There is a dire need to debunk a myth often propagated in popular reality TV music competitions and music society auditions which has severe, adverse implications. “The ability to partake in music performance only comes naturally for a gifted few; you’re better off doing something else,” roars an arrogant panelist or an insensitive music teacher, leading to subsequent laughing fits. I personally know too many people who enjoy experiencing these moments, laughing at the expense of utterly heart-broken aspirants. I might have indulged in the practice myself. The deeper implications, however, of the idea that only a few people can aspire to be artists and that music is a “completely” natural gift – either you have it, or you do not – is completely ludicrous and a disservice to nature. I am sure Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan could not perform his signature sargams, and David Coverdale could not switch registers so effortlessly at the age of five. You evolve with time.

Countless times, I have noticed that people are too shy or too scared to sing in front of someone else, never mind an audience.  And with the advent of reality TVand the dangerously rational, scientific and calculable nature of music competition formats, this problem has worsened. People get scared of being humiliated and never really try. Never really attempting to sing takes away one of the greatest joys of life away from you: the sheer unadulterated release that one gets from belting out a few notes is completely unparalleled. And when shared with people, nothing can take its place. Let me remind you: the fear of not being up to the mark, and not perfectly in pitch, unsettles even the greatest exponents of the art form, and there is a reason why all the great performers have managed to keep going –  it is called “practicing the right way.” Now, you may believe this is one of those boring little motivation diatribes elders might throw your way, but really, if you look carefully into the mechanisms of music performance, you might very well end up agreeing with me.

When aspiring singers normally approach a song, without having little or no knowledge of music scales, they attempt to sing with a studio recording. Here is where the ultimate mistake is made. Every human being has his/her own vocal range and attempting to reproduce the vocal range of somebody professionally trained, whose voice has been manipulated in the studio (auto tuned, and sometimes artificially notched up or down a semi-tone or two) is bound to be bothersome. Even accomplished singers themselves cannot replicate their efforts in the studio a hundred percent while performing live. While you sing with a song playing in the background, and you do not have appropriate listening skills which only come with time, your own voice can be masked in the audio playing around you and you end up learning wrong techniques without being conscious of it. Females and males, naturally, sing in different registers. It is completely acceptable to sing in an alternate scale; the audience rarely notices it and effective musical arrangement can aid in completely transforming a song to suit a different voice. When amateur singers start singing a song, they rarely think about the reference scale or starting chord in their heads (having absolutely perfect listening pitch is a very rare skill in itself!) and they might start too high or too low and, often, that is what makes the performance go really off balance. Once the scale and range is settled, songs might often have various difficult trills which require a certain amount of careful supervised practice to be able to master and deliver. This can rarely be figured out on its own. It requires guidance.

You might be surprised to know that the late Madam Noor Jehan never sang without accompaniment in private gatherings, and till her death, she kept an ustaad with her to keep her voice in pitch and the throat in practice. The great Ustaads of yesteryear had special practice warmup exercises before they went live as do all sorts of modern singers and ensembles. Riyaaz, or practice, plays a major part in the life of a musician who has to keep on learning, relearning and unlearning to master his repertoire; the tools and skillsets which enable him/her to perform at the optimum level. It is also very important to learn the theoretical aspects of music which enable musicians to communicate with each other in a language that might seem alien to somebody new. Music is a dynamic process, and while the superstardom dream might be sold theatrically to audiences by corporations aiming to mint money, it’s a rather slow learning curve, filled with struggle and instances of self-doubt and consequent self-scrutiny. Ghulam Ali Khan sahab was told early in his youth that his tone was completely unsuited for ghazal, The Beatles were told by their recording company that their sound was not up to the mark and the days of guitar were over. Beethoven’s teachers told him he was a hopeless case and Ustad Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan Sahab spent years and years singing devotional music at shrines before striking the right kind of album deal; some notorious personalities in the classical music scene still believe that he did not possess a “proper” singing voice. Point is, music is a highly subjective matter and that unfortunately gives space to vultures.

Humans have an innate ability to discern and speak language; the situation with music is similar. If somebody can listen and speak, he/she cannot be “tone deaf” as bullies would love to believe. We just need to find the right kind of supportive environment and the nerve to fight and search.

 The writer is political analyst and a musician.