unto you; yea, ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words; wherefore, he has spoken unto you like unto the voice of thunder, which did cause the earth to shake as if it were to divide asunder."

    Apparently, what we practice determines how we feel about "religious" things and possibly much more.

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