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At the heart of English folk
The Bootleg Young Tradition

The fear of singing

by Bryony Griffith, fiddle player, singer and member of the Demon Barbers.

Bryony GriffithThe voice is a very personal thing. It doesn't take much to discourage a budding singer. One comment can be all it takes to stop someone from daring to open their mouths and sing a note again, especially when we see television judging panels actively encouraging us to laugh at people's efforts.

As we get older, we grow conscious of the noise we make and when we hear other people commenting on what is a good voice or not, we realise that perhaps ours isn't. Everyone can sing, but not everybody makes a noise that people want to hear. I was always encouraged to sing at school and church because I was loud and could hold a pitch, but as I got older, I realised my voice didn't fit in with the popular 'girlie' voice. After a woman at church asked if I had the “more boyish” voice in a duet I sang with my friend, I refused to sing publicly for a long time afterwards. I was gradually coaxed back into it and since then, critics have been both kind and cruel, but human nature usually dictates that we harbour the negative comments and it's difficult to shake them off.

From an artist's point of view, we should be aiming to make a good sound (admittedly, I have stubbornly done things with my un-girlie voice that not everyone would agree makes a good sound!), but for most people, that shouldn't really matter. We should all feel free to open our mouths and join in to make a noise just for fun, but there is a really strange fear of it in our culture. I think that everyone's 'happy birthday' voice is their general voice; the one that falls out, unadorned and natural, without self-consciousness and a feeling of being judged, but it seems even then, some people barely open their mouths and shy away uncomfortably.

This fear is particularly noticeable in my teaching jobs. When signing up new violinists, they are asked to sing back a note to test their ability to pitch. The terror on some of their faces is unbelievable! They are 7 years old and already scared of singing in front of others. It usually ends in embarrassed giggles and a very quiet 'laa'. If I don't think it will scar them for life, I encourage them to keep going until they get the right note. They can all do it, it's just conditioned out of them somewhere along the line. Other very capable musicians taking instrumental exams panic at the thought of singing back a phrase in the aural tests and refuse to try... and that's just in front of one person! But the voice is so susceptible to nerves, it's very difficult to hide the wobbles. I recently sang one song at the launch of the new 'Wanton Seed' book in Sheffield, but the second I stood up and looked around at most of Sheffield's best home grown singers, my breath went short and I found it really hard to sing!

Class teachers also seem unaccustomed to using their own voices and so the fear has been allowed to creep in (not all of them, of course). Backing tracks are so readily available, that the live human voice is rarely required to teach songs anymore. If there is not a confident leader to keep the tempo and pitch going, a track is ideal, but it often means the children hide behind it and don't get to hear real singing. After teaching folk songs in schools, I'm often asked to leave 'the backing track'. When I explain that there isn't one, the teachers are horrified and I pretty much know that they won't be using the songs again.

This fear can stay with people for many years too. 'Shepley Singers' is a community choir that was started as part of Shepley Spring Festival 8 years ago and is open to anyone who wants to come along and sing for fun. Some members were already confident singers, but a lot are people who haven't sung for 40 years, having been told at school that they couldn't and shouldn't sing! We don't have an accompanist or use backing tracks, it's just 4 part a cappella and for a group of apprehensive amateurs, they make a pretty amazing sound!

However, it doesn't just seem to be a school problem, or an amateur problem, it stretches to more professional singers too. Not a fear of singing, but a fear of unaccompanied, solo singing. I can think of only a handful of younger people who sing full, solo, a cappella sets (Karina Knight and Kate Locksley come to mind, but I'm sure there must be others) and I really applaud them, as nearly all the other singers I know have bands or a partner to accompany them. I'm a culprit myself. It's partly the fear of being on-stage alone with no back up, but also the fear of not being able to retain the interest of a modern English folk audience with a 40 minute set of solo folk songs. I've battled for years to be able to accompany myself on the fiddle but would prefer to keep it simple and just sing or just play, because that's nerve-racking enough to be honest!

In band arrangements, you get the instrumental gaps that give you time for a breather or to remember the verses. Solo, it's more demanding physically and mentally and I don't think we give enough credit to those who can stand up solo and perform a cappella. It takes a lot of bravery and commitment to learn a whole song by heart, open your mouth, get the right key, remember the words and sing it from start to finish in front of people. My generation has been particularly cruel to floor singers in folk clubs, but even if their voice isn't what we might expect to hear from a polished performer, they should be commended for having learnt a song and for having the courage to get up and sing it and keep the tradition going. A couple of years ago I was disheartened to find that a group of celebrated young folk singers, who had been put together for an event, could only sustain a singing session for twenty minutes before having to resort to looking up song lyrics on a phone!

