Lois was a quiet woman who often sat in an easy chair just outside of our song circle. I always invited her to join us but she would almost always decline. As the singing started I would keep an eye on her to see if there were any songs that she seemed to particularly like. One day I saw her ever so quietly mouth a few words of a gospel song. Without making too much of it, because I didn’t want to embarrass her or scare her off, I softly commented that she seemed to like that song. I told her “I would love to have you sing it with us.”
And that’s when she told me:
“Oh no, I don’t sing. My husband told me a long time ago that I was not a good singer and that I shouldn’t sing.”
Lois’ husband has been gone for many years. Lois has dementia and has difficulty remembering many things. But she remembers that she is not supposed to sing. Even though her husband is not here to remind her – she continues to believe this. And it breaks my heart. Because I can see a little voice inside her that would love to come out. I saw it when she quietly mouthed a few words to a song she loved.
My mission is now clear. Using gentle persuasion, humor and respectful support, I will encourage Lois to sing. Lois is not alone.
So…what do I tell people when they tell me they can’t sing?
I tell them - “That’s OK. You can just listen.”
Wait a minute. You thought I said everyone can sing and that I want people to sing. And now I’m telling you it’s OK to tell people they can just listen?
Yes. And here’s why.
Telling people it’s OK to “just listen” helps them feel safe enough to stay in proximity to the singing. And that’s the first step. Some people are so convinced they can’t sing, they actually believe they should leave the room. They may be embarrassed; they may worry that you’ll put them on the spot. So they simply leave. By telling people they can just listen, you give them the opportunity to observe and to see others joining in. It helps them relax. Then, once people have gained a comfort level with you as the song leader, and with the dynamics of the group, you will find that many will take baby steps to joining in. So here’s what happens next.
They listen. You observe and learn.
Remember that Lois quietly mouthed the words to one of her favorite gospel songs? If I had not been keenly observing her as she listened, I would not have picked up on this. I couldn’t know at the time how important that observation would be. For when I asked her if she liked the old hymns, she told me that her father had been a preacher in Alabama. Her brother had played guitar. Once I knew this, I was able to relate to her on a much deeper level. As I sang more southern gospel songs, her urge to sing along overcame the words of her late husband telling her not to sing. We sang hymn after hymn – I’ll Fly Away, Do Lord, Power in the Blood and more. And now, each time I sing with the group where she lives I make sure to include some of these hymns early on to get Lois started singing.
Now there’s one more thing you need to know. And that is this.
What you DON’T say is just as important as what you do say.
Even though I REALLY want to, I never say “Oh, of course you can sing!” If, for whatever reason, someone truly believes they can’t or shouldn’t sing, you won’t convince them by telling them they have a good voice or that they truly can sing.
What you can do is be patient and reassure them through gentle encouragement that this is different - that no one is judging.
Here’s some other encouraging words you can try after folks have had some time to just listen. Said with a sense of humor, but without teasing, it can help create an environment where even reluctant singers will dip their toe in the water of group singing.
“No one has to audition for this choir.” “This is just for fun.” “No solos here.” “Would you like to join us now?” “I think you might know this song.”
As my experience with Lois points out, finding the right music can really help increase engagement. If you need help with this – visit the Resource Library on my website for song lists and suggestions.
In closing, why should we work so hard to get everyone singing? One of the reasons is because singing together creates community. But more on that next time when I add to this new series Here’s What I Know for Sure.