The right to sing

A friend posted the following on Facebook last month, and it just cropped up on my radar.  (No, I do not check my Facebook feed every day.)

While my initial instinct was to simply comment, the linked article started a ponderation that needs a ranting space of its own.  (Brace yourselves.) Please do read the article — here’s the original post:


To Lisa, who brought this piece to my attention and is herself an inspiring teacher, artist and church director, thank you!  My dear friend knows this is a subject of some interest, and we’ve discussed it more than once.

Of course talent is a factor in performance. But not every performance needs to be perfect.  It’s far more important that these early musical experiences be full of the joy and wonder that pure expression can bring. It’s a chance to learn more about yourself through your voice and your senses, and to enjoy the uniqueness of group-oriented music.  More and more, new research is proving without a doubt that choral music, in particular, can not only empower and encourage its participants, but it can actually change the brain.  This should be one of the most beautiful things we can give children as they figure out what they like, where their own tendencies lie, and how they relate to others.

For these reasons and more, I’ve always believed that singing is a god-given right. The whole idea of tone deafness and the perceived necessity to “be the best” has become corrupted beyond reality, and misplaced in so many situations that should be nurturing children and giving them a chance to try new things. The vast majority of human beings can improve their voices and ears with training and encouragement, yet over and over, children are labeled incapable of singing — often by teachers who don’t know what they’re doing, or have their own agendas.  But the impact of this practice is deep and long-lasting: what may seem innocuous in the moment creates a barrier in kids’ minds that can leave them excluded for the rest of their lives.

I’ve known far too many people who refuse to sing “Happy Birthday” to their children later in life, because they feel they lack the right to that particular expression of love and joy.  The label may be couched in seemingly fun and clever terms such as “oh, he can’t carry a tune in a bucket”, and written off as simple teasing.  Teachers are often unaware or unconcerned about how other children will react to a classmate who is labeled as less obviously musical. Even members of large, musical families have members who have been shunted aside, labeled as “less talented”, and made to feel like they don’t belong, due to possibly well-meaning efforts to protect them from embarrassment.

The better approach is to simply deny the embarrassment the chance to take root.  ALL children should encouraged to sing, even if they’re initially loud and out of tune. If you stop them immediately, they will have NO chance to learn the skills that may come later.  Instead, by cultivating an atmosphere of fun and inclusion, everyone gets a new chance to learn. The choir as a whole will have a better chance to learn active listening, and instead of just splatting out one note after another, hoping to hit the target, they can learn to sing together, as a team. Further, those with more immediately accessible natural gifts will learn to work around those still developing, and they’ll be more likely to gain compassion for those who have different strengths.  This is one of life’s most fundamental lessons in tolerance, and will extend to many other areas of life.  Not everyone will excel at this one activity.  But they can all learn to understand something about it, and they’ll be better able to work together in other situations, too.

This “come one, come all” argument may smack of artistic idealism (yes, music can change the world).  It may also sound particularly strange coming from a woman who critiques concerts as part of her business.  But we’re not talking about professional careers here:  we’re talking about the fledgling voice, the one whose owner could grow a real passion and appreciation for greater music — but only if we don’t make that youngster hate or fear music by teaching them to hate themselves.  We owe them the chance to learn to enjoy music, regardless of what they end up doing for a living.

Kudos to the Hungarian filmmakers who have fearlessly and poignantly brought this issue to light.  I haven’t seen the Oscar-winning film yet, but will do what I can to see it (hopefully with subtitles), and we’ll let you know how you can, too.  More discussion to come.

Zsófi: sing it loud, girl.  We’re rooting for you!

Featured image by Maaillustrations / FreeImages

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