Your choir sounds great, but I can’t sing

ladies choir

Earlier this week, I met up for coffee with one of my choir members along with a friend of hers.  As is the way when I’m around, particularly with a choir member, the talk soon turned to the choir and singing.  Ever predictable and always keen to welcome new members, I asked ‘the friend’ if she would consider joining the choir. After all, she seemed to think it sounded fun and apparently has heard all about it!   The response, however, was a very common one which I hear a lot: “Oh no, you wouldn’t want me, I can’t sing”.

Personally, as a choirmaster, I find this fascinating.  Ok, it’s true to say that we do not all have stunning singing voices.  We are all different and as with any activity, there are some things which suit us better than others.  However, lets consider this, with very few exceptions, we can all speak.  And unless you are unfortunate enough to have a medical condition prohibiting this, I cannot imagine anyone turning down for example an invitation to meet for coffee with the excuse, oh no I couldn’t possibly do that I can’t speak!

Now, before you all start to think I’ve gone slightly loopy (it wouldn’t be the first time admittedly) let’s consider what someone might mean by “I can’t sing”.  Surely if you can talk, you can sing?  There are of course a very few people who are genuinely tone deaf. This is essentially a form of brain disease and is also known as amusia, tune deafness, “tin ear”, dysmelodia and dysmusia.  But aside of that it’s very difficult to believe that someone “can’t sing”.

In most cases what people actually mean when they give me this up front apology of “I can’t sing” is that they have decided for themselves, usually without any musical training or consultation, that their singing ability is not good enough to be considered for a part within one of my choirs.   Well this, my dear reader, is absolute nonsense.  I currently run a number of un-auditioned choirs and I haven’t yet had anyone in the choir who actually ‘Can’t sing’.  Admittedly not everyone is a soloist (and a lot of people tend to shy away from this) but everyone is able to make a noise with their voice which would qualify as singing.

The bit I find truly fascinating is the notion that singing is still, it seems, seen as an elite activity.  Let’s face it, if you asked a fit and able bodied person to join you on a group walk you’re unlikely to get the response “Oh no, I can’t walk”. They may of course turn you down for other reasons!  So why is it that so many people shy away from joining a choir because they perceive that they can’t sing.  I’d understand people saying they were busy on a particular night, or were unable to commit due to having children or busy working lives etc.  That’s fine and indeed entirely understandable.  But because you can’t sing?

Choirs are getting more and more popular with every day that passes and there are now more community choirs than ever before. This is largely due to the increased exposure on the television thanks largely to our good friend Gareth Malone. But why not – I don’t mind admitting that I take a lot of inspiration from Gareth (although perhaps not the beard!).  So, therefore it naturally follows that choirs are becoming less and less exclusive.  I think the problem goes back a generation or perhaps considerably further.  Large choirs, or choral societies have been around since the beginning of the 19th century.  But at that time they were very much seen as something for the middle and upper classes.  Nowadays of course, that’s far from the case but the perception seems to remain. In the same way that, although music is everywhere you turn nowadays, there are still relatively few who really make a name for themselves.

I don’t currently have a solution for all these people who think they can’t sing, but I am doing my best to welcome everyone into my choirs.   The one thing people seem to forget, when declaring their inability to sing, is that a choir is made up of many voices.  Therefore no one is going to pick on you or comment on whether you can sing or not.  So far over the last 20 years I have encouraged all those who “can’t sing” to join a choir and generally its worked out pretty well.  This is because from within a choir there is scope to sing without too much risk of being heard.  It’s amazing how many people suddenly discover that actually it’s no different to singing in the shower. It’s just that now you’re in a choir, you are making a positive contribution with your singing voice.  Go on, join a choir, you know you want to!

Jules Addison currently runs the Pewsey Belles Ladies Choir, the Bellettes Ladies Barbershop Group, the CCG Choir and the Great Western Hospital Choir.