One of the vocal myths that gets under my skin the most is that idea that singing is a natural talent and that if you aren’t born with it that you’ll never be good at it. I guess that opener gave away the answer to the question posed in the post title, but I have a feeling that even reading that answer, you’re a little dubious and thinking, “Yeah, but that 8-year-old girl I knew with the big Whitney Houston voice never took voice lessons, and no matter how hard I tried, I never sounded very good.” Listen, I’m not saying there’s no such thing as talent. But a big chunk of getting good at singing is through practice and the acquisition a variety of very learnable coordinations. So is singing a natural talent? Yes. Can it be acquired through practice? Yes.
Singing is a Coordination
Think of singing as a coordination, like any other coordination. Are some people born more coordinated in certain areas? Yeah, sure. But that doesn’t mean that working on it won’t make you way more coordinated over time. Think of two people doing push ups (and let’s say they’ve never worked on arm strength before). Is it possible to imagine that Person 1 might “naturally” be able to do more push ups than Person 2? Of course. Is it also possible to imagine that if Person 2 works on arm strength for a while, that that work would trump the natural ability Person 1 showed? Of course.
So Why Does Singing Feel Like it’s Just a Talent
The reason singing feels so much more daunting, and as if it’s just a god-given talent that can’t be acquired, is that it’s invisible. When you learn to play piano, you can watch where your fingers are going, notice how to hold your wrists, or squeeze a stress ball to strengthen your hands. When you learn to tap dance, you can watch someone else shuffle-ball-change step by step until you’ve got it as well. But when you learn to sing, you can’t see that your vocal folds aren’t closing enough, or that your larynx is a little too high for the genre, or that your thyroid could tilt a little more to sweeten the sound. But these are all just coordinations that you can learn to do as a singer and that a voice teacher can help you with.
When Does Your Voice Develop, and When is it Too Late to Learn to Sing?
Pitch and rhythm develop very early, so it may seem like “just a talent.” My 5-year-old son, Dean, is a perfect example. When he was younger, I helped him play around with his voice, having him make high sounds that feel like they’re coming from his head and low sounds that feel like they’re coming from his chest. Because of his observations of me and his playfulness with his own voice, he got faster and faster at matching sounds. Now that he’s in music lessons I’ve noticed that he can match high notes more easily than the other kids. It appears that it’s just a talent, but I’ve watched him develop that ability in the last couple years just by playing with that headier area of his voice that other kids his age may not have explored.
This is not to say that if you’re 36 and didn’t develop pitch when you were 5 that it’s too late. At 36, you’re just as capable of becoming playful and inquisitive about your voice as you were when you were 5. You may have been a little more shameless at age 5, which makes it a little easier to discover the many facets of your voice you might now be afraid to try out, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t develop the coordinations.
The bottom line is that if you find a teacher who can help you match pitch (I promise you, I’ve never worked with someone who hasn’t been able to eventually learn), and who can not only guide you through the basics of breath control, tongue placement, jaw release, and soft palate control, but also help you play with phrasing and other stylistic choices, you’ll be able to learn how to sing. And while it may come more naturally to some, what skill doesn’t?