September 11, 2022

Changing the Narrative: Re-Stor(y)ing Silenced Voices

Like many of you I have felt the absence of singing keenly over the months since Covid arrived on our shores. Not being able to sing with my choral colleagues, or with my students has struck at the very heart of who I am.

I am a singer. Melodic fragments play on a loop in my head; I remember the words to songs learnt in primary school and randomly blurt out song lyrics related to something you just said. I don’t remember becoming a singer any more than I remember learning to speak. All I know is that “so much of my identity is wrapped up in being a singer. It’s not just that I sing, it’s that I am a singer” (Meizel, 2020, p. 180; emphasis in original).

Much of my identity as a singer was formed through interactions with early musical models and experiences: my mother whose singing calmed my fears, stopped my tears and floated me to sleep; singing hymns in church; my teachers: Miss M who played the bass drum in a marching band, Mrs B whose playing of the walnut-coloured piano in my Primer 2 classroom accompanied our folk dancing, and singing with guitar-playing rockstar teachers Mr F, Mr T, Mr J, Mrs F. Classroom singing, choir and kapa haka carried me through my primary and intermediate school years. Singing brings me joy, and connection to others; it is my life and my livelihood.

When I became a primary school teacher, my classroom was bursting with song. Now, as a music teacher, I am even more grateful to those people who filled my childhood with the joy of singing. How do we ensure that post-Covid, every child in every school is afforded a song- filled education? Many of the classroom teachers I have worked with are not comfortable singing in the classroom or in school assemblies; not pōwhiri or staff meetings either. They are whakamā and afraid of the judgement of others. “I can’t sing!” they protest. The thought of singing conjures up feelings of embarrassment and anxiety (Abril, 2007; Knight, 2013; Whidden, 2010). Yet generalist teachers in the primary school have an important role to play in the formation of musical identity (Dinham, 2011 and Button & Holden, 2006, cited in Heyning, 2011; Pascale, 2013). Furthermore, there is overwhelming evidence that identifies the critical role that singing plays in child development, including physical, social and language skills (Pascale, 2005; Neumann, 2008; Heyning, 2011).

How is it that so many primary school teachers feel anxious about singing? We aren’t born with a sense of being unmusical or being unable to sing. Instead, the ‘you can’t sing’ label is often imposed by others whose judgement stems from a narrow, socially constructed view of singing. This pronouncement, usually passed during the formative years of childhood and adolescence, and often by family members or teachers (Abril, 2007; Knight, 2013; Numminen, Lonka, Rainio & Ruismäki, 2015; Richards & Durrant, 2003; Whidden, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2015), becomes self-fulfilling – I’m not a singer so I don’t sing; I don’t sing, therefore I’m not a singer.


I can’t sing

I know because

he laughed when I was five

she suggested “don’t sing” when I was six

he questioned “can’t you hear how out of tune you are?” when I was seven

she directed “stand at the back of the choir” when I was eight he advised “just mouth the words” when I was nine

she demanded “stand and pretend” when I was ten

So I did.

So I do.

An abundance of research literature documents the trauma that is being told ‘you can’t sing’, and the effects of this experience are often felt for a lifetime (Numminen et al., 2015; Abril, 2007; Knight, 2013; Richards & Durrant, 2003; Whidden, 2008, 2009, 2010; Heyning, 2011; Swain & Bodkin-Allen, 2014). To make sense of this experience, non-singers develop a narrative (Connelly & Clandinin, 1990) centred around singing as being a “gift for the gifted” (Phillips, 2003, cited in Neumann, 2008, p. 42) – either you can sing, or you can’t (Numminen et al., 2015; Knight, 2013). Predicated on the notion that singing is an innate, fixed talent, this narrative leaves no room for the fact that singing is developmental (Knight, 2013; Neumann, 2008).

While the narratives we construct to make sense of our lives and experiences provide meaning and continuity, they can also limit our ability to grow and develop since “we live into [our stories] as well as out of them” (White & Epston, 1990, cited in Cahill, 2008, p. 22). Anxious singers get stuck inside their stories of not being able to sing, afraid of being judged again. Restoring the voices of non-singers requires disrupting this ‘I-can’t-sing-because-I’m-not-talented’ narrative (Le Fevre, 2019) and presenting opportunities to enable a “re-storying” (Kenyon & Randall, 1997, cited in Le Fevre, 2019, p. 222). Challenging old stories allows people to create new possibilities for themselves (White & Epston, 1990, cited in Cahill, 2008).

