BBC News

Why are people shy about singing in public?

By Caroline McClatchey & Kathryn Westcott
BBC News Magazine


A choir of military wives, brought together for a TV programme, is hotly tipped to challenge X Factor's releases for the Christmas number one. The choir's greatest battle was overcoming a lack of confidence, but why are so many people shy about singing in public?

'Tis the season of mince pies, mulled wine and merry sing-a-longs.

But while some people may have no problem belting out Hark the Herald Angels Sing, many more are only comfortable silently mouthing the words to Silent Night.

Those staying schtum will not be lacking in festive spirit. They will simply be too afraid of messing up and attracting unwanted attention with their less than dulcet tones.

Some have been scarred for life by that cruel rejection from the primary school choir. Others will have suffered years of ridicule from their nearest and dearest, and even barred from singing at family get-togethers.

Confidence has been a recurring theme throughout the BBC Two show The Choir, which started back in 2006.

The show's choirmaster Gareth Malone and his latest proteges - the military wives - are hoping their song, Wherever You Are, will give the X Factor finalists a run for their money in the race for Christmas number one.

The fourth series charted their journey from a group of shy left-at-home mothers to a choir able to sing at last month's Festival of Remembrance in front of a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall.

The women have talked about how the choir gave them confidence, a voice and their own mission. Mostly, it was a welcome distraction from all the waiting and worrying.

Malone says even the word "choir" can scare some people off singing in public.

"If you ask members of the public to sing in a church they will be anxious, but not if you ask them to sing along at a football match.

"It's the formal dimension that makes British people feel on edge."

The Choir has seen Malone teach all sorts to sing, from temperamental teenagers at a school in west London to lonely pensioners living in South Oxhey, near Watford.

Singing has become mythologised, he says. It is essentially a skill which can be broken down into compartments such as rhythm and pitch.

"A lot of it is familiarity. Anyone can get better with practice but do not think that everyone has a voice that is just waiting for me to come along and realise it."

People who have never sung will take longer to improve, says Malone.

image captionGareth Malone champions choral singing

"It's getting control of your voice and when people are not in control, they don't want to sing in public."

There has been a growth of community choirs in the UK in the past decade, spurred on by shows such as Glee and X Factor.

Caroline Redman Lusher, founder of Rock Choir, says the key is no auditions.

Six years ago, the music teacher started offering pop, gospel and Motown classes in her home town in Surrey, and now the business has 64 musical graduates working with 16,000 people around the UK and Ireland.

Its members include housewives, grandfathers and schoolchildren, and Lusher has only ever met two people who are truly "tone deaf".

"Tone deaf means you cannot tell if a scale is going up or down. We use it so frequently but a lot of people don't know what it means.

"Singing is no different from speaking, you are just adding pitch. Most people are just shy."

Shy is not a word that can be levelled at the thousands of people who queue up each year for a place on X Factor. An ability to sing is seemingly no barrier to this growing band of wannabes - the number of people trying out for the ITV show has jumped from 50,000 for series one in 2004 to 200,000 in 2010.

But vocal trainer Gitika Partington says the majority of Britons could not bear the caustic comments from the judges.

Many of those riddled with such fears will have been told they cannot sing in primary school, she says.

"We've had 50 years of people saying you're a crow and you're a bluebird. It's a trauma that stays with you for the rest of your life.

"If a kid is not singing with their parents between the ages of nought and five, they will come into school and sing in one note, like a drone. But as they sing with other people, they will learn pitch."

Malone says schools have changed and now offer more than just your traditional choral choir. He actually volunteered for his school choir.

"I grew up with music. There has never been a day in my life where someone has not been singing. It's like holding a pen or using a knife and fork."

Partington, who leads workshops in schools, says people are also afraid to sing in public because they assume there is only one type of voice - "the voice of an angel". She tells teachers to embrace all kinds of voices.

"It's about making it less professional and making it a community thing. The performance aspect changes everything."

But Malone believes performing is the "only way to learn" and you have to give people a "vocal challenge".

"That's better than just practising for a whole year. You just have to get out there and throw them to the lions."

But singing is about more than just unleashing your untamed voice into the world.

"Everyone has a unique sound in their body and it's coming from inside them. It's not like playing the piano where you can hide behind something," says Lusher.

Voice specialist Nikki Slade, whose clients include corporate firms, says everyone has a core sound. She uses ancient mantras and chants to help people connect with their "inner voice".

"Singing is the language of the soul and the soul is where you can transcend the drudgery of the day.

image captionFew have the voice of an angel like Charlotte Church

"We get so busy, we don't stop to connect with what really matters. When it gets really bad, just sing and most of your troubles will drop away momentarily. It's very hard to be upset and sing."

It seems all the experts agree that singing is everyone's birthright. So next time you hear Jingle Bells, just let loose.

"What's the worst that can happen?" asks Malone. "Someone may look around at you but if it really is a community event, then it is for you as much as everyone else."

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