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Sing as if No-One's Listening... Or Voting

25/08/2013 23:41 BST | Updated 25/10/2013 10:12 BST

Cowellophobia. Millions suffer from this debilitating condition. Yet you're unlikely to have heard its name before, as I've only just made it up.

Its inspiration was a lady who this week joined a music therapy group I run. I invited her to tell us a little about herself as way of introduction, and her opening line was that she was 'tone-deaf'. The other members smiled knowingly; they had all said the same thing when they'd joined.

I hear adults use this phrase to describe themselves all the time. No doubt you have too; perhaps you've even used the phrase about yourself. Well if you truly are tone-deaf then you suffer from a condition (a real one, this time) known as amusia. People with amusia literally cannot distinguish between different musical notes, usually due to neurological impairment. This is different from simply finding it hard to sing 'in tune' (we all have some things that come easily to us and other things we struggle with).

I've never knowingly met anyone with amusia. So it was not surprising to me that by the end of the group session the new lady was singing mostly in-tune. And yet when I then asked her if she still thought she was tone-deaf, she remained adamant that she was. It was as if it was part of her identity, and it would take more than half an hour of singing in key to alter that perception.

So I wondered, what did she really mean by it? And why are millions of us so ready and willing to become paid-up members of the tone-deaf club?

My wonderings have increasingly led me to the conclusion that we are collectively responsible for creating a society that actively discourages most people from singing.

As babies, we experience our voice as a spontaneous, expressive and instinctively musical way of communicating. However in western culture we then embark on a journey from a predominantly live, active experience of music such as singing between mother and baby, to a predominantly recorded, passive experience - listening to ipods, radio etc. As this journey leads us away from pro-active music-making, it is clear how easily we can lose access to our expressive singing voice along the way.

This loss may be partly developmental; as a child's self-awareness grows they naturally become more self-conscious about singing in front of others. But I also think that culture and environment play a hugely significant role in how comfortable we are in using our singing voice. And in recent times there have been fundamental changes to the fabric of our society that mean increasingly we now have to 'opt in' to singing as we grow up, rather than 'opt out'.

Examples are all around us. My father, a schools inspector for 30 years, told me once how sad he was to have witnessed such a dramatic fall in the number of schools that sang in assembly. Often, he said, this communal singing was the only time that the whole school actually did something together. Similarly, secularization in the UK means that the number of people singing together in a place of worship is far smaller than it once was. And of course, the days of families singing round a piano of an evening are largely behind us.

As we lose these opportunities for communal and crucially non-judgemental music-making, we are allowing singing to be redefined as a 'talent'; something you can either 'do' or you can't. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the media. What's the modern-day equivalent of singing round a piano together? Sitting around a television together, watching other people's singing voices being judged (and inevitably judging them ourselves).

Of course this impulse to judge isn't new. Very often my 'tone-deaf' clients regale stories of how many years ago they failed the audition for the school choir, or still remember one particularly unflattering comment about their singing. As these events usually happened in their youth, they used the negative feedback to create an 'I can't sing' facet of their developing identity which was then reinforced over the years.

Consequently, millions inhibit their natural, human instinct to sing, largely I would argue due to a fear of their voice (and therefore themselves) being judged by others... Cowellophobia.

But that primal instinct to sing isn't lost. It lies dormant, and is often reawakened when we become parents. We sing to our babies, to bond with them and introduce them to the world beyond. And we instinctively sing with our simplest, most 'authentic' voice, unburdened by worries about how it will be judged. The American humourist Kin Hubbard once quipped that 'the worst thing about a new baby is its mother's singing'. But it is precisely the clarity and honesty revealed when we sing in this way that communicates so effectively to our child.

As music therapists, that's the voice we look for in our clients. It is part of what Nordoff and Robbins called the 'music child' in all of us. And we encourage it through a non-judgemental, unconditionally supportive musical and interpersonal relationship that gives our clients the confidence to find or rediscover this authentic voice. In doing so they hear themselves differently and so experience themselves differently; perhaps why the process is described so often by people as life-transforming. They also feel heard - and with not a judging panel or phone poll in sight.

For more information visit nordoff-robbins.org.uk