Amusia, not amusing...
April 26, 2012 11:26 PM   Subscribe

It's getting more and more difficult to evade being honest, but I don't want to hurt him! The truth? My boyfriend of three years (and man I absolutely love) is a terrible... terrible singer.

The worst part is that he truly loves music. He's not looking to start a band or turn music into a career, so I don't feel that by indulging his now and again vocal acts of tone-deafness is leading him into a potentially life-altering mistake. He does, however, ask how a song sounds, and there are only so many times I can say "Your guitar playing was PERFECT" (which is true; he's actually a great guitar player) without him catching on.

But it's bad. It's not even salvageablely bad. Sometimes he'll record himself and I wait for it to click and for him to realize...but it never happens. And he wants so badly to sing, and I want for him to be able to. What do I do? We have an honest relationship, but there's a difference between "Am I putting on a little weight?" or "Is there something in my teeth?" and "Do I sound like a cat doused in water?"
posted by thatbrunette to Human Relations (74 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Well, here's an anecdote to consider. It makes me cry inside with regret that I let my wife know sort of the same thing twenty years ago, and I haven't heard her sing since, though I know she sings alone in the car.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 11:33 PM on April 26, 2012 [242 favorites]

You must never let on. Not ever.
posted by LarryC at 11:34 PM on April 26, 2012 [32 favorites]

Singing is an inherently joyful activity, and the world totally needs more joy. He's not trying to be the next big thing, so why take the fun out of it for him? It sad when people won't do things they enjoy because they were shamed out of it - it's not always about the audience.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:49 PM on April 26, 2012 [58 favorites]

Encourage him in his singing, while a) buying him pitch correction software and b) *insisting* that he use it, so that c) he can "get serious" about being the best musician he can be.

This way, he'll figure out where he actually is in terms of vocal skill; he'll feel you care about his dreams; he'll stop bugging you for fake feedback; and maybe, just maybe, his singing might actually improve.
posted by darth_tedious at 11:55 PM on April 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

Normally I would say you need to be honest and tell him the truth, but singing is one of those human activities that you should never stifle. Like Space Kitty says, it's inherently joyful. I don't think it's anybody's place to take singing away from anybody else. You could go the pitch correction software route but that really seems passive-aggressive to an icky amount. You say he plays guitar well; does he keep it in tune by ear? And yet he can't tell when his singing is out of tune with his guitar? That seems a little odd.

The only thing I can think of to do is to fob this job off on someone else who is detached from your boyfriend but whose opinion he will respect, like a professional musician friend of some sort. Maybe you know someone in a band who would be up for a jam session, who would be willing to give him some pointers? You could also see if he might like to take some singing lessons, and get them as a gift. Then when he comes home and is all "my teacher says I'm always flat!" you can be the caring concerned "you can try harder next week!" girlfriend.
posted by Mizu at 12:07 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Turn him onto some type of noise band with a crappy singer, then you won't be able to tell the difference?

The boredoms? Heck even pavement or early sonic youth or other early unknown punk bands. Something that can help him find his voice where he is at and inspire him to sing within his boundaries to his hearts desire.
posted by roboton666 at 12:10 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

It was a dark day when my wife mocked my singing along with Elvis Costello.

Deep dark truthful mirror.
posted by LarryC at 12:15 AM on April 27, 2012 [22 favorites]

I agree you shouldn't tell him his singing is horrid, but have you ever suggested he take voice lessons? Maybe say something along the lines of, "Hey, have you ever thought about taking voice lessons so you could be as vocally proficient as you are with your guitar playing?" You don't need to comment on the quality of this singing, and most vocal coaches can help everyone be a bit more on key, have better breath control, etc. Tread carefully, but I see no reason you shouldn't encourage him to improve his singing in a gentle, supportive way. If he's asking you, he obviously cares, so he'd probably relish the opportunity to explore it further, and if his voice coach is brutally honest, and he asks you why you never said anything, well, perhaps you're just as tone-deaf as he is? ;) Good luck!
posted by katemcd at 12:24 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

"I love you so I'm not an unbiased observer. Why don't I set you up with a singing coach for a lesson or two so you can get some structured feedback?"
posted by MuffinMan at 12:25 AM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

He's not looking to start a band or turn music into a career, so I don't feel that by indulging his now and again vocal acts of tone-deafness is leading him into a potentially life-altering mistake.

