From “Baaahp!” to Duke Ellington: Anne Phillips in conducting mode.

It’s a wonderful party. At the end, we are all standing around the piano singing our heads off—all but one woman. I’ve never met her before, but I say, “Come on, join in!” 

 “I’d love to be able to sing,” she tells me wistfully, “but I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

“Really?” I say with friendly disbelief. “Can you talk?”

“Of course I can talk!”

And then I surprise her by doing what I always do with people who believe they are  buzzards:  I sing a note in my normal talking pitch—“Baaahp.”  I don’t hold the note so long that her fear will kick in, but I do hold it long enough to give it a distinguishable pitch. “Say that!”

And, like 99 percent of the buzzards I meet, she echoes it right back—on the same pitch I had used.

“If you can talk and you can match a pitch, you can sing!” I tell her. “End of story!”

But it never is the end of the story. We begin to talk, and in a minute she tells me about the first-grade teacher who had had each child in the class sing something, after which she would say, “You’re a singer, you’re a singer, you’re a listener . . . ” And that was the end of that. She was shut down for life.

There was no way I could go further with that woman at that party, but for me that experience opened a door to what has become a kind of lifetime calling: finding out why so many people believe they can’t sing, and doing something about it.

All I have to do is scratch the surface and the tales just burst out: “They told me to just move my lips”; “I got kicked out of the middle-school choir”; “My children say, ‘Mommy, Mommy, don’t sing!’”

Quenched—denied the endorphin-fueled exhilaration of bursting into song (in the shower, with the radio, with friends)—they never get over their bitterness at being silenced; the hurt stays pretty close to the surface for the rest of their lives.

So now, whenever I hear someone say, “I can’t sing,” I’ll jump in with my little “Baaahp” test.  I’ll do it anytime, anywhere. On a plane going to Ketchikan, Alaska, where I do a yearly jazz/cabaret workshop, I sat next to a lovely young woman. She asked me where I was going, and when I told her, guess what she said? ”Oh, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket!”

So I did the test, and elicited the usual matching pitch. Then she sang back the melody of “Shoo fly pie, and apple pan dowdy.” Next thing I knew, Row 33, including a little 8-year-old in the next seat, had become a joyful chorus.

It was in Ketchikan that I had my first star “can’t sing” pupil. It was a man whose new wife dragged him to my beginners’ class for adults. He could carry a tune, but he told me that with his voice he sure wasn’t going to get up on any stage and SING!  Scratch the surface:  He had grown up on a farm, and he sang around the house all the time. “If you’re going to make all that noise, go out in the barn with the cows!”  said his father. And that was that.

I am proud to say that by the end of the week he was singing, he did go on stage, and he sang “I Married an Angel” in the most beautiful tenor voice, a voice that had been silenced for 30 years. He has since starred in the local productions of Broadway shows there, and he tells me that finding his voice has changed his life.

Not sing? How can someone go through life never singing? I’ve spent many years as a singer, composer, voice coach, leader of children’s jazz choirs. In that time, I’ve never met someone who, after some lessons, really can’t carry a tune. 

Many children today think talking is singing. But I can have 50 of them singing a perfect unison within five minutes by singing “Baaahp” and urging them to hear the note in their heads, then sing it back to me. Focusing for a few seconds does the trick, and we’re off and running, singing Gershwin, Ellington . . . With adults, well, I can have you singing Rodgers and Hart in an hour. You won’t be ready for American Idol, but you will have made that big breakthrough!

Then, if you are really thrilled at the discovery of your voice, its fun to start building on that voice, taking lessons.

Take a listen to Linda Taliaferro, who, at NYcitywoman.com, shares her amazement and delight in discovering, in midlife, that she can sing—and sing well. Indeed, unlikely as it seems, she proves in this video that she can hit the stratospheric F’s in Mozart’s wickedly difficult “Queen of the Night’s Vengeance Aria”—she who was kicked out of her elementary-school glee club!

Her dolphin voice: Linda Tagliaferro sings Mozart’s “Queen of the Night Vengeance Aria.”

Lessons are, as Tagliaferro acknowledges, a physical, mental, and spiritual workout. But a pleasurable one: Singing releases dopamine, the brain’s feel-good chemical, and decreases cortisol, a stress chemical. You’ll leave the lesson feeling spent (from the deep breathing) but exultant. After every lesson, a guaranteed high—which is what singing does for you, and why locking down a voice in someone’s childhood is just criminal.

Proof that the “tone deaf” can learn to sing? California-based composer/choir director William A. Mathiew deliberately seeks out “real turkeys” for his classes for the tone-deaf.  No one, he declares, is tone-deaf, but those (perhaps one in 20) who are slow to learn pitch relationships are stifled by the “slap on the heart” they get early in life from the mockery of others.  He describes his gentle method of unchaining the melodies in those hearts. Toward the end of the cycle of eight to ten lessons, he says, “part-singing can be tried.” Part-singing!

Singing is such a personal thing—any wrong notes clearly come from you. If you play a horn and play a sour note, make a funny sound, you can look reproachfully at the horn. Interestingly, I know a lot of fine jazz musicians who won’t open their mouths to sing. They are safe behind their horns.

But singing with a lot of other people . . . now that is really safe—and invigorating. My friend Michael Shepley, a great American songbook buff, and I do a Songbook Sing-in, called Sing Sing Sing, at the Triad, a club in New York City. With lyrics books in hand, 50 to 60 people raise their voices together singing these great songs in a perfect example of that “endorphin-fueled exhilaration.”  Our next one, “Love Happy,”an evening of happy love songs, will be held on October 2.

I once read an article that said that when Tony Bennett was a child, a teacher divided his class into yellowbirds and black birds.  Only the yellowbirds were allowed to sing. He was a blackbird!  But I guess his ego was strong enough to overcome that!  We can’t all be Tony Bennetts or Ella Fitzgeralds, but we certainly should have the resounding joy of singing in our lives.