According to Steven M. Demorest, a professor of music education at Northwestern University, all children are born to sing, and telling them they lack the talent to do so can have lasting repercussions.
"Research shows that many adults who think of themselves as 'unmusical' were told as children that they couldn't or shouldn't sing by teachers and family members," he explained in a recent essay he wrote for The Conversation. "My own research found that if children have a negative view of themselves as singers, they are much less likely to participate in music of any kind. These self-perceptions of a lack of musical talent can then become a self-fulfilling prophecy."
And that's not all: Demorest went on to explain that adults who drop out of music as children may lose their singing skills through lack of use and opportunity. And kids who love music but do not think of themselves as musical could miss out on many of the social and cognitive benefits of music participation, as well as the experience of feeling connected to others through song.
"These benefits have nothing to do with talent," he writes. "Children are natural musicians, as they readily sing, dance, and play music from the time they are infants. People ask me all the time how they can tell if their child has musical talent. I assure them that their child—indeed every child—has musical ability that can be developed into a satisfying and lifelong relationship with music. However, as they get older, some children begin to get messages from peers, family members, the media, and (unfortunately) music teachers that they may not be very musical—that they don't have 'talent.'"
So sad! And of course, shows like "American Idol" don't help, he explains, since they promote the notion that singing is a rare ability reserved for the talented few, and that those without such talent entertain us only by being ridiculed and weeded out.
"This talent mindset of music runs counter to what psychologist Carol Dweck calls the 'growth mindset' that is considered critical for learning," Demorest says. "Students who view their success as a result of hard work will persevere through challenges, while students who believe their success lies with some innate ability—like 'talent'—are more likely to give up."
So how can we send children the message that singing is for everyone? Demorest says the change could begin both at home and school.
"If you are a parent, you could sing the music you loved growing up and not worry about how good you sound," he offers. "Having an adult in the home committed to music and singing without shame may be the most powerful influence on a child. You could sing with your kids from the time they are little, sing with the radio, sing in the car, or sing at the dinner table. As for my fellow music teachers, I ask that you encourage all of the children in your classrooms, schools, and communities to sing whenever and wherever they get a chance. The sad truth is, when we, the musical experts, discourage a child from singing, it can deliver a fatal blow to the child's musical self-image."