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Kamloops News

GEORGE: Why doesn't everybody sing?

May 29, 2018 - 12:00 PM



Occasionally I will be looking at something on YouTube and a half an hour later ended up watching something totally unrelated. I am sure this has happened to pretty much everyone with an internet connection, so I am in good company. The bit of digital flotsam that I ran across was titled "Not Everyone Can Be An American Idol" and turned out to be a fifteen second commercial for an ABC sitcom with a teenage actor lip-syncing to a tape in his living room. The gag was that the tape glitches and his subterfuge is caught out, to laughs all around.

What isn't funny is that the message sent in the title of this clip is dead wrong and harmful. Singing is a skill. It is something that anyone can learn, given the time and motivation to do so. How we got to the point where we are all convinced that singing is for other people and not us is an interesting question. In my opinion, we were born to sing and not singing is detrimental to our health, both physical and emotional.

Everybody likes music of one sort or another. Classical, country and western, pop, rock, hip-hop, world beat, techno; the list of genres and tastes are diverse. A commonality in all cultures is music produced by the human voice. Singing is universal. A singing voice is unparalleled at conveying emotion. Words carry meaning; singing couples that meaning with feelings. This makes remembering easier and adds weight to the meaning of the words. A song is not a poem. Written words on the page use meaning to evoke emotion. Poets struggle with language to convey emotion. Singing just does it.

The human voice has been with humanity for quite some time. Speech has been instrumental in the development of our intelligence and our social skills. We use words, coupled with our ability to consider the past when planning the future, to build cohesive societies. Before the invention of writing, social history was transmitted orally. Singing had a role in this, both in building social connection and in forwarding the wisdom from the past on into the future.

In the past, everybody sang. Singing in a group has been shown to synchronize heartbeats. It reduces anxiety, improves feelings of well-being, and tightens the social connections between the singers. It is social magic that we have lived with for a very long time. So why do so many think that only a talented few can sing? What is it that has driven so many people away from a form of communication and communion that was once universal?

The biggest roadblock is the commodification of the medium of song, a process that is actually relatively recent in our species' history. The performance was the only method available for both enjoying singing and learning songs. Printed scores, the printing press, newspapers, radio, television, the internet; the technological commodification of performance led to the ability to share not only the written scores but the evaluation of performances. The ability to record performances and sell the performance itself as a product spread recordings far and wide. And that has led to people using these recordings as a standard by which to measure their own singing prowess.

And that is why, after tens of thousands of years, not everyone sings anymore. We are afraid that we just don't measure up to the recordings of those fortunate enough to have been in a position to put in the time and effort to hone their skill.

Six years ago I joined a mixed pop acapella choir in the South Shuswap. In January of 2012, I was in the second year of my degree program and had chosen to take "Introduction to Basic Music Theory" through Simon Fraser University. By the end of the month, I was at sea. My last exposure to the performance side of music had been in a high school band. The concepts were there, tantalizingly out of reach but I didn't have an instrument to put it to use with.

My wife suggested I come with her to her choir group to see if that would help. It turned out that it did help. I passed the course with an A- and I loved singing in the choir. But I sucked at it. I stuck with it though, and now, six years later, I can carry a tune and remember where I am in the song and what comes next. And I can sing. So right here, right now, I am living proof that anyone can sing given the time and the motivation to do so.

I challenge everyone to find the motivation and make the time. Join a local choir. Immerse yourself in the song. And embrace again a part of our human heritage that has been lost to our detriment.

— Chris George believes one measure of a just society is found in how well it balances fiscally conservative economics with social responsibility and environmental soundness in all of its living arrangements.

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