At church they don’t bother to pick up a hymnbook. They don’t even mumble or pretend to sing. Of the people who come to my booth at conferences to talk about music, many claim they can’t sing. Nonsense.
I’m giving it a name: cantiphobia. And I’m here to cure it.
The ability to sing is a gift given to man by God.
Humans alone are endowed with the ability to sing, both for the glory of God and our own pleasure. The Bible is replete with references to singing. The epics of Western culture were mastered and passed down through song, as were folk tales, poetry, and cultural wisdom. But we here in the U.S. have become disturbingly cantiphobic.
Yes, animals communicate using expressive, intricate sounds. We listen to the meadowlark and the song of the whales. I had a huge Anatolian Shepherd whose morning routine included a long progression of wonderfully resonant “pitches” worthy of an opera singer. But she was not singing. Animals do not contemplate the beauty of their sounds. They do not make music intentionally the way we humans do.
Everyone can sing on some level.
Everybody can sing. I hear you protesting: “Not me!” Your choir director (or sibling) told you that back in the fourth grade, and you apparently still believe it.
Here is a fact: If physiologically you can speak, then you can sing. That does not say how well you sing, or whether you like to sing. But you can inhale and expel air, controlling your lungs, throat, and tongue to produce pitches and, if desired, enunciate words.
Furthermore, that’s precisely what you did profusely in toddlerhood, bursting into fragmentary melodic phrases while you explored a range of possible vocal sounds. You did it joyfully, too, until someone in the adult world told you to stop making that racket.
Singing belongs on your daily agenda.
I want to encourage you to sing—especially to your children. Singing is one of the best ways to help form your children’s nature and enhance their education.
Untold pedagogical riches lie in the vocal legacy we’ve inherited. From folk songs to hymns, patriotic melodies to children’s songs, Broadway to operatic tunes, thousands of stirring melodies with marvelous lyrics are waiting to be heard in your home. Those lyrics are rich in vocabulary, filled with valuable cultural and historical references, and powerfully able to deliver moral principles and inspirational content to children of all ages.
Beyond that, singing motivates people to do things. There’s a reason why teachers in preschool chant Clean-up, clean-up, it’s now time to clean-up. The effective power of a melody draws children from the corners and engages them in the activity. You know the phrase “The pen is mightier than the sword”? Well, the note is mightier than the word!
Listening to recorded music is not enough. Passive listening cannot equal the emotional power of singing. Have you experienced the magic that happens when you sing “Camptown Races” or “Climb Every Mountain” with your kids while driving to pick up a pizza? “My kids wouldn’t be caught dead doing that,” you say? Well, if they are highschoolers, maybe not, at least until you employ new strategies to bring them into the fold. But children below that age usually are ready to jump into song with just a little encouragement.
Make up your own songs too. It’s easier than you might think. Remember cooing nonsensical songs to your babies? (Come on, dads … you did it too.) Maybe the song sounded terrible, or the words made no sense, but it didn’t matter. Baby was glued to your voice because, to children, a parent’s voice is beautiful. From the womb, the parental voices serve as a lifeline to interpret the big world. You might not get past Round One in an audition, but you’ve already won the Golden Prize of your child’s heart.
Here’s a three-step plan.
First, go where no one can hear you. Make pitches come out. Sing “Happy Birthday” if nothing else occurs to you. You might not like what you hear, but this is not a concert. It’s a battle strategy.
Second, try singing some ordinary words on a single, repeated pitch: la la la la laaah. “Did Aunt Becky call?” Be as expressive as you can. Try adding a melodic flourish at the end. “Will you walk the daaaaawgh?” Think up other possibilities to the same five-syllable pattern. “We must clean the fridge.” (Try to decorate the word “fridge” the way you find the words alleluia or gloria in hymns.)
Third, practice putting mundane words to familiar tunes. Take the ubiquitous children’s song “Bingo” or a high-school fight song or “Blessed Assurance”—whatever works for you. If you used “Amazing Grace,” for example, you might sing something like:
I’ve looked … everywhere … for your green socks,
I on … ly can find … the blue.
This is not sacrilegious. Countless hymn tunes derive from historically secular tunes, so we’re just reversing the process as a tool to help you feel more comfortable with vocal improvisation.
Find ways to implement your newfound vocal confidence. Interweaving singing back into daily life has enormous potential to lighten dark moments, motivate and invigorate tasks, and provide endless free entertainment. Best of all, you will help restore a lost tradition that celebrates our God-given nature.
Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2017 edition