Stefanie Swinnard, Author at The Stage New Westminster

I Can’t Sing and Other Such Nonsense

I Can’t Sing; and Other Such Nonsense

The Fallacy

“I’d like my child to sing, because I can’t”

“I’m not musical, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket”

“I have no sense of rhythm and two left feet. I hate to dance/sing but my child is showing an interest in it”

or worse yet

“I’d like my 7 year old (10 year old, 12 year old, even 3 year old!) to take singing lessons because she loves to sing but she’s completely tone deaf, much like me”.

These phrases are common, and perhaps it is because I’ve spent my whole life singing that I am able to stand objectively in the face of this comment and those like it.

It’s nonsense.

For a variety of reasons.

The Opinion

There is this odd sense that because we are all born with a voice that we should somehow know how to use it in every way and be able to make beautiful sounds right off the bat. To me this would be the equivalent of asking anyone to just pick up a violin and know how to play it; a ludicrous expectation. And if we can’t play the violin or the piano most of us don’t take this as a personal criticism. We understand that we haven’t undergone the necessary training required to play an instrument. And if we sat down at a piano and banged away for awhile knowing we didn’t know how to play it, but had fun none the less, I’m sure those nearby would think “Please, stop”, but they would have to arrive at the similar conclusion that this person doesn’t have the training to elegantly align the keys in a melodic or harmonious way that the general public would appreciate; they are not a “bad person” nor is it a “bad instrument”.

But if we “can’t” sing?

It is safe to say we judge our voices against other’s voices the way we judge our bodies. We develop “voice image issues” the same way we develop “body image issues”. The voice is the most vulnerable instrument. If we can’t play the piano or the violin there is a separation, it resides outside of who we are. It is something that can be taken or left as we choose, unlike a voice which is carried with us all the time. Our voice is a substantial part of who we are. We are not the piano we sit down at, but we are the voice that speaks into the world. It’s personal, it’s exposing, it’s scary.

The Fear

We’re vulnerable. The voice is the only instrument that provides direct communication from our souls to the audience, without being translated through a man made tool. This isn’t to say that we are not moved by other instrumental interpretations, or that they are lesser than, but in my opinion the voice is the only instrument that provides immediate, uninterrupted communication. We literally have to open a part of our body, as opposed to creating a tight emboucher around a mouth piece. We do not have a physical object to put between us and those around us. We open our mouths to make sound and are suddenly aware that the act of letting this sound out, lets other’s in in a way that feels too close, too soon. Most of us are afraid to use our voices to speak in front of a group, never mind sing! Our voice reveals more about us than we care to share, whether speaking or singing.

Words are short, we clip the vowels, we invent words like “totes” further cutting away syllables and increasing our efficiency (arguable). We string words together to form long sentences, but words themselves are short. We can speak with our lips barely parting, in an octave range (not even, more like 3-5 tones) that we likely locked into in early adulthood, and we can safely communicate our thoughts adding emotion when needing, but stifling it when we feel we should. We might speak softly so as to avoid offense, so as to only be heard by a few people standing near by, only raising our voices when necessary and usually in times of heightened emotion, positive or negative.

Singing? Singing is long. Vowels are lengthened, our voice rings in our own ears, our thoughts linger in the world for a longer time leaving them hanging there with more time to be scrutinized. Our mouths have to open wider, we have to expose a greater space in our being. We have octave ranges that we almost never touch, we worry about offending the ears with our warbling, and with that worry in mind still have to project the sound to the back of the house. We emote in an incredibly poignant way, the vibrato of our tone shaking open darker corners of our souls, and perhaps dusting off the same corners of other people’s inner worlds, in someway way exposing them as well.

Such is the power of the human voice.

The Reality

Let me start with some reassurance…you’re not alone. More often than not people will criticize their musical, theatrical, or other artistic skill before they say anything kind, or even neutral about it. This is why it comes as a shock to many parents in my classes that they are encouraged (read: expected) to sing in their baby and toddler’s music class. How can I ask these strangers (at first) to sing openly in a group of other strangers? On the first day?! (Okay, so I don’t push it on the first day and strive to work with parents the same way I work with my students, at their own pace but with constant encouragement and reminders 🙂

If you are born with the physical make up to produce a vocal sound you can sing. Can you sing well? Maybe not in your opinion, maybe not in the opinion of others. But yes you CAN sing.

