Why sing?

A few days ago I casually mentioned to a friend of mine that I used to sing professionally. Her response flabbergasted me. She thought it was, well, absolutely fascinating. She went on and on about it and wanted to know what I’d written about it in my book. I had to confess that I hadn’t written much at all about it because I didn’t think it was important. Honestly, I told her, there’s not all that much to say about the singing…what am I gonna say? I went to the gig, I sang…big deal.

I guess I’ve always been a bit jaded about my singing because I had to do it to make a living. I didn’t want to sing…I wanted to be recognized and appreciated as a pianist, not a singer. To me singing was easy…anybody could sing, but playing the piano was hard and took years of dedication and practice, and I was kind of miffed at the idea that people seemed to like singers better.

Me singing in a cocktail lounge sometime in the 80s and looking as if I smell something bad

Well, I’m not talking about opera and Broadway singers, of course, when I say singing is easy. I’m talking about people like me who sat behind a piano in cocktail lounges for years and sang standards and popular tunes night after night. I never had any voice lessons, I just did it because it was hard back in the 70s, 80s and even 90s for a woman to get a job playing piano if she didn’t sing.

There have always been exceptions, of course, great jazz pianists like Marian McPartland, Mary Lou Williams, Joanne Brackeen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and so on, but even Barbara Carroll, who to me was and is a terrific pianist, ended up singing, although I can’t speak for her…maybe she genuinely wanted to.

Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy singing. I do. I just didn’t enjoy being made to sing because otherwise I wouldn’t get the gig. And I didn’t enjoy singing songs that I really didn’t like all that much (or that I actually despised) night after night.

But I realized that my friend was quite serious. She thought the fact that I sang was pretty awesome. She said, “Maybe it’s not to you, but to others it’s a big deal. To those who have never sung it’s fascinating. Sorry, but it’s true honey…”

So I ended up taking her seriously. I realized I was being self-centered. I tried to put myself in her shoes. She claims she doesn’t know how to sing, can’t sing, will never be able to sing, so I understand why she thinks it’s so great that I sang.

The one time I really had fun singing, when I formed a trio with my pals Charlie LaChapelle (bass) and Gray Sargent (guitar) in the 70s

But I think anyone can sing. I really do. Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I honestly think that if I could sit down with my friend, or someone else who swears they can’t sing, that I’d having them singing in a very short time. I think part of the problem in the Western world is that we tend to see singing as a “performance.” We generally pay go to listen to someone else sing, unless we’re singing in church. But in other parts of the world, singing is a natural thing that people do spontaneously, either alone or in groups, to express joy, to celebrate, or just to keep themselves company while they wash the clothes. No one cares whether they’re a “good” singer or not.

Maybe I should look at my own singing that way, too. That I do it for fun, to express how I feel, to relax, whatever, instead of remembering it as something I had to do for years against my will. I think I like that idea. I’m heading for the shower now…

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16 Comments

Filed under individuality, jazz, music, my history

16 responses to “Why sing?

  1. Dennis R.

    I honestly can not sing in tune. I can play instruments. I can play both by ear and by sheet music. I just cannot get my voice to sing the correct pitch. In my case, I was told to play, but do not sing. In school, when we had singing, I was told to just mouth the words.

    It has always broken my heart that I cannot worship God in song. I can play a very emotional and expressive accordion, but I just can’t use my voice.

    • Well now, Dennis, I just don’t believe that. I think it’s because of what you were told and you believed it and accepted it. But with some ear training you could certainly learn to sing.

  2. Libby

    I can’t sing on key–I did sing in high school choir–we had a dedicated music teacher. I cannot play anything and have difficulty reading music. BUT I Do sing to praise God because to Him it’s perfect!!

  3. Awesome thought-provoking writeup on singing. I notice that people who can easily and effortlessly do something, they authentically believe “anybody” can do it. I think that is a generous and beautiful thought. It just shows how natural it is to you. Thanks for that “upper” for all of us…who canNOT sing! LOL!

    • Rhonda, imagine a group of Africans getting ready to break into some festive tribal singing to celebrate some major event, and one of them pops up and says, “Sorry, I can’t sing.” LOLOL

  4. Muriel Vasconcellos

    I think you’re right, Amy. I sang with great inhibition until my mother made fun of me. After that, I couldn’t sing on key, but I think a good teacher could help a person overcome that. I think “not singing on key” is a layer we put on ourselves in childhood.

  5. Muriel Vasconcellos

    Case in point: Julianne Hough, who studied dancing all her life with her brother Derek, left her position as a pro dancer on Dancing with the Stars to sing professionally. She visited the show last night, doing a segment to promote her upcoming film “Rock of Ages,” and I swear, anyone on the planet could have sung as well as she did. I have zero respect for her singing and a ton of respect for her dancing. But now she’s becoming a big star.

    • Well, there are lots of singers with no exceptional talent who become famous. Usually there are other things involved, like connections, looks, and in her case, the fact that she was known already for doing something else.

  6. Well, you know how I love to sing, but I admit that singing from the heart, songs that I really love, are what make the difference between just emulating a melody with my voice, and the true singing that feels inspired and satisfying…to me, anyway! I love to sing and it is one of those times when I feel entirely free. That said, if I could play anything on the piano and more than three badly executed chords on the guitar, I’d be thrilled. Unfortunately, I have no natural talent for it, and no patience to learn! Guess I’m just going to have to settle for being the singer! Thanks for reposting, Amy. I don’t think I read this the first time around.

    • Yes, Laura, you have to sing what you love! That’s what makes the difference. One of the things I love about singing is that everyone can do it–you don’t have to buy an instrument and study and learn how to play it. Of course, as I mentioned in the blog, there are singers who study and work at it, but the fact remains that anyone can sing, and historically it’s been a community activity. People here in Brazil often spontaneously burst into song and others join in–I love that!

    • Dennis R.

      I am just the opposite. I play a very expressive accordion, but I can not sing a note. People use to tell me play, don’t sing.

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