Category Archives: the choir who can’t sing

Finding courage

I remember a piano pupil, many years ago now, who wouldn’t sing in her lessons. I tried week after week, ever so gently, to try to persuade her to sing even the quietest of notes, but the more I tried the more of an ordeal it became for her. She came close several times, and I do believe that she wanted to – but in the end she just couldn’t bring herself to make a sound. Like getting to the end of the diving board but ultimately lacking the courage to take the plunge…diving2

Due to the whole of year 9 being away on a trip, only five year 10 girls came along to the Choir who won’t sing rehearsal last week, a group of five good friends. All exhibited the very same tendency described above, something which I have seen countless times in girls ever since. When I asked one of them to sing, her first response was to turn to her friend and say ‘No, you go first.’ No, you go first.‘ And so on. Eventually, one of them managed to sing back a note: it was almost inaudible, but a triumph nonetheless. Each in turn summoned up the courage, except for the one who was quite clear that she couldn’t sing – at which point one of the others produced a video on her phone of the girl singing along with her friends, full voice, to a pop song! Her cover blown, and with assurance from me that this was evidence that she could sing, she too sang a very quiet note back to me. Success!

Fifteen minutes later they were all singing Somewhere over the rainbow at the tops of their voices, faces about three inches from each other, and loving every moment of it. Perhaps they’d forgotten that I was there. Or perhaps they’d jumped off the diving board and realised that actually this was really good fun after all.

These girls love to sing together. But ask them to sing to each other and everything changes. Singing together draws us closer, but singing alone instantly invites judgement from others, and that is a scary place for the huge majority of teenage girls – even, it seems, amongst good friends. This choir isn’t really about the singing, because I know, and they know, that they can sing. It’s about finding the courage to be an individual when life is saying it’s safer to keep your head down.

One of the two pupils in my original tone deaf project, when I asked her why she wanted to be able to sing, said this: I reckon if I can sing in front of someone, I can do anything. My hope is that in time the choir will become a place where more girls can realise this particular dream. In the meantime, Alex, here are five more!

We have an audition … for Gareth!

Several weeks ago I stumbled across a Twitter post from Gareth Malone, inviting choirs to apply for his new series. Nothing to lose I thought, so I filled in an application form – for the Choir who can’t sing. And guess what?  Following a 30 minute telephone interview last week, we have been selected for audition!

As with many similar documentary-type series, they are undoubtedly interested in our back story, and I suspect that our choir is pretty unique in this regard. Bottom line though, they are looking for choirs who can give a stunning, top quality performance, so now that we’re in, that has to be our primary focus. It is going to be a very steep learning curve.


In a school context, the choir has to be accessible: put bluntly, if we sing anything which is too challenging, boys are not going to feel able to join. I really am most insistent that anyone can join, however bad they think they are at singing. We sing in unison with accompaniment – it’s that simple.

So one of the things which is really exciting about this audition is that we are no longer in a school context, and therefore we are no longer tied down by the accessibility  issue. In terms of the competition, there is no doubt at all that we have plenty of scope for development as a choir, but even so, the initial bar for the audition is set very high.

  • We will be given a song selection just a week before the audition.
    I like this. It’s a great leveller for all choirs, but for such inexperienced singers we’re going to find it particularly tough. Not made any easier by the fact that we have a leave weekend on the Saturday and Sunday of that week, so rehearsal time will be very limited.
  • The audition is a cappella!
    No, I’m not joking. We can have a guitar I think, but certainly no keyboard. So it’s going to be quite a challenge to decide whether we try to sing in harmony, or whether we keep it very simple. Again, inexperience is against us.

What I am determined to do, regardless of anything else, is to take this seriously. And by seriously I mean having a fabulous time both rehearsing and performing, with all of our characteristic energy and enthusiasm!. People need to know that singing is something which everyone can enjoy. There will be some truly amazing choirs in this competition, and with no disrespect to the boys, I don’t suspect for a moment that we will get any further than the audition. But we’re going to make the very most of the opportunity 🙂



You raise me up

Here it is at last – our video of You raise me up, recorded and filmed at Monkton. Enjoy!

