It drives me crazy when I hear of another incident of a teacher saying or doing something to belittle a student because of their less-than-perfect musical skills. But it still happens, and it happens all the time. And students don’t just hurt for a minute and get over it; they often carry that scar for the rest of their lives.
I first experienced the sensitivity that people have when it comes to musical ability many years ago, when a good friend of mine and I were having what I thought was a pretty mundane conversation about singing. She asked me why she couldn’t find the right note when she was singing, and I told her it was because she had a tin ear.
Yes, I said that.
I immediately realized what a stupid idiot I was when I saw her eyes well up with tears. I was probably twenty years old and had been singing and playing music all my life with little or no idea of how lucky I was to have it come so easily to me. It’s not that I thought everybody was the same, I knew that wasn’t true. I would often get picked to sing a lead part in a choir, and even though I wasn’t a particularly talented clarinet player (I got impatient with reading notes, so I made things up by ear!), I could pretty much pick up any instrument and make something musical come out of it. I knew that other kids couldn’t necessarily do that, but it never occurred to me that they cared much.
When I first started teaching guitar back in the late 80’s, I belonged to a local non-profit organization that was a group of music instructors. We once held an open house in the basement of a local church, where people interested in taking lessons could come and meet us all. One of our teachers taught voice, and she had an almost holistic approach to her lessons. She gave a talk about her teaching style and mentioned the fact that many people are particularly sensitive about their voices and whether or not they can sing. There were several people there who had come that afternoon because they were interested in voice lessons, and after her talk I could see that a couple of them were particularly emotional, openly crying. When I spoke with that teacher awhile later, she told me that it happens all the time with her adult students. In working with them, she finds they often become extremely emotional opening up and singing out, and a lot of it has to do with having been belittled or ridiculed as children because of their voices.
One of our mottoes in that little non-profit was that everybody can play and everybody can sing. We wanted to bring the joy of playing and singing back into people’s lives, instead of this idea that if you weren’t a Mariah Carey or an Eric Clapton, you were wasting your time. The person who started that organization those many years ago, Becky Bernson, died of cancer in February 2000. But if it hadn’t been for her and that group of people, I don’t know that I would have understood as much as I do today how deeply people feel about their ability to sing and play an instrument, and how devastated they become when someone tells them they can’t.
I’ve been teaching guitar now since 1989, and I have witnessed this from time to time in my own students. They tell me that they WANT to play or sing but they really can’t because someone, a teacher or a parent, told them so. I’ve also heard horror stories from my friends and from my friends’ children that have so angered me, it’s hard for me not to go and find those teachers or choir leaders and simply rake them over the coals myself! Do they realize that all they have to do is to give a child (or an adult, for that matter) one dirty look when he or she sings off key or out of time, in order to give them a life long inferiority complex? What they are “teaching” is that these people are not good enough! What kind of a life lesson is that? The Simon Cowell’s of the world, and those who fancy themselves as being musical experts, have done more damage than they will ever realize to those who were not born with natural musical abilities. That’s why I don’t watch those “talent” shows; all I can imagine is how horrendous people must feel when they are considered not good enough.
It won’t be long before it is Christmas again, and we all know what a huge part Christmas songs and carols play in the joy of that season. What can more beautiful than seeing a happy, smiling, enthusiastic class of young children belting out a Christmas song at the school Christmas concert? What is more joyful than your friends and family playing or singing some silly or sentimental tunes, sipping eggnog by the fire? That’s what it’s all about!
Those many years ago when I realized what I had done to my friend, I apologized profusely to her. To this day, I hope she can forgive me for being so stupidly insensitive.
Because the truth is, everybody can play. And everybody can sing.