"While there are some people who have more of a facility for singing than others, nearly everyone can learn to sing," Andy O'Neill writes. (Photograph by Omar Flores)

Topics: Ethical Living, March 2024 | Society

Why everyone should be encouraged to sing

"As a classically trained musician, my favourite experiences are when audiences join the performance with their voices," Andy O'Neill writes


“I was told to just mouth the words.” Over the years, so many people, in­cluding lifelong churchgoers, have said this to me. Whether it was at school, at church or just carolling door to door, far too many people have been discour­aged from singing or told they can’t.

To my mind, music is a gift. So if you enjoy it, I think you should keep singing. Rarely will someone without music­al experience find themselves in a sit­uation where professional quality is required. Most of the time, the gen­tle or joking suggestion not to sing comes during a grade­ school concert rehearsal or while singing the nation­al anthem before a hockey game. But even an offhand comment can have a lifelong impact.

That may sound melodramatic, but the voice is the most personal of instru­ments. We don’t take it apart and put it in a case like a clarinet or stop using it once we get up from the piano bench. Our voice is who we are.

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While there are some people who have more of a facility for singing than others, nearly everyone can learn to sing. Amusia, or tone deafness, which is the inability to recognize and repro­duce pitch, affects four percent or less of the world’s population. Like many things in life, the ability to sing is the result of something much more mun­dane and less mysterious than talent; it’s the result of opportunity, support and practice.

My wife, Jenny O’Neill, and I are both classically trained musicians and have sung in choirs our whole lives. Some of our favourite experiences have been in cathedrals and concert halls, sharing with an audience our labour of love. That gift of song, though, has also been shared with us by countless teachers and mentors, our supportive families and by the Spirit who breathes joy into the song of all Creation.

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One of my favourite experiences of singing is not mine but belongs to someone I’ll call Michael. A child of six or so living in difficult circumstances who found a home in the church where I served as a minister, Michael used to love singing the opening hymn of worship. Typically, the first hymn encouraged all­ ages participation. I could always hear Michael, because what he lacked in musical experience he made up for with delight and volume.

The gift of music was not in his voice or in a polished performance within worship. The gift of music was in how the congregation cherished Michael and his delight, and did so without diminish­ing comments or knowing smiles. Even today, I think of Michael when I sing, “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.”


Andy O’Neill is an assistant professor of pastoral theology at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax. His most recent courses have focused on resilience for ministry and the church, and giving voice to the congregation’s song.

This story first appeared in Broadview’s March 2024 issue with the title “Go Ahead, Raise Your Voice.” 

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