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Giving our culture a new voice - how singing makes life a bit nicer

By Stephen Crabbe - posted Thursday, 22 January 2004

So the old debate about Australian culture and how to defend it from international predators has returned. Perhaps the reason the issue keeps resurfacing is that so many of us Australians assume the national culture to be something other than ourselves, an object external to the ordinary person, rather than something which we all help to generate. A living culture is what each individual makes it – in the here and now. That immediacy will create and continuously re-create Australian culture.

Now there is nothing more immediate than your own body. Once you are born, it is the first shaping influence on your self-image and your relationship to the world. In Australian society there is an overwhelming preoccupation with the body and its feats, mainly expressed in the priority given to sport. Australians, en masse it seems, have a fundamental desire to celebrate and achieve directly through the body.

However, public debate about “Australian culture” tends to focus on the image of artists with supernatural gifts whose mysterious ways of working miracles could not depend on anything as crass as bodies – least of all bodies like our own. We gape and whisper about their exploits as the Greeks once regarded the gods on Olympus. To bring real vitality and wider participation to Australian culture, perhaps we need to find ways of merging artistic expression with the body in the popular mind. Dance in its many forms can do it, combining athletic and aesthetic components. Let’s consider, though, another possibility – singing.


Singing as performance is still largely a fringe activity in Australian culture. On the basis of figures from April 2000, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 29 per cent of children between 5 and 14 years of age were involved in performing arts activities outside of school hours in the previous 12 months. Four areas of performing arts were surveyed – playing an instrument, singing, dancing and drama – and those using the voice were the least popular, as singing and drama each attracted only 5 per cent of children. It would be safe to suggest that a similar survey of adults would find even lower participation rates.

The most fundamental misconception most people have about singing ability is that it is a mysterious “gift” bestowed on a few. Singing, they believe, either happens or it doesn’t. You either have it or you don’t. The truth is that in singing we use the body as an instrument just as in walking or swimming, and we can learn how to use the instrument better. A crucial difference is that most of the action of singing occurs out of sight – for both singer and audience. Our society teaches us to rely much too heavily on vision at the expense of our other senses. This is a major reason why people misunderstand vocal technique or treat it as such a mystery. In fact, a lot of people don’t even realise that there is any technique at all in good singing; they simply put it down to “having a good voice”.

Another problem in learning how to sing well is the dearth of good models. For instance, the minds of most young people are saturated from infancy with the sound of rock singers forcing their “chest-voice” (low register) towards higher notes. Even if they succeed, this produces a harsh sound and over time injures the vocal cords. (I often tell kids it’s like trying to drive at 100 kph in bottom gear.) No wonder the children grow up believing that singing higher notes is the same as shouting. When the few competent singing teachers in schools expect them to develop a “head-voice” (high register), not only are they daunted by the challenge but they also ridicule the few who accept it. We have allowed pop culture to debase aesthetic values and to propagate unhealthy singing technique.

The situation has definitely deteriorated over the past few decades. For example, when I began recruiting and training choirs in state schools 30-odd years ago, most 11-year-olds would accept that melodies rising more than an octave above the piano’s Middle C could sound pleasant and were “singable” if you acquired the technique. Not all actually acquired it, of course, but on the other hand some boys and girls eventually came to sing even up to a high G, and their peers esteemed them for doing so. It was all a matter of knowing how to use your head-voice. Today it is much harder to sell this notion to kids in general.

Now, being able to change from chest voice to middle and head voices is only one aspect of vocal technique that good singing requires, and it would be a mistake to lay all the blame for poor singing on all rock singers and the industry in which they work. Far more at fault are people who have been in a position to influence policy and funding of education over the last few decades. Whether through negligence or ignorance, they have failed to give value to the human voice.

In classroom teaching we occasionally emphasise oral reports, making a short speech to the class and the like, but nowhere do we teach students how to use the instrument for speech – the body. Posture, breath management, voice placement, support, projection, enunciation of vowels and consonants, pacing, variation in pitch and volume – all should be the subject of continual, sequential exercises and assessment. (In teaching how to write, don’t we stress how to hold the pen, the shaping of letters, spaces between words, use of punctuation marks and sentence construction?) So woefully has the voice been overlooked that, even were the curriculum radically altered overnight to cover such skills, few of contemporary school-teachers themselves could model them.


If vocal technique is ignored for youngsters’ speech, how much more alien must it seem to young singers! Healthy, expressive and enjoyable singing needs to be taught as both technique and art. As a pre-requisite, the child must become aware of the body, not merely in its visible aspect, but internally. Sensing the lower abdominal muscles working to support the sound, ensuring that the full capacity of the lungs is used to provide adequate breath-pressure, knowing the changing position of tongue and jaw, deciding whether the sound-vibrations are mainly in the chest or around the mouth or in the upper skull – these and other processes must become conscious and deliberate.

In as much as our education system supports music at all, it treats singing as a sing-along. Simply learning songs will not help people to learn to sing. We need training in technique by trained teachers who can also model good singing. And this requires provision of adequate time in the school-week and sufficient funding to employ the teachers.

At the same time, however, there are signs that a growing number of Australians outside of schools are realising that singing well is important to them and are trying to put this belief into practice. The overall participation in choirs has risen significantly over the past 10 to 15 years, and many of the choirs are relatively new.

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About the Author

Stephen Crabbe is a teacher, writer, musician and practising member of the Anglican Church. He has had many years of active involvement in community and political issues.

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