The topic of singing came up on the banjo-l list. I’ll share a post in which I responded to a few posts that I thought were myth-based.


I tell folks (especially the banjo instructor) that I can’t sing.

In my opinion, the statements “I can’t sing,” and “I’m tone deaf,” are incorrect and essentially meaningless. EVERYONE with a voice can sing and EVERYONE who can hear at all, can hear (at least some) differences in pitch. I think what these folks really mean is: “I have a hard time carrying a tune,” and “I have no confidence in my singing.”

I have had many successes with people who start out “tone deaf”, who then get some instruction and “permission” to sing, and have a great time with it, and sometimes even get to be good singers.

To learn how to carry a tune, get the help of a friendly musical person. Just start singing a song, regardless of key, and have the other person last note of the chorus is probably the right key. Then sing the song again, with their good chordal accompaniment in *that* key. Very often, with only that, or a little extra help, a person will start carrying the tune correctly. The self-consciousness on the part of the singer is a big obstacle, but if he/she will just try anyway and put up with the discomfort, the results will start coming.


So many people want to sing anyway that they won’t care if you sing or not.

I feel this is only sometimes true, especially not in beginners’ jams. Often, everyone wants someone else to pick a song, and nothing happens until someone does. I think that coming to a jam prepared to sing a few songs if the need arises, is quite positive, and I consider it appropriate jam behavior. If no one will just say, “OK, let’s do _________ and I’ll sing it,” some beginner jams get nowhere, except maybe a messy Cripple Creek or trainwrecked Blackberry Blossom.

Also, lead singing is not the only singing contribution. If someone knows choruses and harmonies, they will be *much* more welcome at a jam session than a player who doesn’t sing. How many times does a banjo player walk up to a session and hear, “Oh great, four banjos now” ? If you are a banjo player who can contribute to the singing, you get the edge over one who won’t sing. Which brings us to:


Have you heard Earl Scruggs sing?…. Earl isn’t a good singer.

Earl is a great singer — a great harmony singer. He was good enough to sing on large numbers of great records with Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt. He knows words and knows how to blend. A great contribution. Ask Jerry Douglas, who has sung with him often, on stage, in recent years.

With the example of people like Earl and J.D., Sonny, Ralph, Bill Emerson, and many other banjo players in the spotlight, and just about every member of any professional band, yes, they do all sing (even if not on stage), and they don’t blow it off as unimportant. Singing is using your body to make music. Being musical doesn’t absolutely have to involve singing, but singing is a very accessible type of musicality. Musicians value harmony, and sometimes have to sing little melody phrases to each other, and should be tuned in to what vocals (the nucleus of the music) are all about. All good reasons to learn how to sing, not just “to keep the jam going”.

So I encourage people to sing. Sometimes they just won’t, so I tell them they have to *move their lips*. Then I tell them to make some sound come out while mouthing the words. Generally, once they get over their self-consciousness, it comes out fine. It’s not atypical that I start a jam camp of 20 with about 5 people willing to sing, and at least 5 not at all willing. By the end, virtually everyone is singing and having fun.

For the stubborn ones who WONT, I just think OK, too bad. But I never think they can’t contribute musically if they can play.