And believe it or not there was a time when you thought this also. Maybe it stopped at age 3, or 7, or 12, but there was a glorious time when you actually didn’t think one way or the other about your singing, it was just there.

But then, something changed. Maybe you don’t remember when or where or who, but somehow you developed a discomfort with your singing voice. Perhaps it was being shushed too many times, perhaps it was a flippant comment from someone, or perhaps it was because you were raised in a house where your parents “couldn’t sing”, so they didn’t; and without saying as much, singing became something that only those who were “good” at could and should enjoy.

Your child’s relationship with their voice, and your relationship with yours, has very little to do with an ability to sing well. Encouraging a healthy relationship between your child and their voice starts early on, and singing is an incredibly useful activity to promote this. Not because your child will grow up to be a professional musician, but because your child has a right to be heard in this world.

Patsy Rodenburg, in her book “The Right to Speak” (one of the most powerful and influential books I’ve ever read on the subject was introduced to me by Dr. Bruce Kirkley at the University of the Fraser Valley and to him I am forever grateful) opens her book with “The right to breathe, the right to be physically unashamed, to fully vocalize, to need, choose and make contact with a word, to release a word into space – the right to speak”, a declaration to all that you, the sound you create, has a right to be heard in this world.

What a powerful message to instill in a child. And what an incredible injustice to take such a message away from a child, without even realizing you’re doing so.

The Hope

Your child’s relationship with their voice starts at home. It starts with a household that places no value judgement on the quality of one’s sound. It starts with an environment that enjoys and plays with the sound of music, instruments, voices, singing, laughter.

If you cannot speak highly of your own talent, do not speak of it at all. Or, at least speak neutrally about it. Do not model for your child the blanket idea of “I can’t sing”, because as we’ve already discovered, yes you can. And the more they hear that you can’t, the more they will believe that THEY can’t.

And NEVER, let them hear you comment negatively about THEIR musical talents, and imply that they require some kind of intervention before they should ever be allowed to have their voice heard by others. Perhaps their voice is uncontrolled, maybe it’s out of tune and unrefined, but it’s never “bad”…and they CAN sing.

Never a truer statement made than “Sing like no one is listening”. You may never like to sing, and that’s okay; but I would encourage you to try it whenever you get the chance. Practicing the vulnerability will perhaps awaken you to new understandings about yourself. It may also give you the patience when you’ve heard “Let it Go” belted from the backseat for the eight thousandth time. When possible, let them sing. Let them practice sending their sounds into the universe. The world will try to silence us throughout our lives, in one way or another, let’s raise a generation that has the strength to know its voice matters enough to be heard.

The Stairs of Life: One Step at a Time is Just Fine

In this fast paced world of seemingly limitless technology at our fingertips, inundation of media and high stress living we’re all motivated by one thing: the urge to get it right. The urge to succeed so that we can get life ‘right’. What is newest, most advanced, and earns us the most attention keeps us on the cutting edge of getting it right and advances us in a way that will surely guarantee our success in the future.

We want to get it right.


We’ve adopted the belief that the further you can get ahead, and the sooner, the better. This is very apparent when working with parents as every parent’s desire to help their child succeed is paramount in their lives.  And in today’s day and age it’s not hard to find copious information and research on what’s “best” for your child’s development, and what will ultimately put them ahead.

Where we run into trouble is when children are “forced” or “pushed” into advancement rather than nurtured. It is no secret that every child develops at their own pace; but with the way our society is evolving, are they developing fast enough. That is to say, are they developing at a rate that as parents and educators we can feel is indicative of their future success.

After her son, age 8, handed in a written assignment for his drama program, a mother, out of the goodness of her heart, told me that “his writing is atrocious but because of his Tourette Syndrome it’s the best it will ever be”. I was new to teaching, and new to working with children with educational barriers but it struck me as being odd that this was something I needed to consider. This was a drama class, not an english class, and I was just excited that he had engaged in the material enough to actually do the assignment! If writing was involved I was prepared to take what I could get because I knew it was what he could give. I also thought, I’m sure most people with illegible handwriting still get drivers licenses and jobs and pay their taxes.

More often than ever we find ourselves in conversations with parents about moving their child ahead in our classes, asking why their advanced 3 year old, cannot be placed in the 5 year old program. I always meet this question with an understanding that every parent is looking to give their child the best opportunity possible. However, sometimes the best opportunity to give them is a chance to be the age they are, to meet the needs of their whole development at the stage they are at. Our star pupil may be able to tap two sticks together in time, but perhaps he needs development in his social skills. Every child has areas they are working on, some that we may not even notice.

