A college professor’s notes on singing

Could your singing make the “X Factor” audition fail reel? When it’s time to sing “Happy Birthday,” do you stand in the back of the group and mouth the words? The problem probably isn’t that you can’t sing, it’s that you’ve never learned how to sing.

That’s what Joanne Rutkowski, a professor of music education at Pennsylvania State University, thinks, anyway. “A few people can’t sing in tune — that’s because they don’t listen,” she says. “For most people, though, the issue is how they’re using their voice.”

Humans actually have two different modes for voice use. “It’s like a manual transmission,” Rutkowski says. “You could get up to 30 [mph] in first gear, but it’s not good for the engine. Learning to sing is about finding your voice’s different gears and learning how to shift smoothly from one to another.”

She teaches a half-credit class for future music teachers. Each student picks a non-singing friend or relative and, over the course of the semester, teaches him or her to sing. “They record them singing ‘Happy Birthday’ at the beginning of the semester, and then again at the end,” she says. “The difference is always amazing.” And the guinea pigs, of course, are all delighted with their new skills.

“Successful music education would be if every high school graduate could sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to his or her children,” Rutkowski says, “But it’s never too late to learn.”

Places to practice

Would you like to learn to sing? Rutkowski suggests these resources:

Church choir

Community music school

A university department of music education

Your child’s elementary or middle-school music teacher

“And just sing in the shower!” she says. “Explore your voice, relax and have fun with it.”

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