May 10, 2005

Give yourself a “Happy Birthday” rebirth

Filed under: Art and About Holidays — admin @ 4:14 pm

A string of recent birthday parties for family and friends has brought to my attention a cultural concern. Some people don’t feel comfortable singing “Happy Birthday” in public. In fact, some dread it while others hate it. Why? “Because I can’t sing” is the most common response. One person told me, “I just let everybody else sing,” which is an evasive non-response.

I have 33 years of experience celebrating birthdays and of course I have noticed that some people choose not to sing the requisite anthem. But when I observed a young child not singing at one of these recent celebrations while his friends jubilantly sang out, it hit me that this is a serious problem.

I come from a family who sings and so I realize I have a skewed view of the larger population. Even the people in my family who say they can’t sing really can sing. Everything’s relative. But whether you come from a singing family or not, I believe everyone should feel comfortable singing “Happy Birthday,” and there are grave implications for all of us when one of our tribe refuses to join in.

I discussed the non-singers with my sister-in-law. She has degrees in music so she is wise and insightful in these matters. She remarked that probably at some point in the non-singer’s life, someone told them they couldn’t sing, or suggested that perhaps maybe they shouldn’t sing. It’s horrible for me to imagine such a scenario, but she’s probably right.

Even more horrible is the thought that a person may not have been exposed to music during their formative years at the crucial time when learning to play the notes on the vocal instrument is akin to learning language. A teacher who taught the Mommy and Me music classes I took with my son could easily upset herself telling stories about families who don’t have music in their daily lives. She wasn’t talking about playing Mozart to a fetus in the womb. She was talking about parents who didn’t sing to their babies, or even parents who didn’t listen to music on the radio when their children are present. I was always struck by these stories. I’m convinced that if a child hears music, they will learn to carry a tune the same way they learn how to form spoken language. It’s all about sounds and pitch.

As a side note, I don’t believe people can’t sing. I had a friend in high school who was definitely challenged in the songbird department but she was eager to conquer her weakness. She went to a voice teacher who rigorously drilled her on learning how to use her voice. I sat in on many of these lessons and I admit, it was sometimes a painful process to listen to. But eventually, my friend learned how to harness the tune in her head and reproduce it successfully with her vocal chords. It was one of the bravest acts I have ever witnessed.

My friend’s goal in taking voice lessons was to be a successful contributor to the school choir, and to get a part in the school musical (she didn’t). For someone else, having the confidence to sing “Happy Birthday” is an equally lofty goal. This common tune is an extremely basic and unifying song in our culture. Most often, we only find ourselves singing it for people who mean something to us. No one should feel inhibited to show their love for another because of a bogus belief about singing talents. Every note may not come out perfect, and every tone may not be dulcet, but opening your mouth and letting melody come out should be as second-nature and primitive as we get as human beings. And allowing yourself the freedom to sing out is vital for you and for the collective good.

It’s your prerogative to sing, and the duty of the rest of us to support that prerogative by being accepting of any homespun variation of “Happy Birthday” which may come out of your mouth. I know it won’t be easy at first, but you’ll be breaking a cycle that needs to be broken. And if anyone dares to make a comment, don’t be afraid to ask about the last time they got an invitation to sing at the Met.

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