The articles below talk about Developmentally Appropriate Practice which is an educational philosophy that strives to help children develop in a way that meets their current needs. It engages young learners in a meaningful way that encourages excitement and passion for learning, and if young children possess that, there will be no stopping their future success.

This article concisely parallels nurturing physical milestones and how we can apply the same ideas to other developmental milestones

This article outlines Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)

And while this article will speak to some and not to others I felt it touched on the very important topics of body wisdom and building self confidence.

Anxious Kids in Anxious Times

The Worried Child  Recognizing Anxiety in Children and Helping Them Heal  Ph.D. Paul Foxman Ph.D.  9780897934206  Books   Amazon.caIn my efforts to continue educating myself and those that I work with in all areas involving children’s education and development, I had the pleasure of coming across “The Worried Child” by Dr. Paul Foxman, a psychologist and Director for the Centre for Anxiety Disorders.

Dr. Foxman expertly discusses the many facets of anxiety. He explores what anxiety is, what it feels like; the importance of anxiety and it’s purpose, the types of anxiety and symptoms, the stages of anxiety growth and society’s role in that growth, school focused anxiety, the biology behind anxiety, and of course advice on seeking treatment. I feel one of the highlights of the book is the practical, short form, easily applied lists of solutions for parents and teachers working with a child with anxiety. Also included in the book is an entire chapter that can be read by children to assist them with their emotional management, empowering them and helping to build resilience in them.

Why is childhood anxiety particularly important to me? A couple of reasons.

Firstly, as someone who dealt with anxiety as a child and teenager I understand the confusion, despair, and hopelessness that can consume the child as well as the parents during this time. I appreciate the way it can turn a normally boisterous, outgoing child into a scared, worried, burdened individual who lacks the life experience or vocabulary to discuss the “nothing’s wrong, but everything’s wrong” feeling associated with anxiety. I hope that with this ever-increasing knowledge I can better adapt my role in my students’ lives to prevent or ease the experience of anxiety.

Secondly, anxiety is a common occurrence in arts programs. I have encountered it numerous times in my teaching career, for a couple of reasons that I can only guess at. Perhaps parents have tried having their child participate in other social activities, like sports, but because of the child’s predisposition towards the “anxiety personality” he or she has been unable to cope with the demands (whether real or imagined) of said activity. Arts programming has a reputation for working with the individual and facilitates personal growth while achieving social growth goals. The other possible explanation is that parents with children who appear shy or withdrawn to the extent that it is affecting their social experiences (in school or even at home) look to the performing arts as a way of developing confidence which will hopefully allow the child to overcome anxiety and it’s manifestations; and thereby allow them to lead a “normal” life.

It should be important for all art educators (educators of all types really but I speak here to the validity of arts programs) to understand anxiety and its relevancy in today’s society. This should demand the building of a curriculum that supports solutions and offers practical exercises for children to use as part of their emotional regulation tool kit. It is worth mentioning that, particularly in performance geared programs, creating great actors means helping students build their own emotional intelligence so that as they grow in their training they are better equipped to build stage worthy characters. Perhaps the best part of this practice is that while it builds this ability to perform, it also helps them master emotional stability and understanding which is such an important skill to have in every day life.

Lastly, and as discussed in “The Worried Child”, the world is becoming increasingly more anxious. We are in a greater state of panic then we ever have been before. The threat of violence, war, terrorism, bullying, bankruptcy, job loss, family breakdowns, political strife, government turmoil…the list goes on, is ever present in our lives. And with media access so easily available everywhere, we can be inundated with bad news 24 hours a day. Our own coping strategies aside, our children are present too, and they are feeling the effects of this world more so than ever. We are perpetuating anxiety in our culture, and while it would be impossible to obliterate anxiety, we may be able to equip our children with the necessary skills to combat it so that they may reach their highest potential, and foster in their own children the ability to do the same. It has to start somewhere, let’s start now.

Further reading on anxiety and emotional regulation can be found here:


Walk a Mile in Someone’s Shoes

Empathy |ˈempəTHē|
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.


What the world needs now…is empathy. Information flies willy nilly every second of every day, tabloids scream the latest personal information speculated by celebrity reporters. A lack of empathy is something that is seemingly so apparent, we don’t even acknowledge its absence.

