Saturday, June 16, 2018

Why I Don't Like Music or The Truth About My Singing

Every child deserves the opportunity to become a lifelong reader.
                                 It’s All About the Books by Tammy Mulligan and Clare Landrigan

I don’t like music. It’s true. Friends are often surprised by this small detail about me. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I decided that I didn’t like music, but I know there were four experiences that have had a huge impact on my attitude towards music.

For my entire elementary school career, our music teacher kept me after class each week having me practice hitting a note I just couldn’t hit in class. She was very kind, yet always looked so very disappointed when I could not get the note by practicing it over and over again in front of others who were having the same problem. I was always irritated to stay after class but never too worried about hitting that note.

As 5th graders, we took part in a big tradition in my elementary school. 5th and 6th graders put on an elaborate music program. It was a big deal and very fun. It was something you looked forward to from Kindergarten through 4th grade. One day at rehearsal for the show, one of the 6th grade teachers came over to me and told me that I might want to mouth the words. At the time I was a 5th grader so a 6th grade teacher talking to me individually during rehearsal was a big deal. And I was old enough to understand that her singling me out to chat meant that I could not sing well enough to really be part of the show. I wasn’t 100% defeated until the next year, when the music teacher determined that as a 6th grader I would be an “angel” in the play—a silent role with some time on stage. And because I had a role, I would not be needed as part of the choir for singing.

Fast forward 9 years to college. I had to take a music methods course in order to become an elementary teacher. My professor was retiring that spring and one of his requirements had always been for students to teach a song to the class by singing it aloud. He requested a private meeting with me, informing me that in all of his long career, he had never heard anyone sing as badly as I did and he decided I should play the piano and say the words when I taught the song. He insisted that he had never had to ask anyone to do this but for me, it was important. During my lesson, he explained the dilemma to the class and asked me to promise (in front of our entire lecture hall) that I would never sing in front of children--as it would definitely harm them--just by hearing it.

It is truly amazing that I continued to sing but during my first year of teaching, I decided birthdays were too important so I sang “Happy Birthday” with the class when my 1st graders had a birthday. But I forgot that I had shared my singing stories with some teachers and the principal. My principal thought it was funny to “listen in” on the loudspeaker at the end of any day he knew there was a birthday in our classroom. Then he would pop down and make a comment about my singing voice.

You could say I am embarrassed about my horrible singing voice. That would be 100% true. It is really not a big deal, something I almost never think about--until it is time to sing “Happy Birthday." Now when it is time to sing “Happy Birthday” to a family member, friend or colleague, I just don’t participate—I disengage. If you are ever with me and it is a friend’s birthday, you may think it is rude that I mouth the words or I go find something else to do.

Because of this shame, I have just learned to live a very full life without much music or singing.

Imagine if these experiences had been in reading instead of singing? I know many people in the world who lead very full lives without books and reading. They have many hobbies and interests and talents outside of reading, but they may also have learned to avoid reading because of the subtle (and not so subtle) messages they got about reading from well-meaning people throughout their lives.

I am certain that my elementary music teacher meant well. She took her job very seriously and wanted me to learn how to sing. These were quick moment in her teaching life that I am certain she would not even remember or think twice about. But her first messages to me have stuck and I remember the weekly look of disappointment on her face clearly.

In 5th grade I stopped seeing myself as someone who could sing. This was solidified again in college and again as a first year teacher. In Choice Words, Peter Johnston says, “Building an identity means coming to see in ourselves the characteristics of particular categories (and roles) of people and developing a sense of what it feels like to be that sort of person and belong in certain social spaces.” (p. 23)

I think as teachers we all say and do things in the course of the day hoping it is in the best interest of our students. I am confident that all of the music teachers I had wanted what they thought was best for me. But they let me know over and over again that I was just not cut out to be a person who sings. Of course, we want students who can read, but we also want students who become lifelong readers. We want students who see themselves as readers and students who cannot imagine a full life without reading. We need to remember that in every single interaction we have with a child.


  1. As someone who loves music and singing just for the fun of it, this makes me so sad! I feel like music should be for everyone, regardless of talent. I can definitely see how this affected you and I'm really disappointed in all of these teachers. Even though I'm lucky enough to be born with a good singing voice, I had an experience in fifth grade where I was (non-verbally) shamed by another girl for getting too into singing our patriotic song every day, so I became more shy about it.

    I think you were brave to sing in your first year despite all the discouragement you received. And I wonder what kind of impact that principal had, not on you (clearly that was bad), but on the children in your classroom. Any child who was worried they had a poor singing voice as well was taught that ridicule would follow their participation.

    I have some choice words I would like to say to most of these teachers. Words that I will forego placing on your blog. This makes me feel sick to my stomach and I'm so sorry for what you had to endure.

  2. It is interesting to me because I've never written it down before--al in one place. None of the comments on their own were so bad but together they are pretty bad--seeing them like this. It makes me worry about quick comments I make to kids and which ones add to an identity they have--we do have the power to change that I think. Teachers' word are so powerful.

  3. Wow. So telling. My elementary PE teacher yelled across the playground at recess one day, "Falconer! You run like a turkey!" Strangely enough, I've never been comfortable in PE classes.

    1. Amazing what one comment can do to our identity.

  4. Franki, I'm horrified at the comments you received. I'm a music teacher, and clearly remember other kids getting shamed for their singing by my school music teacher or grade school teachers. You are correct. Our words, oh our words (or facial expressions)! "Oh be careful, little mouth, what you say..." I apologize on behalf of music teachers everywhere!


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