The story behind each and every one of these boys is amazing. Some were told as young children that they were tone deaf, and so quite literally never even learned the basics of singing. Others have ‘discovered’ singing and tell me genuinely that our Thursday evening rehearsal is the high point of their week.

You can read more about how this project has developed by going back to The Tone Deaf Project and then follow the link at the end of each article. I genuinely believe that we are now beginning to see and hear a change in the way the whole school sings in Chapel, and this is in no small part to these boys 🙂

The Choir who can't sing


He sings!

Today has been a memorable day.

I asked Ali (now in year 13) to stay behind at the end of our Choir who can’t sing rehearsal this evening. Following our recent flashmob, we’re preparing to make a studio recording of “You raise me up” which is going to include some solos. The idea is to showcase a few of the boys who have really come from nowhere, to show that they really can sing now.

The trouble is, Ali really struggles to sing. I’ve got some scribbles in my notebook from a one to one session with Ali from December 2013 [ie. nearly two years ago] and it’s evident that I really didn’t have a clue what to do with him. He just couldn’t sing reliably anywhere near any note which I sang to him. I’ve tried several more times with him since, and despite serious effort on both our parts, it’s as if he just hasn’t been able to hear me. In fact, here’s the truth: despite my big claims that anyone can be taught to be sing, I’ve been keeping quiet about Ali because he’s the one boy I’ve had down in my mind as … wait for it … a hopeless case. Tone deaf?

That is, until today.

Actually in last week’s rehearsal he sang one or two notes in tune. I was pleasantly surprised, but put it down to chance. But this evening as I picked out a few soloists, I found myself thinking how amazing it would be if Ali could do one. One last try.

So for five minutes after the rehearsal we sang notes. The same as ever – listen carefully as I sing; now imagine singing it yourself; listen again … and now you sing. And he sang a beautiful D, the same as me. Then an F#, and then an A. We carried on singing, me first and then Ali repeating back, and gradually we started missing out the imagining bit until it was just me singing a note and Ali copying. And all of a sudden, after two years or more, his ears were switched on – note after note in tune with me. With Ali’s consent I videoed this session, but my iPad ran out of memory just as we were getting going. So you’re just going to have to believe me! He can sing! [Waiting for Ali’s consent to post the video, but hopefully something might follow soon].

This has genuinely been one of the single most exciting moments in my professional career. It may have taken a while, but Ali has found his way from being ‘tone deaf’ to being able to sing. It has taken determination, which Ali has in spades, courage, and practice; in this instance, two years worth of practice.

Find me someone who says they can’t sing and I’ll prove them wrong.

Can you sing? Apparently, 34% of people can’t!*

This October I sent a short questionnaire, Can you sing? to the whole school. More specifically, to all pupils at our senior school, and staff of both senior and prep schools.

singing survey

*Sorry about the sensational title! This figure comes from a sample of 359 replies [69% of the pupil body returned the questionnaire] but nonetheless it is a significant number of people, and the data makes for fascinating reading.

My initial intention was to discover how many might call themselves tone deaf, and I’ll come to that in a moment; but what has shocked me is this: 44% have been told by someone that they can’t sing. And in response to the question ‘Can you sing?’ (answer either yes or no), 34% said no, they can’t sing.

I wonder how many of those 122 people who say that they can’t sing have come to that conclusion because they’ve believed someone who has told them that, even if it might not actually be true. Of course teenagers can have a tendency to be down on themselves, and so that figure of 35% might be exaggerated: but then again, look at the numbers for our adult population – 31% of Monkton staff also say that they can’t sing. In a recent assembly our headmaster, Richard Backhouse, talked about the importance of developing into the person we want to be, not into the person which other people want us to be. Thought-provoking, as always, but not easy when those around us can have such a big influence on us, perhaps more often than not without us even realising it.

