On singing and playing instruments

Happy Tuesday and welcome to this post, which is all in English for now and where I intend to write about how music fits into people’s lives in Australia and Japan. In particular I want to write about singing and people’s attitudes towards it. I won’t write much about classroom music teaching, due to its being a large can of worms and my not being well versed in it. However, I will write a bit about clubs at schools and how individuals go about their musical endeavours, such as instrument and voice lessons and practice. So, here we go.

In Australia, people are self-conscious about singing in front of others. I suspect singing in itself is not seen as cool unless you’ve got a microphone, and maybe not then unless you get properly into it and kill it (you know, nail it, i.e. do an impressive job of it), like Adele or Guy Sebastian. People like singing along to music that is being played, and indeed, if you go to a nightclub or a concert with songs you know being played, singing along enthusiastically is the done thing. However, if you try to get someone to sing you a bit of a song, even just to get the idea of how it goes and whether you know it or not, most people awkwardly refuse, saying, ‘oh no, I can’t sing.’

Those who reckon they can sing like Sia aren’t always so shy, unlike perhaps Sia herself. Image: wetpaint

If you’re in Australia, you may have encountered some recent journalism on ‘tone deafness.‘ Lots of people reckon they are tone deaf – though whether they actually believe it or just say it to either look humble or get out of singing in front of someone, who can say? For most people, though, it’s not true. According to this journal of neuroscience that the Internet conveniently found for me, about 4% of people actually have what is termed congenital amusia, which means it’s hard for them to distinguish between pitches and therefore to carry a tune, or to hear nuances in a melody that other people might. So what’s going on with those from the other 96% that reckon they can’t sing?

I think there’s a fear of failure for people singing in Australia, as strong as the fear of academic failure for school kids in Japan. Especially for men. And not just a fear that they aren’t actually that good a singer, but you know, it’s a kind of non-aggressive self-expression, so to some Aussie blokes, this, for 1, isn’t seen as cool, blokey behaviour, and worse, could easily lead to your being misconstrued as gay. Know what IS blokey, though? This (around 00:40). Footy anthems and Happy Birthday get shouted: with large groups of Australian laypeople, especially men, there’s no perceptible attempt to ‘sing.’ You have the odd guy who actually thinks he can sing, and isn’t afraid to get behind a microphone and try his hand at some Frank Sinatra, and this is the kind you get in singing competitions and bands. And of course there are the other minorities who join choirs and stuff. They’re not usually among the ‘cool kids’ at school, at least not in my experience.

As is mentioned in the ABC article linked to above, I think a lot of people never honestly try to sing after being put down about their singing by parents, teachers or peers, early on in life, whether it’s being told that they’re tone deaf or that they don’t have a ‘good voice’ or whatever it may be. Maybe this discourages people and they get put off, like how I was with PE.

Many schools in Australia have choirs that students can join as a co-curricular activity. Notice the word ‘can’ here – it’s optional. And in most schools, I think there are things anyone can join. In my school, a lot of the kids who joined were not high in the social rankings of their various year levels and may have felt bullied, actively or passively, by those who were (the sporty kids). But I digress. I think most school choirs sound pretty good in general; they sound musical. There are usually enough people who are able to musically lead that those who are happier following.

BUT.

My school had a House Music competition. Not as in the genre of music that is house, but as in, our school was divided into houses like in Harry Potter, and the houses competed against each other in events like athletics, cross country, swimming day and House Music. As a music nerd, it was the event of the year for me.

House Music had four events for each house: a stage/dance event, an instrumental, a duo/trio and a choir event. They were all voluntary except for choir. And they were all usually pretty great to watch and listen to – except for choir. Generally, you would hear the girls’ part(s) singing the notes intended. They weren’t very confident, so they were usually a bit quiet and the leaders were always telling them to sing louder. And you would hear… maybe 60 boys all shouting what might have been words at the same time. It was kind of like a footy anthem, except because there was a piano accompaniment and they’d been trained with people clapping the beat and there was a conductor trying furiously to keep time, they didn’t get faster.

It’s really different in Japan. Singing is much more a usual part of life. It’s not seen as uncool/gay to sing if you’re a guy. Sometimes groups of boys go to karaoke together – or men and/or women for work afterparties. And boy bands are still a thing in Japan. K-pop and J-pop is probably at least half made up of idol groups of 3 or more members, sometimes more like 48. Boys OR girls singing and dancing in unison with some solo parts (mixed groups of this type don’t seem to exist outside AAA).

