"My high-school a cappella teacher would embarrass me in front of the choir. 'Mavis, you're in the basement. Mavis, you're singing with the boys.' I said, 'Mr.Finch, my voice isn't soprano. I can't sing up there with the girls.' So I just got out of the choir."
Mavis Staples (b. 1939) U.S. R&B and gospel singer, actor, and activist
Imagine if Mavis Staples had quit singing altogether because of the narrow-minded "constructive" criticism of her high school choir director. What a tragedy that would have been! (Her family's band The Staple Singers were famous for their 1970s hits "Respect Yourself," "I'll Take You There," and "Let's Do It Again."
I have heard many, many people tell me stories about a choir director or parent tell them to "just mouth the words," or "don't quit your day job!" A few of them have rehabilitated their singing, but most of them refuse to sing at all anymore. What a tragedy for them -- and for all of us who never got to enjoy the gifts of their voice.
Every voice is unique. It would be terrible if EVERY voice sounded like Pavrotti, or Dylan, Bieber, or Sinatra. We mustn't make singing a competitive sport where each singer needs to fit into a certain niche or label. I bet Mr. Finch, Mavis Staples' choir director, regretted later on that he lost such a great singer from his choir!
Here are some ways we can encourage each other to feel more comfortable sharing their one-of-a-kind super-special singing voice:
Always find something nice to say when someone sings. Even if ZERO of the notes were on the right pitch, you can still praise their diction, their posture, their emotional delivery, or how much you liked the song they chose.
Resist the urge to compare anyone to another singer.
Find non-auditioned community choirs, open mic nights, or other low-profile events where singers can get their feet wet.
If someone really wants to improve their singing techniques, sign them up for singing lessons, choir, or a voice class. Make sure to find an encouraging teacher that matches the needs of the singer. Shop around and ask questions!
If someone you know is singing a REALLY annoying (to you) song on repeat, encourage them to sing another song, but don't criticize their singing.
It's very difficult for singers to let go of negative comments coming from an authority figure. Singing, more than any musical instrument, is a very vulnerable and personal activity. It's not as if singers can replace a reed to change the tone; or get their instrument tuned to improve the pitch. It takes lots and lots of practice and training for most people to sing well. Let's try not to squash someone's singing voice before they're even out of the gate!
Share your stories of being encouraged or criticized as a singer, and how it influenced your singing.