Normally I would agree with being honest as well, but in this case, I think you should just let it go.
posted by mleigh at 12:27 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Mister Tanner was a cleaner, from a town in the midwest…

I'd keep it to myself, but buying him some voice lessons as suggested above doesn't sound like a terrible idea.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:29 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

one persons screaching is another persons song.

I agree with space kitty -- not all singing is for the audience, some is just for the joy of singing.

Aside from lessons, there are also open call choirs for everyone who likes to sing regardless of skill level. They can be great for musical people who aren't destined to be an opera star.
posted by chapps at 1:03 AM on April 27, 2012

Nth lessons. It would help to know exactly what the problem is though, particularly if you're setting something up for him.

What's actually bad - is it pitch or tone (or both)?

If it's pitch, is it consistently above or (more likely) below the note, or is it a monotone, or completely wayward?

If tone, what's the problem? Nasal, strangled, thin, hooty, breathy?

Is it particularly a problem high in his range, or low - or is it uniformly bad across the range?

Does he always sing and play at the same time? Does it make any difference if he just sings? Does the type of song make a difference?

My understanding of amusia is limited, but if he's doing OK with the guitar I'd suggest it may not be a lost cause (I was declared 'tone-deaf' around 7 or 8 - now a significant part of my professional activity is training singers...)
posted by monkey closet at 1:25 AM on April 27, 2012

silly sing with him! i'm not a good singer. i have some issues with pitch and tempo and phrasing, really all of it, but i love to sing! it's fun! so my husband and i sing over enthusiastically, and we do funny voices and we just have fun. see if you can have fun singing along with him.
posted by nadawi at 2:12 AM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Best answer: My boyfriend gets around this by saying "I love it when you sing." :)
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 2:21 AM on April 27, 2012 [40 favorites]

It will hurt if you tell him, so you should keep it yourself, unless it is to save him from even greater pain. For example, if he is about to go on one of those televised Idol-style shows.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:33 AM on April 27, 2012

This was the plot of the most recent 3lephant and Piggie book. Gerald was honest but tactful.
posted by brujita at 2:49 AM on April 27, 2012

I am a good musician. My daughter sang terrible when she was little. Now in her mid teens she can hold a tune. My SO has been in group classes where in the beginning some people could not sing in tune at all, and by the end of the course, they could. Practise can and does make a difference even to people who start out sounding terrible.

The problem is, as others have pointed out, that if you crush him, he may never put in the practice or enjoy singing again. Only an outside person who is paid to be tolerant and diplomatic can solve this, like a teacher who knows how to work with people on a low base. Then over time, you may be able to say honey, you are singing better these days.

Finally, I think you should ask the mods to anonymise this question. If I were your boyfriend, it would make me sad.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:50 AM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

Sounds like you missed your window for an honest answer. I think you should stick to the support and not try to orchestrate a sad realization for the poor clueless bastard.

If you must, I would sit him down, deadly serious, you've got something you've been meaning to say for awhile, and when it turns out that you think he should take singing lessons—instead of e.g. you did jail time for murder—then it should help the medicine go down.
posted by fleacircus at 3:04 AM on April 27, 2012

Don't tell him! I have been CRUSHED by this very criticism. Now I feel dumb and self-conscious and never, ever sing in front of people anymore. I've probably gotten much worse, because I don't have that practice anymore. It's not like I was trying to go professional or anything, it was just singing for fun along to the radio or whatever.
posted by Ziggy500 at 3:32 AM on April 27, 2012 [21 favorites]

My mother says that about 25 years ago, my father told her she shouldn't sing so loud in church. She swears that he said this, and for that reason she never sings loudly. He denies ever saying this. I'm not sure of the truth of what went down 25 years ago, and they have an overall good marriage, but it makes me said to hear this little story be told every couple of years. She'll never forget it.