Arguably, ‘Can you sing?’ might be understood in a number of different ways. Maybe the implication here is ‘Are you allowed to sing?’ In other words, do those around you enable you to sing by allowing you to express yourself, or do they, either deliberately or otherwise, resign you to keeping quiet until singing becomes something you ‘can’t do.’

If it’s not bad enough being told that you can’t sing, 56 people (16%) in this sample described themselves as tone deaf. Of those, 10 have been ‘diagnosed’ by their parents, 25 by friends and 10 by …. their music teacher. How depressing. Sadly I know all too many people who have been silenced by those closest to them. Perhaps they think it’s funny, but I’ve seen reactions from boys in the Choir who can’t sing which would suggest otherwise. Please don’t ever tell anyone they can’t sing – you might just be sentencing them to a life without all of the richness which singing brings.

Wikipedia will tell you that about 4% of the population suffer from tone deafness, aka Congenital amusia. Don’t believe it. I’d love to know where this statistic comes from – maybe it’s the proportion of people who think they are tone deaf. But I’m up for proving them wrong either way! Of the 56 in my survey, 19 say that they’d love to be able to sing, and 26 describe themselves as ‘hopeless’. From my experience with the Choir who can’t sing and others,  I’d be very surprised if most of these aren’t prepared to permit me to give them a slightly more professional opinion on their ‘diagnosis’.

Not sure when I’m going to find the time to do this, but the plan now is to see as many of these so-called tone deaf people as possible, and to see whether I can bring that supposed 16% down to a realistic much less than 4%. I’ll report back in due course….

music@monkton – enabling every pupil to find their own voice

SingTrue – a brilliant new app

As I’ve said before, I have come to the conclusion that there are three things which are vital in order to be able to sing well. These are:

critical listening [ears]

good breathing [voice]

confidence [mind]

Last term I took on the challenge of teaching a young member of our sports staff to sing. She revealed over lunch one day that not only could she not sing, but that she was terrified of singing. I found this hard to believe – she seemed like the confident type to me! So it was with great surprise, when she came for her first lesson, that I discovered that she really was completely traumatized even by the prospect of singing, to the point where she was reduced to a quivering wreck. Genuinely so. I won’t forget that lesson, ever.

singtrue2Over the coming weeks we coined the term ‘humming lessons’! It quickly became apparent that our main difficulty was simply going to be able to get her to make any sound at all, never mind dealing with any pitching issues. And when, eventually, she managed to hum a note, it became clear that her ability to pitch was as bad as I’ve ever encountered (that’s bad, by the way). Wow, what a project!

On the whole, without practice things don’t get better. Using a knife and fork is tricky at first. And if as a trumpet player your tone is a little rough, it doesn’t actually get any better unless you practise regularly. And if you haven’t sung for the best part of *15 years since being publically humilated in front of the rest of the class in Year Five, you won’t have had much practice at pitching notes accurately.

Several months ago I was contacted by Christopher Sutton from, who was planning on designing an app to help people to sing. He had encountered our Choir who can’t sing project on my blog, and wanted to tap into my experience. I had my doubts; after all, probably the biggest part of this whole initiative depends on me! The whole confidence thing is tackled by me getting alongside each individual and saying ‘Come on, I believe you can do this!
targetEnter SingTrue, launched next week for iPhone/iPad, and in a word, brilliant! No surprise that there are three modules – ears, voice, mind. I have been amazed (and flattered) to see so many of my little teaching tricks – and those of others too – incorporated into this clever piece of software. I’ve been been playing with the app for the last few days (official release date 21 October) but it has suddenly dawned on me that there is one potentially huge problem with my teaching; me! I’m there, in the room, with my pupil. And therefore the whole confidence element is a problem. In many instances it’s not insurmountable, and in fact most boys just get on with it. Girls generally find this more difficult though, and in the case of this pupil, I realise now that I was getting in the way! I think this is a great app. I wouldn’t want to be replaced by an app, but it does allow those who’ve had no practice to have a go, without fear of being heard by anyone – however encouraging their teacher might try to be.

