When I was a child I loved to sing. I was so excited when our school music teacher announced that we would be performing Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. I knew that I’d have no chance at being given one of the main roles. However, I was quite content to be part of the chorus and took my place as a sailor. I learnt all the words and loved all the rehearsals. Then one day the singing teacher came up onto the stage while we were singing. She moved slowly around, listening carefully to everyone’s voices. She came to a stop in front of me. After a few moments she quietly told me I was tone deaf and I wouldn’t be able to sing with the chorus. I felt crushed. I couldn’t be in the production? After another moment’s thought, the teacher said if I mimed the words and didn’t actually make a sound, I could still be a sailor. And although I was deeply hurt, I was also grateful not be thrown out of the group. I would still be on that stage when the curtain went up on opening night.
And so I grew up believing I had no musical ability whatsoever.
My eldest daughter Felicity also loved to sing when she was small. We knew a very musical family who were involved in choirs and productions and Felicity dreamt of performing too. When Felicity was 8 years old, we heard about a city children’s choir and we were told that it was very easy for a child to get accepted. “They’re not looking for exceptional ability. If she can sing in tune, they’ll accept her,” I was assured.
The day of the audition rolled round. We knew Felicity would have to sing the national anthem and she’d been practising with the aid of a CD for days. I had a baby in arms as well as two other children who needed looking after, so Felicity bravely entered the audition room on her own. After some minutes she reappeared together with the choir mistress. “I’m afraid I can’t take your daughter. She isn’t hitting the notes. I’m not sure she can sing in tune.”
Felicity was disappointed and so was I, but I accepted the decision. I thought, “It seems she has inherited my inability to sing.”
About a year later we moved house and parish. At the new church we chose to sit in the very back pew in front of the organ. I reasoned that by seating here our baby’s noise would be drowned out by the music and no one would hear her.
A few months went by and then after Mass one Sunday, Marion the organist stopped us on our way out of the church. “Would the children be interested in singing something special for Easter?”
“But my children can’t sing.”
“I’ve been listening. They have delightful voices.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought the organist was just being kind. But apparently not. Marion spent time with the children, sharing her talents with them. That Easter, Felicity, 9 years old, stood at the front of the church and sang several solos. She was confident and she sang beautifully. I then realised she could sing.
I am very grateful to Marion. She encouraged my children to sing, play the piano and the clarinet. She even arranged bagpipe lessons for them. And eventually Felicity also learnt to play the organ.
Music is now a family passion. Andy is a singer too and he performs with the older children in two different choirs.
I listen as they gather around the piano. Imogen plays each person’s part in turn. Then everyone tries the piece together. Someone makes a mistake and there are sounds of laughter and they begin again. Then it all comes together. The hymn sounds beautiful: two basses, an alto and a soprano. The last note is sung and there are huge smiles.
“Wow! That sounded good!”
 “That was much better.”
“I think we’ve got it.”
“Could you sing it again? I really enjoyed listening.”
And my children and husband repeat the hymn and I stand listening with wonder. Is this my family who are making such a wonderful noise?
Yes, I still have trouble believing I have a musical family. What happened to the tone deaf genes?
Actually, I no longer believe I am tone deaf. I think that I could sing if I were encouraged by the right person. Imogen tells me that I need to have better control over my breathing. It is hard to breathe properly when I am so embarrassed by my voice. My throat tends to choke up as I try not to be heard. And although Imogen has a very high soprano voice, I think my voice is a lot lower and I strain to reach many of the notes when I am trying to sing with her.
I think about my childhood music teacher and how she crushed me with her words. I labelled myself a non-singer on the basis of her declaration that I was tone deaf. And then I was prepared to give that label to my own daughter.
And I think about our dear organist Marion who listened carefully and encouraged my children. She uncovered their talents, and nurtured and developed their skills, while giving them confidence.
 As an unschooling mother I now encourage my children in their interests. I no longer tell them they are aiming too high, that they don’t have the necessary talents. I can arrange opportunities and offer encouragement and we see where it leads. And if it leads nowhere? That’s fine. As long as they are having fun.
But despite all the encouragement I still have one son who has no interest in music. He sings as well as I do. But he is quite content with that. It is not a case of him being crushed by someone else’s label. Perhaps I shall tell his story next time.

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  1. Our old singing teacher told me that practically anyone can be taught to sing and it's never too late to learn. He was a tenor with an amazingly powerful voice, but he didn't learn to sing until he was in his early twenties.

    One thing that I like about unschooling is that it opens doors to their passions, rather than gradually closing every door until they're fitted into the box that the system decides is most appropriate for them.

    I hope you get the chance to develop your voice, Sue - singing and playing the piano well is something that I dream of doing one day, too:)

  2. Hi Vicky, with singing I understand later is better than early, giving the voice a chance to mature and avoid damage. I am talking about proper voice training and not singing for fun. So yes, it is not too late! But those labels planted in childhood are hard to overcome. I know I could learn to sing but my sense of "I can do anything" has been spoilt. One day I might get Imogen to help me.

    How's your singing voice? Any ambitions to be a singer?

    God bless!

  3. No, I don't have any ambitions to be a singer or a pianist. It just seems that it would be more enjoyable to sing and play if it actually sounded nice! Like you, I can't hit all the right notes when I sing.

  4. It is so sad when a child's dreams are crushed and they carry that label with them all the way to adulthood.
    Your church organist sounds like a wonderful lady. To be able to identify a child's passion and talent and encourage it is a beautiful thing indeed.

  5. Thank you for comment Suzy. Yes, words are so important. They can affect us for the rest of our lives. As a mother, I am trying to remember this.

    I will always be grateful to Marion, the organist. She opened up the whole world of music for my children. We are fortunate to know some wonderful people who share their talents and encourage our children. Mentors, perhaps?


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