Can anyone learn how to sing well? Or is the ability to sing something you’re born with? As a professional singer and vocal educator for over fifteen years and counting, this is a question I am frequently asked. Inquirers want to examine the validity of voice training in the first place, to question the commonly held belief that you are either born with the ability to sing or you're not. As an instrumental educator I also get questions about whether people are born with musical ability in general. In my humble opinion the "born with it" theory is primarily an American invention that has grown as technology and popular media culture have advanced. As a student of language and culture who has spent time in 20+ countries, I don't find nearly as many foreign friends and acquaintances shying away from singing in public or picking up a guitar as I do American ones. Americans, with their determination and drive toward excellence, tend not to do things unless they can "win." Most Americans I encounter over the age of 10 are completely self-conscious to the point of humiliation if they are caught singing with a raw, untrained voice, or tinkering on the keys of a piano. I find that in foreign countries, music is much more embedded in culture and people are more willing to express themselves musically regardless of their competency level.
Another contribution to the "born with it" hypothesis is the popularization of singing shows such as American Idol andThe Voice. While these shows have offered many benefits to the field in enthusiasm and mass education, they have deepened the rift between those who appear to be skilled singers on television, and those of us at home humming in the shower. Much like airbrushed models in magazines, the lucky few who participate on these shows are not representative of the general population and leave viewers feeling that they are not skilled enough in comparison, therefore they just "must not be able to sing."
As technology has advanced, the chasm has grown deeper between music makers and music observers. Gone are the days when a piano was a standard piece of living room furniture, and families spent their evenings creating music together, at whatever basic level, without judgment. There was no other option - families either made their own music, or went without. Radio, TV, and later iPods and Wii Guitar Hero have replaced live instruments and voices. There are many benefits to advanced musical technologies and I don't suggest we move backward as a society; however, in its wake technology has left people unfamiliar and uncomfortable with creating music on their own. To me, this is the root of where the question comes from: "is singing a skill you're born with?"
To that point, I have two answers:
1 - No. Singing well, and creating instrumental music in general, is not a skill you're born with. It's a technique, like playing soccer, speaking foreign languages, driving a car, playing video games or any other skill, that improves with practice, study and proper absorption time. I doubt most people look at a soccer ball and say, "I just can't play soccer. I just wasn't born with it." Common sense tells us that dedicating the time and interest to learning soccer could result in a reasonable skill level and ability to play at an amateur or even professional level. From some reason when it comes to musical ability, people lose this common sense and perceive music as a magical trait that cannot be developed.
2 - Yes. Singing, and creating music in general, is a capacity that all humans are born with. Music is a fundamental language of humanity, of animal life, of plant life and environment, and of existence. Musical ability is demonstrated in infants before speech, and without thought or intellectualization of the skill. Music is a capacity everyone is born with, but you will choose whether you want to develop it.
I am a follower of the Strengths Finder methodology, a popular assessment in leadership development and workplace recruiting, in which an individual's top five innate strengths are identified. The idea is that you'll get a much higher rate of success, professionally and personally, if time is spent capitalizing on those strengths rather than trying to fix weaknesses. As an example, a study was done in which speed readers where given training to improve their skill level: the poor speed readers improved their reading rates by approximately 100% while the readers that were above average to begin with improved their reading rates by over 2000%. I find that musical development follows this same principle: those that naturally start with average or below average innate ability can become average or even above average musicians, with dedicated study, practice and absorption periods. However, my student body always includes a small group (around 10%) of people that come in with an above average innate ability, and those are the students that become excellent musicians, perceived by others as talented and special. They must dedicate the same amount of practice, study and absorption time, but they see a much higher rate of return. They are born with the capacity to be gifted, excellent musicians if they choose to put their focus on it. In this regard, yes, people are either born with this capacity or not.
If you are in the majority of students that start with an average or below average capacity for musicianship, don't let this discourage you from starting music lessons. If music is something you feel compelled to participate in, then you absolutely should; just be aware that you probably have other innate strengths that, if you devoted equal study and practice to, could put you in the top percentile of performers. When I used to work with elementary school children, whose parents were often the decision makers putting them in music lessons, I had many conversations with parents in which I'd encourage them to allow their child to explore other fields such as sports, languages, math teams, visual arts, or other developmental clubs. After 6-12 months of observation I could see that the student was not above average in innate ability nor enthusiasm.
A long answer to a short question: yes, all people are born with the ability to be music makers, but just like any other field, not everyone is born with the capacity to excel. You must decide if your level of innate ability, goals, and interest are worth devoting the time, as music is an extremely time intensive field of study. If you are unsure of your innate musical ability, work with a professional to help you determine this and discuss what goals and options will be available to you as a musician. If you don’t know what your true strengths are, devote some time to trying to figure it out. Think about the things you did well as a child, things that came easily to you in school, things you do now that create a sense of timelessness and sheer enjoyment when you do them.
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