Dig deep enough into your memories and you’ll pinpoint the exact moment you decided you’re a “bad singer”.
Perhaps it was when your mother compared your vocal stylings to those of a dying cat. Or maybe it was that time you eagerly scanned the choir list only to find your name wasn’t there. Or could it have been when your friends sniggered at your karaoke attempts a little too much.
The fact of the matter is that people aren’t born believing they are bad singers. No, there is always a moment when someone steals their joy.
This week we sat down with Mel Lathouras – lead vocalist for Yas Queen (an incredible Brisbane all-girl jazz band you should definitely check out) and founder of The Fearless Singer, to find out how and why we should reclaim our joy, no matter how we sound!
D: Why are people so afraid of singing?
M: People usually are afraid to sing because they’ve been told to stop singing. For instance, my mum and my auntie joined the choir at school when they were little, and they ended up being dragged out by their ears and told never to come back because they were a couple of drones.
Back in the day it was ruthless and for a little girl or a little boy, that is actually quite traumatic – especially when your weakness is shown up in front of other people.
Or, it could just be people who have little comments about how “off” you sound or how loud you are, you know those little sniggers. Even if it doesn’t happen to you, you’ve seen it happen to other people and are afraid you’ll get the same kind of treatment.
My mum would say, “You can sing, but you can’t dance!” So I grew up thinking I can’t dance. And while I can’t be a professional, I can definitely move my body. It starts as a little joke but one can take it on board and then won’t allow themselves to explore what they can actually do.
D: Should someone who thinks they are a “bad” singer still give it a go?
M: Even if you hold those deep seated beliefs that you’re unable to do something, the reality with singing is that we can all open our mouths and we can all make a sound.
There’s even a choir of people with those things you stick to your throat when you can’t make a sound – Electro Larynxes!
But seriously, singing is something we can all access to heal our souls. Whether we are good or not is so irrelevant because we can all benefit from the healing aspect of it.
If we are singing in a group it releases oxytocin and makes us bond with the people around us.
Breathing diaphragmatically sends a calming signal to the amygdala which takes our brains out of flight or fight.
Singing is one of the activities that we do that uses both lobes of the brain, so it promotes heightened brain activity. I’m thinking that would be a good way to ward off Alzheimer’s.
And, it can also give someone a ginormous confidence boost.
It doesn’t matter if you think you are a good singer or not, you are still benefiting from it. If people can understand that and just give it a crack…
If they can see it more as an explorative process where they don’t have to be good straight away, they can just explore their own sound, a lot of the time they are surprised that after a while they can actually sing!
And if anyone heard them they’d say, “Hey, yeah, they can hold a tune!”
D: How can someone who is too afraid to sing in front of others hone their voice?
M: Sing more, listen more, and perhaps learn another instrument. Piano skills are a singer’s best friend.
It also helps to get a singing teacher. Learning to sing is a bit different to learning say guitar or piano where you’ve already got your instrument. With singing you’re actually building your instrument while learning to play it. You’re developing and coordinating all those vocal muscles and you’re learning breathing, so you’re essentially building the strength and flexibility needed to create a balanced sound. So it helps to have a professional guiding you through this process.
There is only a very small minority of people who are tone deaf. That term is used a lot, but nine times out of ten if you think you are, you probably aren’t.
In most cases, you may just need help finding your key. For instance, the pop music on the radio can be much higher than what most people’s vocal ranges can produce. If you put that song into a key that suits your vocal range, you’d be able to sing it.
Another excellent way to help you hone your voice is to record yourself. Then, listen to yourself back and go, “Ok, I’m going to play with that to see how I can make it sound more like this”. I do understand, however, that listening to yourself back can be a bit confronting at first. A trick to get around this is to pretend you are a producer listening to somebody else’s sound. Your job is to not judge it but to make it better. After a while, this will help you become less judgemental and more objective about your own sound.
D: What would you say to people who feel like their singing must be at a certain performative level to be good?
M: Just tell yourself singing doesn’t have to be performative while you’re in the beginning stages of developing your sound. Maybe later you can perform, if you want to share what you have been working on. I’d also say,
Look at how many people there are making a living out of singing who don’t fit into a traditional model of good singing.
Bob Dylan and Marianne Faithfull – those are two primary examples. They are great storytellers. Marianne Faithfull epitomised an aesthetic that was popular in an era and hung out with the right people and became an amazing storyteller and performer.
You just have to accept that you can still sing and perform regardless of whether you fit into a traditionally ‘good’ sound.
You’ve got to accept your perceived flaws and make them your strength. That’s just who you are. That’s a quirky aspect or yourself. It is beautiful, it is creative.
Know that you can choose to make it into an art form and perform, or you can choose to feel good singing with other people, or you can sing around the house to your dog or your bird or your cat. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re doing it, you’re going to reap the benefits.
My motto is you don’t have to fit into the traditional model of what sounds good to society.
In fact, embracing your voice and exploring it and what it can do is so rewarding that it is worth it to just give it a go. If someone has a real desire to sing they should follow that. It doesn’t matter how old they are.
D: Any final words of advice?
M: You’ve also got to learn who to take advice from when you’re a developing your sound. Actually all creatives need to develop this skill. Question everything! Even everything I’ve said here.
D: Yes, I find the older I get the more I realise that, while I do love to criticise, it is so much easier to criticise than it is to create.
M: Yes, exactly. It’s like, shut the **** up! The people who criticise your singing or your dancing or your artwork are the same people who wouldn’t dare to go out and make anything themselves.
Most people who criticise can’t’ or don’t think they can.