*Insert your own number if this story sounds all too familiar. Sadly, I often encounter people, many in their forties or fifties, who have never sung because they were told as a child that they couldn’t. And so they haven’t 😦

[August 2017 – staggered to discover that apparently 450,000 people (!) have ‘found their note’ using Singtrue]

Learning to sing, one step at a time

One of the things which I have found time and time again with people who can’t sing is that you really can’t take for granted that they understand how up and down works! More specifically, getting them to sing the correct note back is one thing, but then we get to the really tricky bit – how far is down?!

I have a new ‘project’ this term, a sixth former who wants to learn to sing. I heard her early last term, and at that point she was having real difficulty in singing back a note even remotely close to what I had sung to her. However, in just ten minutes she made huge progress, taking on board the three things which appear to me to be so vital – critical listening, good breath support and confidence. So what impressed me immediately when I saw her this Friday was that she had clearly mulled these things over since the summer, to the extent that she was generally able to sing back a random selection of single notes pretty accurately. A bit out of tune perhaps, but close enough for the moment!

Having established F (above middle C) as her ‘go to’ note, I set out to extend this down the scale from soh to doh. So I asked her to sing down a ‘step’. [Remember, her pitching is still unreliable.] I sang her an E flat, and she sang me …. a middle C. A perfect fourth down – that’s miles out!

The trouble is, she doesn’t know how far a ‘step’ is. If the scale is seen as a ladder, she clearly has no idea how far apart the rungs are! It might appear extraordinary, but for those who struggle, we simply can’t assume that they know how the scale works. ‘Down a step’ is a vague concept, as vague as asking someone to move ‘one’ to their left. One what? One inch? One metre?

After a little more ‘calibration’ we eventually managed to start singing down five note scales – soh, fa, mi, re, doh. And here’s the interesting bit; although she now had a pretty good feel for how far a ‘step’ was, she still ended up too low by the time she reached the bottom of the scale. And the reason why? Because there is a semitone between fa and mi.


What sensible scale, outside the realms of music, has a different distance between two points in an otherwise equal pattern?! Crazy! So actually, despite her lack of experience, I found myself admiring the combination of her logic and her new-found pitching skills. And once I’d pointed out that, for some strange reason, one of the ‘rungs’ in the major scale is smaller than the others, she quickly grasped the concept and her five note scales dropped rather beautifully into place.

How many young instrumentalists play scales and remain completely unaware of this strange phenomenon of tones and semitones? Quite a lot at a guess – they don’t need to know, because their instrument does the hard work for them. I think that’s a shame. And I also think it’s quite ironic that my new student, equipped with this little piece of knowledge, is beginning to make fantastic progress with her aural skills, and in some ways might already be seen as ahead of the game.

Choir who can’t sing on SoundCloud

Having just discovered how SoundCloud works, I’ve managed to upload three live recordings of the Choir who can’t sing. If you haven’t read this brief description of the aims for this project, it might be a good idea to do that before you listen….! Enjoy!

February 2012


May 2012


November 2013

A new choir for 2014

In January 2012 Monkton’s Choir who can’t sing came into being, and the last two years has certainly been an extraordinary and transformational learning experience for all concerned, me included. Although the members of the choir have changed – few now remain from the original group – the basic vision remains the same; a safe place for boys to learn to sing, and indeed to enjoy singing. Last term we sang Robbie Williams’ Angels in whole school singing practice, and at the end of term we sang a medley of Christmas songs as part of the Big Band Christmas lunch in the Dining Hall, to great critical acclaim (okay, I made that last bit up, but we enjoyed it!)