Disrupting the ‘talent’ narrative will require reframing our view of singing. A singing aesthetic that prioritises performance and entertainment as primary functions values singing in tune and confident voices of soloistic quality (Knight, 2013; Pascale, 2002), leaving many people to recoil from describing themselves as singers. Indeed, the word ‘singer’ has weighty associations (Whidden, 2010). What claims are we making if we say yes to being a singer?

If we could say yes, I’m a singer but I am a singer that sings to her baby at night … But if I say I’m a singer, it is expected that I can get up on stage and sing. Maybe if there were different levels allowed, then people would dabble. (Marjorie, personal communication, Whidden, 2010, p. 96)

American researcher and music educator Professor Louise Pascale elaborated on this idea in her doctoral dissertation, asserting that the term ‘non-singer’ is a myth; given the right conditions, we all are singers (Pascale, 2002). For some, it’s the solitude of the shower or car; for others, the presence of friends or the lubrication of alcohol. If this is the case, is it possible that some teachers have silenced their own voices, judging that they don’t meet a perceived ‘singing standard’? A broader and more inclusive definition may encourage non-singing teachers to be more open to seeing themselves as singers. A popular proverb from Zimbabwe celebrates: If you can walk, you can dance, if you can talk, you can sing. This empowering perspective presents an alternative aesthetic for singing – one that prioritises participation and community over performance and entertainment (Pascale, 2013).

Hungarian musician, ethnomusicologist, composer and teacher Zoltán Kodály advocates for the singing voice as the primary instrument for music teaching and learning (see Kodály, 1974). The singing voice allows all human beings to participate in the production of music, a truly embodied experience. Kodály was so convinced of the personal and social benefits of a life filled with song that he maintained singing and music learning should begin with young children nine months before the birth of their mother (Kodály, 1974). How can we, as a music education community, help our primary school colleagues who wear this ‘I’m not a singer’ label to re-story their experiences of singing and feel empowered to redefine their musical identity?

A 2018 action research project carried out in a Christchurch primary school after the devastating 2011 earthquakes investigated singing for wellbeing (Rickson, Legg and Reynolds, 2018). The teachers became passionate advocates and facilitators of daily singing despite professing low self-efficacy in relation to teaching music. They saw for themselves the impact that daily singing had on their students’ well- being. In order to develop the confidence to participate in and lead the singing programme, many of the teachers had to challenge long-held beliefs about music (Rickson, Atkinson, Reynolds & Legg, 2019). Merely telling classroom teachers that they can sing is not likely to persuade them they can (Pascale, 2005) so the process of disrupting an established non-singer narrative can only be achieved through self-empowerment and personal agency.

As teachers, we are often called to act beyond our own fears in our dealings with students to ensure that these are not projected onto them. I can recall numerous occasions where I had to repress my anxieties around all things creepy-crawly so that children’s curiosity wouldn’t be influenced by my trepidation. Taking a cognitive approach to the task of singing in the classroom can be a way for teachers to begin the process of building personal confidence: understanding the value of singing and not wanting the children to be afraid of participating (Rickson et al., 2019). This message is most comprehensively delivered by doing; children need to see teachers as models of learning particularly when the tasks are challenging and make them vulnerable (Abril, 2007).

Once teachers have made the decision to facilitate singing with their students, further growth can be achieved through the support of colleagues. Novice teacher-singers are able to observe more confident colleagues, benefiting from their practice and experience. This “legitimate peripheral participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991 cited in Zaffini, 2018, p. 38) establishes a safe space for growth, a ‘community of practice’ (Zaffini, 2018). In this way, novice teacher-singers are able to participate and learn alongside their students, and take time to construct a new narrative based on their own positive singing experience.

Singing is a human birthright. Everyone deserves to feel confident to sing and have opportunities to develop their skills – teachers and students alike.

Our challenge, as music educators, is to help our colleagues reinvigorate classroom singing practices in primary schools throughout Aotearoa New Zealand. Let’s ensure that voices aren’t silent any longer.

Megan Flint

Megan Flint

BIO: Megan Flint (MMus(Hons), PGDipEd(Dist)., DipTchg., ATCL) has a background in education and music, as both a primary school teacher/leader and music specialist. Singing is at the centre of all of Megan’s work. She is a choral singer and conductor, a national conducting mentor for the New Zealand Choral Federation and a passionate practitioner of Kodály-inspired music education. In 2022, Megan has begun doctoral study investigating the delivery of music education by general classroom teachers in Aotearoa New Zealand primary schools.


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