Sing out! (RANT)

Don’t tell children they can’t sing.

Just don’t do it! You have no idea how many adults I have worked with, over the years, who were hesitant to chant Torah or Haftarah (or anything) because they were convinced by someone in authority, as children, that they could not carry a tune.

It’s nonsense. There are a few, very special, people in the world who truly cannot match pitches, who can’t carry a tune in a bushel basket. I have taught two of them, maybe 3, for bar/bat mitzvah. And even they, my friends, even they picked up some tunes after months or years of repitition.

But most people don’t fall into that category. Most of us can and do learn songs off the radio. There are a lot of people who hear something and can sing it back pretty accurately, who remember words better when they’re with music. There are varying degrees of accuracy and facility among this wide ranging group, but IMHO, they can all sing.

Then there are a small percentage who, like me, can learn a tune after a few hearings and dig it accurately out of our memory 25 years later. (The words come back after a time or two.) And some of us in this group have a bad tendency to hear people who slip-slide on the edges, who don’t reach accurately for the high notes, or fudge a melisma (look it up) and leave out a note or two, and conclude that they can’t sing — and worse, tell them that they shouldn’t.

DON’T DO THAT, people.

I’m writing on the strength of having taught several hundred 12-year-olds for bar/bat mitzvah, and asking every single one of them to chant. And I’ve probably worked with 40 or 50 adults to learn to chant or lead prayers, too. And I can tell you that for most folks, practice is more of a predictor of how well they’ll chant than innate talent.

Voices can be trained. Ears can be trained. Ranges can be expanded. Breath control can be improved. Confidence can be raised. Most people can improve their singing … and most Jews I have met can do a respectable job of chanting Torah or Haftarah, given enough time, support, and encouragement.

Especially encouragement.

So don’t tell children they can’t sing. Don’t tell young adults they can’t sing. Don’t even tell full-grown adults they can’t sing: I remember the woman in Bloomington, Indiana with whom I was working on a Rosh HaShanah Torah portion, who told me that her kids had told her that her singing sounded like the bleating of a goat.

Now, I get what they were talking about. There was a quavery quality to her voice that they were probably embarrassed about.

But what neither she nor they knew is that that was likely not a permanent quality of her voice; it’s exactly the kind of thing that practice and ease and confidence can modify. She chanted Torah with my encouragement and direction, and she couldn’t have been prouder of herself if it had been her bat mitzvah. And you know what? Who cares if it sounded a little quavery?

Jean Redpath put it very clearly years ago, one night on Prairie Home Companion. I can’t quote it verbatim, because she didn’t sing it; but I know what she meant. She said something like, “Sing out! Because most people sing just fine. And if you are part of that very special 1 or 2 percent of the population who cannot carry a tune in a bushel basket, sing out anyway! You do not have a problem! Your neighbor may have a problem, but you do not have a problem!”

Shabbat Shalom