Why I’m Not a Good Singer Any More

I am not a good singer. I love singing, but I’m not good. In a way I’m worse than a bad singer, because bad singers you can just smile and think “oh, poor them” and know that they know it too. I’m in that dangerous band of ability that is not-quite-very-good. It’s awkward for people because if my breathing messes up or I waver on a note, they don’t know if I know.  People who think they can when they can’t – delusion is cringeworthy. But the voice is an instrument and you have to practise.

If I played the guitar, and someone overheard me playing “Leaving On A Jet Plane” three times in a row with slight hesitation on the chord changes, they would think “That is someone practising the guitar. A bit annoying. But they are clearly practising.”

If I played the piano, and someone overheard me playing “Moonlight Sonata” three times and occasionally forgetting the accidentals, they would think “This is someone practising the piano. A bit annoying. But they are clearly practising.”

But people don’t – by and large – realise that singing requires practice too.

If I sing “The Voice Within” three times in a row, and I am really going for it, and then fall off it, people assume I’m a deluded wannabe with a Christina Aguilera fixation. The idea that I’m trying to do something I won’t ever be able to do unless I keep trying simply doesn’t occur to them. To them, singing is something you Can Just Do.

Here’s the thing. I am aware of this. I KNOW you can hear me. So I never practise properly. I want to go for the big note, but one can’t do that without fully committing and not being scared of it going wrong. Do the note! Oops, bit squawky! Too bad! Do it again! But for me, I’m aware that people can hear, and they judge, and find it ultimately more annoying than instrument practice because they can’t qualify it in their minds as practice. It’s self-indulgent karaoke caterwauling, so it’s instantly more annoying than something rooted in self-improvement.

People who think they can when they can’t. I am not that person. I do not think I can. I think I might be able to, one day. I know that right now I can’t – but how am I supposed to get there, when every time I try, people not only agree that I can’t, but won’t tolerate it as kindly because they don’t realise I don’t know that myself?

I think this is born of the fact that it seems anyone who can hold a tune and has a decent tone instantly gets the praise of being a “good singer” – which is odd. It seems like you have to play it safe to be a “good singer”. If you take risks and they go wrong, you are no longer a “good singer”, even if what you’re trying is technically more difficult.

An example.

I was writing little girly ditties at university (you know the kind – one girl and her guitar: I love you, you don’t love me, let’s sit on the grass and be poetical about rain), and I’d sit and breathe them out melodically, and it was nice enough, and people said “That’s nice. You’re a good singer.” But I wasn’t; it was nice, but basically humming with words.

Avec le band

I know, I know, the blonde was a mistake. How about that dress I designed though eh?

So I’m working on my breathing, my posture, my range, how and where I switch registers. I pick songs I aspire to and imitate singers I admire. I do things I KNOW I CANNOT DO. But I’m not a “good singer” any more, because people are hearing the practice. They hear the breaks, the cracks, the shakes, the strained messes I shouldn’t have attempted yet but couldn’t have known until I did. I’m actually a much, much better singer than I was, but people don’t think so, because it isn’t “nice” any more.

It should be made clear – if you want your kid to play guitar: get them lessons; make them practise. If you want your kid to play piano: get them lessons; make them practise. If you want your kid to sing, don’t just sit them in front of Sing-a-long-Songs and tell them they can hold a tune. Get them lessons; make them practise. Singers need a world that understands that singing – proper, challenging, versatile singing – is not easy. We need a world that is a little less ready to tell you you’re a good singer, and has just a little more tolerance for those that could be.

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6 thoughts on “Why I’m Not a Good Singer Any More

  1. This. A thousand times over. And the thing about singing that you can’t do with a guitar, a piano, a trumpet, drums even, is that you can’t mute it, you can’t practise halfheartedly, you have to go for it otherwise you’ll never master it. But then when you’re going for it you’re conscious that everyone in the street can hear it so then you’re either deluded or a show-off. My former boss, to his credit, knowing how much his eldest son loves to perform pays for not only guitar but singing lessons too because he knows he’ll benefit from it. I had a singing teacher at college who didn’t take any lessons until his early 30’s but when he did he improved so dramatically he ended up going professional! (He was a great teacher but he was just filling in inbetween West End shows).

    • Thanks for your thoughts, LittleHippo! 🙂 Your former boss sounds like a dude. Good for him! Wonderful tale about your teacher, too. Just shows it’s never too late to start… which is encouraging since I haven’t been able to take lessons consistently for ages, since for the last four years I’ve been constantly either about to leave or just arrived. When I’m settled..!

  2. A nice read! It should be obvious, but I agree that a lot of people seem to think that holding a tune is the same thing as being able to sing.

    One thing I would add is that not everyone SHOULD go for those money notes. Some voices are just nice keeping a melody. I’ve known a few singers who are okay-but-not-amazing, yet they still insisted on trying to sing the wrong songs. All that does (in performance situations) is stop people thinking “what a nice voice” and make them focus on the one part they messed up. It’s not fair, but it’s how people work. Knowing the style of music to suit your voice is every bit as important as practicing and improving your breathing and range.

    Good luck and keep it up!

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Paul! I agree of course, but I’m not simply talking about “money notes” – I’m talking about all challenges that face a singer. Everyone should be trying to improve, not necessarily aiming to become some big-voiced soul diva, but just because improvement is always possible regardless of style. And you can only improve in any way by putting yourself in a situation where you’re going to make mistakes.

  3. Not knowing anything about music, I shouldn’t really comment. But I’m generally of the opinion that is better to excel in something small than get lost in something big. I can’t sing a note in tune btw. I find that a lot of the time, silly little songs sung well is nicer to hear than someone trying to sing big and failing at it. But then as I’m not a musician, I’m not sure if aiming to something you are struggling with is the best idea to show off to the world until it has been practised. I know I’d cringe listening to someone who is trying to tackle bigger notes and not quite managing it

    • Well, that’s kind of exactly what I’m saying. Obviously I wouldn’t sing something I couldn’t sing well yet in public (I hope) but my point is that it isn’t possible to practise “big” without being heard, and that, with singing, people don’t recognise practice as exactly that: just practice.

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