Sing It Loud (Or Not)

A common fear is speaking in front of groups of people. I have never had too much difficulty in speaking in public, though most of my audiences have been relatively captive, since there was some degree of common interest in whatever it was I was talking about, and the character of the occasions were generally such that it would have required an exceptional irruption of individual will to sabotage my appearance.

It is fair to say that I prefer to speak -as the old Hitler cartoon would have it- without fear of contradiction.

Not that I have ever required battallions of paramilitaries to speak: simply, all my experience of speaking in public has been in the context of relatively polite society. I have never had to confront a lynch mob, and no-one has ever acted upon the urge to get up and belt me, though, and if my own experience of sitting through various speeches is anything to go by, this urge is nearly always present among the assembled. Many’s a time I sat through a dreary homily convincing myself that, on the count of ten, I would rise from the pew and deliver an uppercut to the teeth-grindingly dreary pastor. …3,2,1….he was lucky this time. In most situations of public speaking, at least in the society I inhabit, there are strong unspoken conventions restraining disruptive behaviour.

I once knew a rather diffident and awkward individual who signed up to Toastmasters. Speaking to him about it, he felt that there was a general fear of speaking in public he could overcome, and that by attending the classes, he would become a little more like Peter Ustinov. He thought that learning to speak with confidence in public would improve his own confidence in himself. He might have been right to a point, since practice helps, but he was disregarding the fact that speaking confidently in public has a lot more to do with the specifics of the situation than any underlying character trait.

If you know what you’re talking about and you are interested in it and you want other people to hear about it, and you are doing so in a fundamentally receptive situation, you are a lot more likely to speak confidently than if, say, with no prior experience of the topic, you suddenly find yourself addressing the general assembly of the UN about global rates of bowel cancer in your underwear. One of the reasons motivational speakers exude confidence is because they know their audience lacks confidence. If they didn’t, why else would they be there? Like Hitler, they too speak without fear of contradiction.

So, I have no real fear of speaking in public. The idea of singing in public, however, I find terrifying. Singing solo, of course. Singing in a choir or in a pub sing-song is easy. In fact, I find it excruciating to sing in front of one other person, even though I know I can hold a tune quite competently. I contrive to avoid any situation where I might end up having to sing on my own. (I’ve sung in karaoke on a few occasions, but only after several pints and in the knowledge that the rest of the people in the room are too drunk to remember. Even now, I find myself looking back and frowning aghast at the awfulness of my rendition of Suspicious Minds) I can’t do what most singers seem to do, which is to treat my voice as though it were a musical instrument. For me it is as though, by singing, I am not just exhibiting my voice, but putting the history of my entire body on show. It is as though the light, reedy quality of my singing voice were revealing something fundamental about who I am, in a way that standing up in front of a crowd of people and speaking -whatever the considerations about accent, intonation and eloquence- does not.

Although both are types of performance, one key difference between public speaking and public singing (in my terms, singing in front of one or more persons) is that the former at least provides the possibility of all manner of improvisation, whereas the latter has certain formal constraints: rhythm, melody, words, sequence of verses and chorus, and so on. In the former, you can ad-lib a joke, or re-iterate a point you didn’t get across properly, and even come across better for it. That doesn’t work when you’re singing: repeating a bum sequence of notes comes across as a definite sign of failure.

But why are we compelled to think about singing in terms of success or failure? Plenty of adults claim that they can’t sing, or are tone deaf, but I suspect that the majority of these people have simply no confidence in their ability to make sounds at a set pitch. We think of singing as an innate function, but you learn to sing just as you learn to write, read, speak etc. If you’re told at an early age that you can’t sing -often a humiliating experience that marks you as innately deficient- you’re unlikely to learn. In future years, when someone asks you to sing, you will point blank refuse, unwilling to repeat the original humiliation. Or, you will be so self-conscious and lacking in confidence that you will end up re-enacting the initial feeling of humiliation for yourself.

If you look at any of the Pop Idol-style programmes, a large part is dedicated to portraying people with grandiose ideas about their own singing abilities as ridiculous. But Pop Idol and the rest represent singing as though the only sole point of it all were to raise cheers of adulation from the paying public. Pop Idol tells you -and it is not alone in this- that unless you can sing like an angel there is no point, so stop deluding yourself.

In many public situations in the UK and Ireland, singing is simply unacceptable. In the queue at the supermarket, you can jabber away on a mobile phone at sustained high volume, gurgling forth all sorts of banality and no-one will pay any heed. If you sing out loud at the same volume, people will sweat in fear of the psychopath about to cause a scene.

So, the odds are heavily stacked against many people singing solo, beyond the confines of the unaccompanied shower. Personally speaking, I find it hard to even listen to my own voice in the shower.

It turns out, though, that I’ve been doing a fair bit of solo singing recently, albeit with a captive -though receptive- audience with very low standards. One thing I’ve discovered is that there are few songs I actually know the complete words to. So most of the songs start off with the first verse (which I normally do remember), the chorus, then a bit of humming, a bit of whistling, then the first verse again. And even in those I do know completely, tiredness frequently causes me to fluff my lines (e.g.: ‘and on that farm he had some pigs/with a baa baa here, a baa baa there’). So far, my uneven efforts have been treated with patient silence and the odd appreciative gurgle.

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3 Responses to “Sing It Loud (Or Not)”


  1. 1 Marian Quinn December 13, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    Just wait till you get to the stage where you are required to read, for the umpteenth time, a book or bedtime story that your captive audience knows word perfectly: any accidental slip, transposition or omission will be greeted with the most scathing of put-downs.

  2. 2 lolarusa December 14, 2007 at 12:25 am

    While I agree that singing a set tune at a set rhythm is a learned behavior, I think that singing itself is innate. Every baby I’ve ever known enjoys the sound of a sustained note coming from their own mouth. The cooing and calling of little ones seems to me to be indistinguishable from what we usually call singing. I even knew a baby who used to like to harmonize with me–if I sang one sustained note, he would come in and sing along on a different note.

    I also think singing is good for you.

  3. 3 Hugh Green December 15, 2007 at 11:07 pm

    I think that singing itself is innate.

    I agree with you: I could have expressed that a bit more clearly.


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