One day, when I was eight, my teacher asked each of us to stand up and sing solo, one by one. I still remember the fear, standing up to sing the song. And I still remember the sting of humiliation when the girl beside me burst out laughing at my terrible singing. I still remember resenting Ms Garvey for making me do it. And I don’t think I’ve sung on my own in public since.
Oh, I’ll belt out American Pie at home in the kitchen with the kids, and I’ll sing along to anything we play in the car, and I love Karaoke as long as someone will get up there with me – but never on my own. Because I can’t sing. My singing would frighten goats. We’re just not a musical family, not a note between us. Except I read an article recently that says everyone can sing:
“Children are natural musicians… research shows that many adults who think of themselves as “unmusical” were told as children that they couldn’t or shouldn’t sing by teachers and family members.”
It caught my attention, not because I’m thinking about trying out for The Voice or giving Taylor Swift a belated run for her money, but because it tallies with something else I heard on the subject of innate talent versus training and hard work. I was at a book event with an illustrator called Tarsila Krüse. She was talking about talent and the ability to draw, and how people always say to her, “Oh wow, but you’re so good at drawing, I can’t draw at all.” She told me that in school, she was the worst in her class at drawing. (It’s hard to believe when you see her beautiful illustrations now.)
But she trained herself to draw – she traced at first, and then drew freehand, practicing and practicing until she mastered the art, literally.
At this point – when I met Tarsila – my kids had already decided art wasn’t their “thing”. They liked drawing but there were other kids in their classes who were really, really good at art. That was the bar, in their minds, and they could never achieve that bar. Other children had been labelled “good at art” and they had not, so they weren’t sure it was worth trying.
After talking to Tarsila, I went home and told my kids her story. I explained that anyone can be good at art – it just takes practice. They took it on board, and started tracing pictures, then moved on to drawing freehand. It put the joy back into it for them, they stopped writing themselves off. Now drawing is a hobby for all three, and one wants to be an illustrator. (Thank you Tarsila!)
My other “thing” (back when I was a musically-challenged child) was gymnastics. Today, all three of my kids love gymnastics, and laterally, love trying gymnastics on the trampoline. The other morning, I was watching one of my daughters, when suddenly she did a somersault on the trampoline – a proper in-the-air somersault. I was taken aback – despite my Carrigaline Gymnastics Club silver medal, and my onetime dream of being a gymnastics teacher, I’d never done a somersault. I asked her where she’d learned to do it, and she told me that in the book she’s reading at the moment (Diamond by Jacqueline Wilson) the main character is sold to a circus by her father, and learns to do somersaults. “So I thought I’d try it,” my daughter said. She’s still turning in the air, and we’re currently considering selling her to a circus.
Meanwhile, my other daughter was watching and bemoaning her own inability to somersault. “But you’re in here watching,” I told her, “your sister is out there practicing – that’s why she can do it. She wasn’t born a baby who can somersault – she just decided she wanted to do it and worked hard to get it.” (I couched it in more supportive terms but that was the gist.)
And that’s just it – the older I get, the less I think people are born with an incredible ability to swim or draw or do ballet. Surely no baby enters the world with an innate talent for golf – the best golfers are the ones who work hardest (and, no doubt, start earliest – we may have missed that boat too). “Why do you keep talking about golf?” my disgruntled daughter asked. “It’s just an example,” I explained. “Don’t write yourself off. Nobody is born able to draw or write or sing or do somersaults on a trampoline. It’s hard work and practice.”
And in the way that things often come together, I recently read a book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert – her message is similar. Anyone can be creative, it’s not for the chosen few. She writes about someone she knows who took up figure skating later in life, because she wanted to. And funnily enough, I heard someone I know in real-life say the same thing recently – she took up ice-skating at forty. I love this, I love the message that anyone can do anything – it just takes training and practice and work (and of course a desire to do it).
Another case in point – one of my kids had an Occupational Therapy appointment recently, at which the child in question was struggling with hand-eye coordination and specifically, catching a ball.
“Oh, that’s my fault,” I said to the OT, “it’s genetic. I’ve never been able to catch a ball.”
“No, it’s not genetic at all,” she said gently, “it’s a learned skill. Everyone can catch a ball, you just have to learn and to practice.”
Wow. A lifetime flubbing it when someone throws me a ball, last to be picked for the rounders team at school, cowering when my husband attempts to throw me the keys. And all along I just needed to learn how to do it. (Obviously I should now be outside practicing catching a ball and signing up for the local rounders team, but a bit like my career in music, I think that ship has sailed.)
And why does any of this matter? I think it matters for our kids who need to be told they can do anything they want to do if they work at it, and I think it matters for the grown-ups too. For any of us who has ever harboured thoughts of taking up something new, but thought, “I’m not good at it, I can’t do it.” Yes you can, no baby came out swinging a golf club (thank the lord – childbirth is hard enough).
Meanwhile, tired of listening to my no-baby-is-born-able-to-play-golf rhetoric, my daughter headed for the trampoline with a determined stomp. Two hours later, she called me out, hot and tired and exhilarated. “Watch me!” she said, and she did a proper in-the-air perfectly-landed somersault. I wonder how much I can get from the circus?