Popular boy band EXILE. Image: this commercial page

School music classes involve a lot of singing together in Japan. I haven’t been to many, but I hear them all the time. There always seems to be some sort of choral singing. It’s usually popular music – that is to say, kids start with children’s songs, nursery rhymes and folk songs, then broaden out to other kinds of pop. They don’t sing classical or church music.

Some schools have choir clubs, some don’t. But all junior high schools have a choral event, which all the students join; it’s compulsory, but I’ve never heard any complain about having to do it. When you see them perform, most seem to enjoy it, and you can hear them – they’re not miming. For some of the really naughty or restless kids (possibly undiagnosed ADD or an ignored learning difficulty), singing in choirs is the only time I’ve seen them join in and work constructively with the other students, or stay in one place for more than 2 minutes. Is this just my schools, or do your schools get equally into it, ALT readers?

In this choir event, home room classes compete against each other. Students accompany and conduct. The class practises together for a few weeks before the event and they usually sound pretty great. All the classes manage at least 2-part harmony, more often 3-part.

As a long-time choir singer and musician, there is something that really surprised me in choral rehearsals at some of my schools: When they have sectional rehearsals, i.e. when the sopranos, altos and boys (who evidently aren’t trusted to divide) are practicing their different parts separately, they all do it at the same time in the same room, and they do it by singing their part along with a CD.

What!?

How are you supposed to be able to figure out your own part when the same song is playing, in different places of the song, at the same time in 3 different parts of the room!?!?

When the whole of Year 7 and Year 8 were practicing their sending-off song the other day for the upcoming Year 9 graduation, they did this too in the school gym. The altos were in trouble because unlike the other two parts, they didn’t have enough space to make a circle so they were all in rows facing towards the middle of the gym, but the CD player they were using didn’t have an extension cord, so it was at the end of the second-back row and almost nobody could hear it. What they could hear was the boys and the sopranos belting out their respective parts with their respective CD accompaniments. It was mighty difficult for the altos to stick together. Some people started clapping the beat, but the ones clapping couldn’t hear the CD either so they were wrong and it all fell apart. Then it was time for me to go… I hope they worked it out in the end.

If this doesn’t seem weird to you, maybe I should explain that in every choir I’ve sung in in Australia, and also the ones I briefly joined in France and Hungary, if the parts are practising their individual parts, they do it in different places so they can hear themselves. In school choir, this meant using various different practice rooms in the music centre. In other choirs, this meant either using different rooms or some groups going outside or whatever. I’ve also never seen people learning their part using a CD together. Some singers learn their part by singing along with the recording at home or in the car, but I’d never seen it happen in rehearsal until I came to Japan.

On the other hand, the brass band in a Japanese school almost never seems to rehearse as a whole band. They just do individual practice in the corridors (percussion stays in the music room) where they can not only hear each other, but all the kids practising baseball, volleyball, track and field etc. can also hear. This took me a while to get my head around too: in school band in Australia, we were expected to learn our parts at home, and do our practice at home, and then we’d only rehearse together once or twice a week. This was more or less true for choir too – we only rehearsed together once or twice a week, so it was precious time and we didn’t have sectional rehearsals very often.

After a while I worked out that this is why kids have band/choir practice every day in Japan – school is where they do their practice. They probably can’t do it at home, because it will disturb the neighbours. (Have you ever lived near a drummer?) And most schools I’ve been to in Japan only have one music room – they don’t have a music department with practice rooms. Using CDs for choir parts enables the kids to follow along without having to be able to sight-sing, which is a pretty difficult skill to learn for a lot of people. I guess they just learn to put up with having to tune out of the other parts rehearsing at the same time.

Australian and other western readers, does this sound right to you? Does singing make people cringe, where you come from? How do you feel about karaoke? How much singing do you remember doing at school, and what were attitudes like towards it?

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One thought on “On singing and playing instruments

  1. I don’t like singing in front of people…. I agree that most people in Australia don’t. I had an interesting experience last week. We had 22 girls from Gakushuin university (Tokyo) visit our primary school in Kallista (Melbourne) and participate in activities together. (Lots of fun). We asked our students to sing the national anthem for the girls and it was reasonably cringey 😩 the girls then sang an impromptu Japanese folk song and sounded like angels 👼🏼

    Like

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