This morning, there was a parishioner who was sitting close to the music ministry, singing with enthusiasm. At the end of mass, we had a chance to chat for a few minutes, and I said that he and his friend had nice voices.
Like most adults, they responded with something like this…
“No not me, you don’t want to hear me sing.”
For fifteen years, I have heard this response far too many times from adults who are naturally good singers.
There’s been a lot of talk on the internet and on social media about body-shaming. Popular culture is beginning to recognize that critical comments about weight, shape, and overall appearance promote unhealthy attitudes towards the human body-among men and women of all ages. We’ve become more sensitive to body dysmorphia and other body-image related mental health concerns.
Although body-shaming is relatively new issue, for long as I can remember, it has been considered impolite to make negative comments about anything that is connected to a person’s appearance. For example, I wouldn’t tell someone I just met that their necktie looked like three-week old guacamole. My friends don’t tell me to stop smiling because I have a giant gap in between my front teeth. Unwanted remarks about appearance or shape from coworkers, teachers, or classmates can be considered bullying or harassment.
Even among close family members, it would be abusive for a parent to say “don’t look at me, you’re asymmetrical,” to their child. I doubt that my mother would have responded well if I ever told her that I didn’t like the way she looked. It’s socially more appropriate to give complements.
Growing up in the 1990’s, we were force-fed math, language arts, social studies, science and physical education. Grading was based on test scores, homework and participation. Students who were struggling in these areas would often be referred to a tutor, or they would receive some remedial support, even if these areas did not bring them joy or a place for creative expression. Music and art were considered elective areas of study. No one was ever sent to a music tutor because each morning they were consistently flat when the class sang My Country tis of Thee after the Pledge of Allegiance. It was never appropriate to tell a struggling student, “you can’t add” or “you’re illiterate,” – so how come it was somehow acceptable and even funny for people to tell one another, “don’t sing,” or “you’re so off-key?
Why do we allow others to silence our voice? Why have we remained silent into adulthood? Why are we uncomfortable about singing, and why do we giggle when the people around express themselves through song? Why do we sound-shame our children, our partners and our friends?
Our bodies are our instruments. It’s neither polite nor healthy to shame one another for the way that our instruments look. Why do we surrender when our teachers, friends and family try to shame our sound? Especially as adolescents, we struggle until we master the very disciplines that fail us when we need a creative outlet. We need math to manage our money, science to manage our health, and social studies so that we can learn from our history, yet it is difficult to express what’s in our heart through an equation, an experiment or a document-based essay.
We receive lots of negative feedback as children, and we work tirelessly to overcome our challenges so that we can be successful adults. Why is musical aptitude seen as an all-or nothing venture? We don’t say “don’t write,” to a person with dyslexia. Why is it okay to say “don’t sing?”
Math, science, social studies, language are all predictable formula. They are expressions of what is, what was, what could be, but moreover, what exists somewhere in an a priori cloud of truth.The expression of the heart is uncertain. Song calls us back to a time when we were vulnerable, to trust and to listen. Song calls us out of our minds, into our bodies, our hearts, our instincts, our emotions. Song calls upon the soul—and for those who are distanced from their own soul, song is an alarming call to return to the time when they too were vulnerable.
Next time you hear a friend sing, commend their effort, and listen.