Not everyone needs to be a solo singer or be able to suddenly produce a song from a repertoire in their head, but it does seem to be a dwindling skill. We somehow need to get children (and therefore adults) to get over the inhibitions of using their own voices and see how great it is to just let go and sing.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of EFDSS.


#25 Su Lewis 2016-07-07 11:39
I'm always amazed at the number of people who seem to have a singing phobia or lost the courage to sing, and mostly it's expressed in terms of 'Oh you really wouldn't want to hear me sing' and of course I really would! I run an acapella choir and an acapella harmony singing group, and welcome members who would like to find their voice and sing together with others. As a nation we've lost such a lot of the opportunities for singing together.
#24 Caroline Clasby 2016-07-07 09:15
Deliberately cruel, casually thoughtless or just unenthusiastic comments from family and so called friends left me with such terror of performing that for forty years I only sung in the bath, the car and when I was using noisy machinery. I desperately wanted to share the joy I got from folk song but when I tried, my throat tightened up and I simply could not. About ten years ago a friend was studying to become a hypnotherapist and needed a case study. I volunteered and asked that she helped me get over my terrors. She must be good, because I can now sing out, and use my (very un-girly, very loud) voice, unaccompanied, anywhere. But I still worry about boring the audience, even with a long song, so I tend to sing lots of things with choruses.
#23 Greg Smith 2016-07-07 01:45
but, spare a thought for the genuinely tone dumb.Three years of aural tests during my early teens, as part of my piano grades, were a total nightmare. How do you explain that tone dumb does not mean tone deaf or musically incapable.
#22 sileagh macwhirter 2016-07-06 16:27
Great article. Fits with my own thoughts.
#21 Dallas de Brabander 2016-07-06 09:53
I am totally with you on this, Bryony. I have struggled personally with the issues you describe and have recently started a singing session at my place to encourage all levels and ages of singers, especially shy or unconfident ones, to experience a safe and non-judgemental space for vocal expression, a cappella preferably. Others are encouraged to join in or harmonise but the main thing is for unaccompanied solo singing of a prepared song or two in a friendly atmosphere. A little alcohol can assist.
#20 Janet Swan 2016-07-06 09:33
Great article Bryony, and so encouraging to anyone who sings or wants to sing. If anyone does want to try out their singing voice, I would encourage you to have a look at the website of the Natural Voice Practitioners Network where you can find 100s of community choirs, teachers and resources. The approach believes that we are all born able to sing - it is part of being human, and that there is so much to be gained from being able to sing with others (one of the best ways to tune in and gain confidence with your voice no matter what others say about it). We are all able to create sounds of beauty with our voice, so do have a look and maybe give it a try
#19 Caroline 2016-02-20 22:24
Well said! I've spent most of my life trying to undo the damage done to people when they were 'asked to mime' or 'not wanted in the school choir'. I now run a choir for young people who want to sing: with no auditions, and no getting involved in competitive music either, Stream of Sound has plenty of wonderful singers who were previously too shy to sing! Keep up the good work, Bryony, you're in an excellent position for young people to take notice of what you say!
#18 Sian 2016-02-20 14:39
I love this positive upbeat article I really believe that anyone can learn to sing.I have always enjoyed singing and despite being told I didn't have the aptitude for singing lessons in school I have always sung in choirs though never on my own until about a year ago. I had been attending a mixed ability singing group and developed in skill range and confidence we mainly sing acapella. We attended a local folk group and decided to have a go. I am glad I found the courage to sing I love it and feel that if I can do so with not a very good voice anyone can.
#17 Belinda OHooley 2016-02-19 17:53
Brilliant article that looks at a touchy subject. Singing has been proven to have so many benefits to a person's mental health; from the stress relieving properties of just singing, to the social aspect of community singing. Personally, I love your voice Bryony, in particular your unique tone and the way you sing from the heart. I think it's important to celebrate the unique voice that we have inside us rather than feel pressure to sound more conventional or the same as others.
#16 Jess Arrowsmith 2015-12-17 13:21
So since my last post I have put together a course that I'll be teaching in Sheffield for 10 weeks starting on 6th January - if anybody is interested do please check out
National Youth Folk Ensemble

National Youth Folk Ensemble


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