When I was growing up, I would not have described my dad as athletic. He preferred to avoid fitness activities of any kind, with the exception of the occasional ski vacation. Like me, he’d had little interest in sports as a child. When he was 42, his doctor admonished him to get some exercise; also, my little sister was looking for a way to shed a few pounds. They opted to run together because it seemed an easy thing to do and required no equipment.
Mom and I were skeptical at first, but they were committed. Dad measured out a mile round-trip route from our front door and they disciplined themselves to rise before dawn daily in order to get it over with before heading to work/school. That summer, when my sister headed off to camp, she worried that Dad would slack off, but he had begun to realize that he actually liked running. He kept it up. When she returned she got to watch him complete the local Labor Day 5K. He continued to challenge himself, and within a couple of years he was heading out for runs of 15 miles or more on the weekends.
A few months before turning 48, Dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The surgeon who excised his tumor was an experienced marathon runner. He attributed the remarkable speed at which Dad healed from the surgery to his running and encouraged him to train for a marathon. Dad followed his doctor’s orders and ran the New York City marathon a mere 11 months after the surgery, starting the race alongside his surgeon. He completed another five marathons before a recurrence of his brain cancer ended his life at the age of 54.
If, as he huffed and puffed his way through that first mile circuit, you had told my Dad that he would go on to run six marathons, he would have been incredulous. While that wasn’t his goal when he started, running felt good, so once he started, he just kept on running.
To go from being completely sedentary to running a marathon in six years, with time off for brain surgery, is a hell of a thing. Running 26.2 miles is a hell of a thing for anyone. Nevertheless, people do it. In droves. In the United States in 2014, 541,000 people finished marathons.
This is just my Dad’s story, but every single one of those 541,000 runners has a story to tell. Among them are elite professional athletes and diehard amateurs, women and men, old and young, fast and slow. What they have in common is the ability to commit to a goal, do what it takes to achieve it, and persevere over a long period of time in the face of whatever obstacles and frustrations arise.
Their stories of perseverance give credence to the idea that completing a marathon is a realistic goal for anyone healthy enough to be cleared by their physician for exercise.
This is my first post in a series of articles asserting that most anyone can learn to sing competently, and most anyone with passion and tenacity can learn to sing brilliantly. I decided to share my Dad’s story to kick off this series because his success, alongside the successes of countless others drawn from an exhaustive sampling of humanity, exemplifies how an extraordinary feat, once believed attainable only by an exceptional few, is now regularly achieved by many, many exceptional individuals.
Anyone can learn to sing. But as things stand now, there are many people who long to sing who never try because early in life they were told they were tone deaf, compared poorly with more “talented” peers, or had a vocal quality others found piercing or irritating. A majority of those fortunate to receive enough validation and support to encourage them to enroll in performance degrees graduate without the requisite skills to pursue professional careers.
My story has been shaped by both of these experiences. In middle school I had my heart broken year after year when the cast list for the annual musical was posted and my name didn’t even appear on the ensemble list. When in my 20s I rallied and gave singing another shot, I had enough talent to get into grad school on a merit scholarship but the misfortune to select teachers who, I can see in retrospect, lacked both the skill to shape my technique and the self-awareness to acknowledge their own shortcomings.
I say that most anyone can learn to sing, but at the moment it is not broadly understood how to teach singing in a comprehensive way that will be effective for most everyone. That is why the enthusiastic child who can’t match pitch or has a shrill voice is shushed up and told to just mouth the words while the rest of the class performs. That is why conservatories do a very good job of identifying talent and bestowing polish upon voices that are relatively disentangled, but a very poor job of resolving technical deficiencies like the ones that plagued me throughout my masters and doctoral studies.
It’s time to re-evaluate our methods and devise new strategies so that anyone who longs to sing can learn, so that the talented and passionate singers who enroll in performance degree programs emerge from them competent.
Revolution is possible. It is only within the past four decades that completing a marathon became a realistic goal for so many people and that elite male runners began to regularly finish in just over 2 hours and women under 2:30. Role models like Olympic medalist Frank Shorter and pioneers like Jim Fixx and Jeff Galloway have inspired the creation of new methods that help average people become good runners and good runners become great.
In my next several posts, I will enumerate the skills and qualities that define an elite singer, reverse engineer the process whereby these skills and qualities can be efficiently cultivated, and propose ways to improve our overall approach to vocal education.
Running can make you a better, happier human. It releases endorphins. Like my father’s surgeon, many health professionals also see a strong connection between fitness and the ability to accelerate recovery from surgery.
Singing can make you a better, happier human. You can learn to access your deepest emotions and channel them cathartically through your voice. You can have deeply unifying experiences with fellow musicians and your audience. You can communicate more passionately and effectively in your day-to-day life.
Given time, perseverance, the right training, and an absence of significant physiological limitations, anyone can run a marathon.
Given time, perseverance, the right training, and an absence of significant physiological limitations, anyone can learn to sing.