It’s a common thing for people to tell musicians “I wish I could sing.” Recently there’s been some discussion in the folk community about this sad phenomenon, and I thought I’d share my two cents worth on the topic.
I’ve travelled around quite a bit and one thing I’ve noticed is that cultural environment largely determines musicality in a given society.
Three examples spring to mind.
1. I was once plunking away at a piano in the Nova Scotian home of a girlfriend of mine. Her dad came in and I sheepishly said, “Oh, sorry, that must sound awful. I haven’t played since I was a kid.” He said, “Boy, you’ll never hear anybody complain about you playing a musical instrument in this house.”
2. I was up north planting trees and a Native guy who had heard me play guitar asked if I wanted to hear some of his music. He put a tape in the stereo of my truck and the spine-tingling sounds of a drum and song performance came wafting out. This great big tough guy said “hear that really high, weird wailing there? That’s me. In our music anything that comes to you to sing is okay. That’s how I sing. You could sing like you do and it would be okay.”
3. I was in Fiji for three weeks and literally didn’t meet anyone who could not sing, play the guitar or ukulele, or dance. Most could do all of the above. The Fijians sang at every possible occasion; I once saw an entire village gather round to sing a farewell song to 4 kayakers whom they had known for about 4 hours. It was like that everywhere, all the time. Music was as much a part of life as the air they breathed, and not to be musical would have been tantamount to not breathing.
My point is that in all of these circumstances, music itself is the gift. One’s own ability to carry a tune or play an instrument might vary, but that doesn’t matter: the main thing is that the gift is indulged and enjoyed by all- just like the air.
On a slightly tangential note: I’d like to hear from any anthropologically-minded person which came first: music, or language? I suspect the former, or that at the beginning, they were the same thing.
Sing, people. When I hear the usual “I can’t sing” line from an audience member, my response is always the same: If I can do it, anyone can.