I think every vocal coach gets this question from time to time. When people ask, they usually have someone in mind. And that person is usually someone that has a lot of trouble singing on pitch. “Tone Deaf” is the label that has been given to people who have this problem. And for years, the minute a professional voice teacher heard someone sing who they considered to be “tone deaf”, they immediately washed their hands of them. I still know at least one vocal coach today who has new students audition to work with him. And if, in that audition they can’t match pitch, he turns them down.
However, it is not the intention, I don’t believe, of teachers who turn these students away to be cruel. I believe in the public sector, music teachers at schools simply don’t have the luxury of time or space to give an off-pitch singer the special attention they need. In the private sector among vocal coaches with their own studios, it is more of a matter of honesty. Many private vocal coaches honestly don’t believe they can help a “tone deaf” person so they don’t accept them as a student because they don’t want to “waste their money” . For many other though, quite honestly it’s a matter of preference. Because today it’s pretty common knowledge that most people who are labeled “Tone Deaf” really aren’t. The title itself is somewhat inaccurate because it implies that the person can’t hear tone. That’s simply not true for most of the population.
In fact there is only a very small percentage of the world’s population that really have some kind of defect in their hearing process that prevents them from being able to actually distinguish one tone from another. It’s a condition called “Amusia”. For almost everyone else though, if you can speak you can learn to sing. Which makes one ask, if that’s the case, why aren’t more tone deaf people being taught to sing? Well, if I might be candid here, working with an off-pitch singer is not as “easy” as working with someone who was naturally born with the gift of song. There are very simple ways to help an off-pitch singer learn to sing on pitch, but it has to be something the instructor has a desire to do.
Because it requires a different approach entirely. It’s not business as usual when it comes to the standard, “do this scale, sing from your diaphragm, do this exercise” stuff. So in order to work with people who are labeled “tone deaf”, a teacher has to deliberately seek out information about how to help them. He must learn how they hear and process music and variations in pitch. He must learn new methods and approaches to teaching them. Many teachers simply don’t have the time or the desire to do this. So the singer who is labeled “tone deaf” is simply told “I can’t help you”.
But right from the beginning, when I decided to become a vocal coach I wanted to learn techniques that would help anyone to sing. I wanted to help people who could already sing learn to do it better and easier. But even more importantly I wanted to learn how to help people that wanted to sing but were told they “couldn’t”. So I did go looking. And I did learn new techniques. And I did seek new levels of understanding about what makes “tone deaf” singers sing off pitch and how to help them correct it.
I recently had the opportunity to work with a young lady named Natalie. Natalie is 16, and she has a learning disability. Natalie, according to most people, couldn’t be taught to sing. Her first choir teacher turned her away, telling her dad “there’s nothing I can do for her”. But in the next day or so, I’m going to post an amazing video that has footage of Natalie, doing exactly what everyone said she couldn’t do. When you watch this video there will be no doubt that she is doing it with full awareness, doing it deliberately and not by accident. Working with her has been such an inspiration to me that it has completely changed my perception of what’s possible, as well as my approach to every potential student who contacts me. I’m anxious to share her story and I hope you’ll tune in.
So, can anyone learn to sing? I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t have the right to decide who can’t. Every person who wants to learn to sing deserves the chance to try to lean. And they deserve to get that chance with someone who will approach every lesson with the absolute belief and expectation that they can and will learn how. Natalie’s story will inspire you in ways that go far beyond singing. If you haven’t already subscribed to the blog or connected with me on Facebook, you’ll want to do so. It will be hard for you to accept a no from anyone ever again after you meet her.