Thursday, August 26, 2010

Why children can't sing

Here is something unsettling, not that there is any shortage of that these days. This folk singer and scholar Dave Ruch, whom I interviewed last week, told me most kids can no longer sing.

"What I’m finding lately, in a shocking number of schools, is that the kids can’t hold a tune," Ruch told me. "It used to be 10 years ago, if I taught them a simple chorus of “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal,” they could sing it back. In the last couple of years, I’m in 100 schools every year, I’m seeing three or four times out of five that you ask a body of students, elementary school age, to sing it, they kind of half talk it and half sing it. The whole sense of melody is getting lost. I just think kids don’t sing as much any more. Where we used to sing playing in the sand or whatever, it’s not happening in the home."

Something to think about.

Well, this kid takes a good stab at it anyway. Ha, ha! Too funny.

Ruch is an encyclopedia of New York State songs and when I called him, he was driving across the state. Where else would he be?

He told me the "Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal" song was written by professional songwriters in 1905.

Whereas this song, which I have always preferred, Ruch said is a genuine folksong that was old as the Civil War and was actually sung by the canalers, as he calls them.

There was that QRS recital at Kleinhans Music Hall years ago when Thomas Hampson sang that song as an encore, in this real ruffian's voice. Everyone went wild. He did it great.

The girls are in the police gazette
The crew is all in jail

And I'm the only son-of-a-gun who's left to tell this tale!

I am not sure he sang "son-of-a-gun." I do remember everyone loved it.

It is distressing that so many kids are growing up not able to sing. Dave Ruch told me that when he runs into a group of kids who are able to carry a tune, it invariably ends up to be because there is a music teacher who has them in a chorus and bends over backwards so they learn to sing.

And you know you will hear the chorus saying see, this is what happens when budgets are cut and music programs are eliminated -- but money is not the problem and it is not the answer. You should not have to learn every little thing in school, you know? Singing should be as basic as eating or whining, which I realize I am doing now but I think this is important.

I think the problem is, and Dave Ruch thinks so to, that kids don't pick up singing around the house anymore. For years now pop music has had little or no melody. I hear this stuff at the gym. I get a kick out of a lot of the songs in Zumba class. But most of them, like this classic, are more rhythm than melody. Ha, ha! I am watching that video and I cannot believe I know this song.

The worst stuff is the pop stuff they drone at you in the rest of the gym. Try listening to this thing. It just drones! The chorus. "I'm half way this and I'm half way that and I'm half way this..." It goes on forever. All current pop songs sound like that, in my experience, which, as I said, is substantial.

That's why kids can't sing, in my not-so-humble opinion.

It's too bad.


  1. Wellll.....I'm a musician (at least some people think so), and I can't sing. Never could. Beethoven couldn't dance. I glom onto that for consolation. And I know what you mean, but nothing sounds uglier to me than someone who can't sing attempting to do so (I'm trying to end this sentence with good grammar...can't write, either!). Given the collapse of singing and grammar, we'll probably wind up communicating with grunts and snorts. There's a John Callahan cartoon that shows a cave man squatting in front of a TV set. The disclaimer on the screen reads "Warning. The following program contains language."

  2. That's sad. I love to sing, although I hope Prof. G never happens to be in the vicinity. My dad loved to sing, and he really couldn't carry a tune. But my mother could, and we all used to sing in the car together when I was a kid. The old sing-along classics: I've Been Workin' on the Railroad, America the Beautiful, My Country Tis of Thee. My uncle taught four of us kids the Titanic; I remember being on a bus trip in grammar school and the nun wouldn't let us sing it because it's mean: "It sunk. Kerplunk. The end. Amen. Splash. Blub-blub-blub."