If You Can Talk You Can Sing?

Some of you might know the Zimbabwean proverb: “If you can talk you can sing, if you can walk you can dance”. Is this true or is it one of these things that idealistic singing and music teachers post on their classroom and studio walls?

I have to admit: years ago, when I was teaching music in an elementary school, I too had a banner like that on my classroom wall… And my reasons for having such a banner in my classroom were mainly based on the idealism of a young, enthusiastic music teacher. Years have passed since I taught in that particular classroom, and in the meantime I have spent a lot of time studying the voice, the anatomy and the physiology of the voice, the principles of healthy sound production, and the techniques behind specific sounds. I’ve worked with singers of all levels, from children to adults, and from beginners and “tone-deaf people” to professionals and recording artists. So it’s time for a reality check. Would I still have such a banner in my studio?

Yes. But with a little correction. I firmly do believe that anybody with healthy vocal folds can talk and also sing. And…now comes the ‘but’: Singing is an ability that needs to be developed like any other ability. So let’s reformulate the proverb:

“If you can talk you can (learn how to) sing”.

I don’t believe anybody would come to think of asking a person (adult or child) to play a song or a scale on a musical instrument without having learned HOW to play the instrument first. Yet, when it comes to singing, an attitude is often assumed that ‘you either can do it or you can not’. And subsequently: if you can’t do it, you better shut up and let those who can, do it.

Singing in tune is often the main aspect we focus on when we define if a person can sing or not. I do agree that singing in tune is an important goal in mastering the ability of singing. But there are other aspects that need to be taken in consideration as well, even before we consider the aspect of singing in tune (and how it is done).

Just like we need to learn how to play a musical instrument, we need to learn how to play our instrument (the singing voice). In order to do this we need to understand how our instrument works so that we can work with it instead of against it. Understanding how the voice works will also help us understand what singing in tune is, how it can be done, and what we can do about not singing in tune. We need to understand the techniques behind the various sounds, so we can learn how to use our instrument, make different sounds with it and control it. We also need to develop awareness (and later on, control) over aspects such as pitch, melody, rhythm, dynamics, and so on.

The ability of singing can be developed with the right instruction, in a positive learning environment, through successful experiences, through trial and error leading to new insight, by practicing in the right way, and last but not least: by singing. The more time we spend exploring the singing voice and making music, listening to and learning from other singers, the more we learn about the language of music, the deeper our understanding becomes.

If you can talk you can (learn how to) sing…but not everybody will have careers in singing. And not everybody with singing careers will become famous singers. A singer can be famous in one country, and completely unknown in another. Some singers become world famous, but that doesn’t necessarily have to do only with their singing skills. Singing careers and fame belong in different discussions. But one thing is for sure: everybody has the possibility and the right to learn how to use their singing voices, to enjoy singing and express themselves through singing and music.

The subject of singing – how it can be learned, and how it is taught – is something that keeps my mind busy. So I will reflect on these things in future blog posts as well, let’s say that this was a beginning :)

by Katja Maria Slotte

2 thoughts on “If You Can Talk You Can Sing?

  1. I pretty much agree Katja! I go around saying that “everyone can sing” and the whole of my work is based on that fact. But I had to write a blog post a while back to explain exactly what I meant.

    My main aim is to say that everyone is CAPABLE of singing and that music-making should be available to all. You don’t have to be rich, beautiful or clever. You don’t need to be able to play an instrument or read music. You don’t have to understand harmony or music theory.

    But if by “sing” you mean sing in tune, or sing beautifully, or sing professionally, or sing like Rhianna, then not everyone can do that.

    So many people have been brought up to believe that singing is not for them because you somehow need to be ‘special’ that this phrase “if you can talk you can sing” is just a shorthand for saying that everyone has the right to open their mouth and sing!

    Keep up the good work.

    Chris

    1. Thank you for your comment Chris! Yes, everyone is capable of singing.

      I actually also do believe everyone is capable of singing in tune – except if you happen to belong into the extremely rare group of people with amusia (the inability to recognise, process and distinguish pitch). But to be honest I have until now never met a person who would fall into this group of people. And I have worked with quite a few “tone-deaf” people. Usually singing out of tune can be “cured” by learning correct singing technique: so-called “tone-deaf” people have tensions and severe constriction that prevent them from singing in tune. These habitual tensions usually go hand in hand with an undeveloped musical ear, unsuccessful experiences with singing and music, and so on. As a consequence of that, these people have lost their confidence in their voices and in the connection between the musical ear / hearing and the singing voice. I think I will write more about my thoughts on “tone-deafness” later on.

      I agree singing and music making should be available for all. Everybody has the right to express themselves through music and singing. So let’s keep on singing :)

      Katja

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