Courtney Lyons is one of my heroes. She didn’t fight in a war. She hasn’t even raised a house full of teens yet. She hasn’t marched for equality. But she did something that took an incredible amount of bravery: She sang for me.
She didn’t just sing once, either. She sang several times, with tears in her eyes every time. Nevertheless, she smiled and soldiered on.
I teach Elementary Music Methods at a nearby university. My students learn how to read music, count rhythms, conduct music, and dance. They learn the basics of the autoharp, recorder, ukulele, and piano. We also have fun with body percussion and musical games. The students accomplish a lot, finishing the semester with short musicals, written and performed in groups.
As they learn each skill, they are required to complete testing personally with me so I can be sure they understand and have mastered the skill. This includes singing as they accompany themselves on various instruments.
Courtney approached me for each test and would muster the courage to start. By the time she was halfway through the first song, tears would be welling up in her eyes. Embarrassed, she would wipe them away and keep going. I felt badly for her and would sing along with her to ease her fears. Finally, one day, I asked her, “Has someone ever criticized your singing?”
She replied that they had. She didn’t give me any details, but I didn’t need any. The voice is such a personal thing that a small, often flippant or almost unnoticed comment or facial expression can be the only catalyst needed to stop a child from ever singing again.
In Courtney’s case, the results were devastating. She hadn’t sung since. Now she was a bright, pleasant woman who had not experienced the joy of singing for over a decade. She felt like her singing was terrible, but she actually has a very nice voice.
About a quarter of my students are in the same boat as Courtney. They think they are tone-deaf or unable to carry a tune. Another student, whom I will call Reed, was one of those. He told he was a terrible singer, so he didn’t sing. But he came to the university and took my class. I consider that an act of bravery in itself.
Reed did indeed sound tone-deaf at the beginning of the semester. However, he sang each day—often the only male in a room full of young women—and as time went on, his skills improved. When he completed his last test, he was right on pitch the whole time.
I exclaimed my delight, and he smiled sheepishly but proudly. He knew what he had accomplished, and he had every right to be pleased with himself. It was just a matter of practice, as it is with everything.
My classroom is a no-criticism zone. No one is allowed to criticize anybody, including themselves. That is often the hardest part for my students. They are so used to putting themselves down that it has become a habit. I wonder if they are trying to get the job done so they don’t have to hear someone else scoff at them.
I even tell them I will never apologize for my own voice. If I do, then they will, and if they apologize for their voice in front of their class or in front of their children, then those students or children will start judging their own voices, in a negative spiral.
When I explain this rule at the beginning of each semester, the class seems to relax, knowing they will be safe here. They are good at detecting veiled negativity and cheerfully call each other out on it. They kindly remind the person of our rules and the student quickly rewords their sentence: “I don’t think I will ever be able to read music...uh....what I mean is...I am ready to learn how to read music and I will do a great job with it!”
I tell the students to look around the class, because this is their cheerleading section. We are all rooting for each other, and they will be successful if they are willing to work hard. I will help them all I can, too.
It’s sad that one little comment can stop a child from enjoying music. The same thing happens in every other endeavor, such as soccer, art, schoolwork, housekeeping, and reading. Children have such a fear of failure and of disappointing others that it sometimes seems easier to not even try. I don’t think there is a parent alive who would reprimand a 12-month-old for falling when they are learning to walk. Why, then, do we do that to our children or students as they work to master a new skill? Is criticism going to motivate them to do better? Or will encouragement do a better job of it?
As my students teach a song lesson plan to their peers, all of the other students are expected to fill out an evaluation for that student. There are boxes to check, but at the bottom there is a space for comments. I remind them that there will be no criticism in that box. There should be at least one positive comment, and then perhaps some constructive suggestions. As teachers, we need to give information. Just be sure it is communicated in a positive way so the student is motivated to do better, not just quit.
It would be wonderful if our homes could be the same way. Children would feel safe trying new things, and they might even find new talents. We would also feel safer within ourselves. Encourage your children. Root for them. Cheer loudly for them at events. Compliment them for their effort and for being willing to try new things. Most of all, make your home a safe place, where talents and abilities can be discovered and practiced without worry. Be a family of cheerleaders.
Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.