I used to think people could either carry a tune or they couldn’t – that some lucky people were blessed with musical talent, and other people just didn’t have what it took to learn to sing or play an instrument.

But what if that’s not true?  What if anyone can learn to sing?  I was skeptical about this…until I taught a self-described “tone-deaf” friend to sing on pitch.

Sean, a drummer and guitar player, asked me if I could teach him to sing.  He was worried that he might be a hopeless case, because his bandmates laughed hysterically whenever he tried to carry a tune.  They said he sounded like a wounded dog howling.

How bad could he be, I thought.  So I invited him over for a lesson.

“Let’s hear you sing something.”  I started playing ”Happy Birthday” on the piano, and Sean launched into a wild lurching melody that had nothing to do with the song, starting on a random note and then jumping down to a whole different key when it got too high.  Whoa!  This was going to be a challenge.

I wasn’t even sure if he was teachable.  But I was intrigued by the idea.  My first thought was, “What isn’t he getting that good singers get instinctively?”  He didn’t get the concept that a melody has definite pitches, that singing a tune is like following a road map.  You can’t just drive down any random street and hope to make it to your destination (although my husband swears by this method) – you need to follow the directions.  I explained the concept of matching each pitch along the road map, and Sean understood it in theory, but he couldn’t make his voice do it.  How could he make that connection in his brain? 

To show him the general concept of pitch, I had him say “woo-oo woo-oo” in a high voice like a police siren.  “That’s how high your vocal range goes,” I explained.  “Now say something in a low, sexy voice, like Barry White…that’s your low end.”  Sean was surprised to see that he had a pretty big range.  You can try this at home, but be prepared for confused looks from everyone in your house.

One thing that he COULD do was pick out a melody on the guitar, so he could follow a road map of pitches that way.  He just needed to learn to do the same thing with his voice.  The voice is an instrument, and the more you practice, the better you will get at using it.

I played a few melodies on the piano and had him play them back on the guitar.  That was no problem for him.  Then I had him try to sing along with what he was playing.  It was a little shaky at first, and I had to keep guiding him with “higher” or “lower.”  He still wanted to sing in his comfortable range and ignore the music.  But then he sang a couple of lines perfectly, and I saw the light bulb go on in his mind!  It was like the story of Helen Keller understanding W-A-T-E-R as her teacher signed the letters onto her hand under a stream of running water.  Sean smiled and said, “Hey! Let’s do some more!”

Once he got the concept of matching pitch, all he needed to do was practice.  I played a few recordings of pop songs and had him practice playing guitar and then singing along with the melodies.  He was getting it!  He went home excited to hone this new skill.

After a couple of weeks of lessons and practice, Sean was able to sing out confidently on pitch.  “It’s amazing,” he said.  “Before we worked on this I could hear that I was way off when I sang, but I didn’t know how to fix it.  Now I know what I’m listening for, and I can hear it and feel it when the notes are right.”

I was thrilled for him, and I was even more excited about the discovery of a new way of helping someone learn.  Sean thought he was hopeless as a singer, but he just hadn’t found the right learning strategy.  The way that many people learn to sing, just by hearing a song and repeating it, didn’t work for him (as his bandmates will attest).  What did work was to 1) find a mentor to help break the process down into smaller steps, 2) incorporate the skills he already had, like playing guitar, and 3) practice deliberately and regularly.

You can try these same steps to learn something that’s outside your comfort zone.  Happy practicing!