Empathy is one of the attributes that separates us from the wild. A lion doesn’t choose its prey based on whether or not the gazelle had a good day at work or is struggling in a relationship. Empathy is one skill that we’d like to think is natural, and while this is probably partly true, it is fair to say that empathy is something that also needs to be exercised; both actively, as in showing & receiving empathy, and passively, as in witnessing empathy.

Bullying, something constantly on the radar now, while stemming from many issues, can also be attributed to a lack of empathy, an inability to allow an awareness of how we would feel in the victim’s role to govern our actions.

How do children practice empathy? Passively it is something they witness, from parents and other adults in their various environments, or when one child in their class includes another child who may have been left out. Actively it is something they exercise  in conflict, guided by a parent perhaps or it is something that is openly talked about at home in times of crisis or whenever the opportunity arrives.

Performing arts, acting specifically, requires the building of empathy skills. Understanding a character’s choices based on their actions, reactions, their past, the events they cause, the events they are victim to and why is how we bring words on a page to life on a stage. Trying to create emotionally accurate and believable characters requires an ability to relate to the character’s situation, either by paralleling a similar experience in our own lives; or, by piecing together experiences that might be vastly different from our characters situation but still connects us emotionally to their plight.

When we ask our acting students to think about how they would feel if a confrontational action was inflicted upon them, or how they would react in a similar situation, we are exercising their empathy muscles. We hope that these practice sessions, during rehearsals, will be relevant in their every day lives when opportunities to exercise empathy present themselves. Equipping our future generations with this ability, is one of the only ways our families, communities, and ultimately our world, will ever experience harmonious living.

This link outlines further how even attending theatre can be an engaging opportunity to witness empathy.

*Side note* If you plan on taking your child to the theatre, I strongly urge you to engage them in conversation about the show during intermission and afterward. Too often the electronics are switched back on and potential moments for communication with your child are missed. Engage them in conversation about what they are witnessing!

This article outlines further benefits of exposing children to theatre early on.

This is Your Brain on Music

Music is a powerful force that has been within us since our ancestors roamed the earth and used instruments to channel the forces of nature. Now, whether it worked or not is a question for anthropologists, but the fact remains that sound and music was considered powerful enough to change the laws of nature.

And now we’re lucky if our public schools even have a regular music class taught by a trained music educator.

Music may be the only magic we have left in our world. We have all seen the quotes floating around Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.  It is what does us in emotionally when watching movies like “Up”, even though we fully recognize we are watching figments of someone’s imagination sketched in a computer, we cannot help but all of a sudden relate and feel as if we are intimately sharing these moments as they happen.

Do we feel that our musical needs are met with films, the radio, advertising, i(insert pods, pads, phones), elevators (although think of the last time you were in an elevator that had music) and concert attendance?  While all of these expose us to music, how do they actively engage us? Perhaps concert attendance, singing to the radio in the car, or dancing to your iPod at home are good examples of engagement with sound, but how often does that happen versus listening to the tinny shopping mall music, or having the radio on at work in the background while you go about your business, or not even realizing that a commercial for a product had a song until you find yourself humming something familiar in the shower one morning (Alarm Force anyone?)

By and large our exposure to music is passive. It happens because it’s become comfortable for us, we like music when we shop, and we like it on in the background at parties because it fills uncomfortable silences. Perhaps this is why we no longer revere music in the way our ancestors did. We are so constantly immersed in its presence that we feel if music was going to affect my life, wouldn’t I notice it doing so every day?

Active engagement in music is what is called for. You cannot reap the benefits of a fitness dvd by watching it, you cannot climb a mountain by looking at it, you cannot give your child the benefits of a music education by placing them in front of the latest Infant Inventor series. Active engagement is what is necessary; instrumentlessons, dance classes (or jamming to something at home), music classes are methods of actively engaging your child in music development.

The science is there to support these arguments. I don’t think I’ve yet come across an article that notices measurable differences in brain development after watching 100 hours of classical music played by symphonies, if there is one out there, let me know.

I am not claiming that music lessons will teach your child to summon hurricanes. But, while it may not change the weather, science is now further exposing how music effects our entire being, not only is it enjoyable, it is incredibly beneficial, even if your child has no ambition of ever becoming a concert pianist.


Director About Town!

Look for our Director, Miss Stefanie, at 3 different locations this summer! Her dramatic teaching skill has been invited to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School in July and New West’s very own Urban Academy in August.  We’ll miss her around the studio for a few weeks but you can still find her here teaching a pretty full summer schedule!