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