There is no doubt in my mind that the project has made a huge and positive difference to the way in which the whole school views singing, but that doesn’t change the fact that in Chapel services our singing is still variable – sometimes teenagers just don’t feel like singing! What is apparent, however, is that the girls have felt left out. So much so that there has been increasing demand for a girls’ choir!

So this term sees the launch of the Girls’ Choir. I’m still not sure what to call it, but I’m pretty sure that it will be different… The choir is open to everyone, regardless of whether they can sing or not, so in that respect they will be the same; but I’m not expecting so many girls who have genuine pitching difficulties, although I am prepared to be surprised on that count. However, I do hope that the choir attracts some girls who are reluctant to sing, due to confidence issues, as this is something which I have discovered to be perhaps even more crippling that a simple lack of elementary pitching skills. Either way, I’m excited to see how things develop as the term progresses; after all, this is new to me too. Before Monkton, my experience with choirs was very much restricted to a largely sacred choral repertoire with choirs who are prepared to read the dots off the page, whereas now I find myself exploring a much more spontaneous style with just the words (and sometimes not even those) and a lot of collaboration from the choir members themselves. “How does it go next?”

Looking back at where we’ve come from (as traditionally one does at New Year), things are unquestionably on the move with regards to singing at Monkton. The Chapel Choir did a marvellous job at the carol service in Bath Abbey in December and are beginning to sound much more refined.

ChoirAtAbbey                                   informal picture of Chapel Choir at Bath Abbey, December 2013

We have a Chamber Choir of some 12-14 voices who sang for the Advent Carol Service at St Michael’s in the village earlier in December, and who are able to tackle more complex repertoire. The quality of whole school singing is on a upward curve, particularly notable in the House Music competition. In addition to this, the Monkton Combe Choral Society, relaunched four years ago, is thriving and now has some 130+ members who come to Monkton every Tuesday to do battle with a major choral work!

My ultimate vision? The whole school, staff and pupils alike, singing full voice in Chapel with great commitment, enthusiasm and joy. Will we ever get there? I doubt it…. but meanwhile the journey is an exciting one!

From Aaarrr to Aaahh – the pirate who learned to sing!

Back in September I posted a blog about one particular boy in ‘The Choir who can’t sing’ who had auditioned successfully for our production of The Pirates of Penzance. In fact, no fewer than five boys from the choir ended up as pirates in the show last weekend, which had a run of three nights and which was a fantastic success – and yes I’m biased, but I wasn’t the only one to think so – “we are blown away by the show!”

It has been a tough road. After casting, the producer and I wondered whether we had bitten off more than we could chew, since the combined musical talents of the boys in the chorus did not fill us with great hope. (Sorry we doubted you!) The initial sing through had some high points though, and I was delighted that the whole chorus, girls and boys, were so swiftly taken with the witty words and catchy tunes of this Gilbert and Sullivan classic. However, the reality soon hit home; for some – who could neither read the notes, pitch them reliably or remember them – it was looking like a mountain too high to climb. Some of the boys came to rehearsals looking resigned at best, and sometimes completely defeated.

One of the main problems was range – for boys used to ‘growling’ in the lower registers, they found it difficult to maintain the stamina required to sing at least an octave higher than usual. The other was that as soon as we were joined by the girls for tutti rehearsals, they almost invariably ended up singing the main melody rather than the bass line. Frustrating but understandable! And of course, even worse is that once you throw in the choreography, everyone stops singing anyway, at least initially!

Nothing beats practice, and especially when it is a little and often! With rehearsals set on Mondays, Tuesday, Wednesdays, Thursdays and some Sunday afternoons, the whole cast were sure of at least two chorus rehearsals every week, either sectional or together. For one particular pirate, I can’t imagine a better way of getting him singing – having never sung a decent note in his life – than doing a little every day for 10 weeks. His confidence has gone through the roof, and although he is still a little hit and miss, having been part of a show like this will have given him an immense sense of achievement which will remain with him for many years.