My sister used to sing to her son when he was a baby. Her boyfriend at the time, his father, made a comment that she shouldn't sing to him anymore because she sounded so bad. She never sang to him again.

I tried out for the school choir when I was 12. The boy I tried out with got in, but I didn't. I am still kind of self-conscious to this day about my singing.

Obviously that second example is a little extreme, and not what you are of the mind to do. But my point is with all these examples (besides the fact that no one in my family can sing worth a damn!), is that if you tell him this, it will probably be something that he lives the rest of his life thinking in the back of his head. He may still sing, but he will always remember that you don't like his singing. You may be happy together, but that little knowledge will always be with him.

If he is serious enough about singing to want singing lessons, and you know that he would enjoy the lessons, be enthusiastic about them and take it all in stride, then sure, set that up. But otherwise I would not mention it.
posted by batonthefueltank at 4:05 AM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Please don't tell him. A number of people (family, teachers) criticised/mocked my singing as a child (I was told just to mouth the words in one choir in elementary school), and I still have trouble even singing happy birthday. (I sing in private just fine, and when I later took singing classes I was adequate, if not ever anything vaguely approaching good.)

He's not planning on being a musician. Tell him his guitar was great. Tell him you love that song. You love the enthusiasm. Whatever. You don't have to lie to him and say he has the voice of an angel, but don't tell him he doesn't, either.
posted by jeather at 4:11 AM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Nice, necessary, true: you should only say things which are at least two of those. This is true, but it's not necessary and it's not nice.

For what it's worth, I've also been flat out told that I'm horrible at singing (by close friends, even) and I've received plenty of very carefully worded complements ("enthusiastic"). Like a fat lady probably realized at some point that she's fat, I already know that I can't sing, but having people point it out really hurts. As in, just thinking about it has me crying. Don't do that.
posted by anaelith at 4:28 AM on April 27, 2012 [50 favorites]

I'm going to disagree with almost everyone above.

I spent a long time smiling grimly at a boyfriend's very poor imitations of Monty Python sketches. They were excrutiatingly bad. Eventually I was in a bad mood and I said, "seriously, dude, you need to work on that, because you don't sound anything like insert-character-here and it's embarrassing when you do it in front of other people".

That relationship went to hell for other reasons, but at least I didn't have to suffer his really really bad impressions of Monty Python characters anymore.

I would prefer to be in a relationship where you can say, "dude, that really doesn't work, how about we get you some singing lessons" rather than a relationship where you brightly say, "dude, your guitar playing is awesome! (while thinking 'your singing is crap')".
posted by malibustacey9999 at 4:52 AM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

"Hey, have you ever thought about taking voice lessons so you could be as vocally proficient as you are with your guitar playing?"

I was going to suggest something like this too. It works because voice lessons would be a good suggestion even if he was a good natural singer. One, it's a commonly done thing to take a few lessons in some hobby you're enthusiastic about, just to improve, and two, if you sing frequently and haven't learned any technique, you can eventually hurt yourself.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:53 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another vote for voice lessons. I do not sing well, though I like to, especially while playing guitar. One thing voice lessons will help him do is identify particular ranges and keys that cater to his voice. And you can position it in such a way that says, "I love that you're so musically inclined and want to help you get better at it, and this is something I can do for you."

And then encourage him in his practice! It might benefit you both.
posted by Thistledown at 5:09 AM on April 27, 2012

It works because voice lessons would be a good suggestion even if he was a good natural singer.

That, and you can point out that even seasoned professional folks will do this (Laurie Anderson comes to mind for me--she had already put out three albums before she took singing lessons for Strange Angels. Are there others that folks can think of for more examples?)
posted by dlugoczaj at 5:21 AM on April 27, 2012

I KNOW I'm a bad singer, but I'll throw a few relevant lines from a song into a conversation sometimes, as a joke. The time my boyfriend just kind of shook his head in disgust while I was goofing on some 1960s doo-wop song still makes stop mid-line in shame and guilt whenever I accidentally sing in front of him.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:27 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like its heaven on earth.”
posted by The Deej at 5:30 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

N'thing voice lessons. Just about anyone can become a reasonable singer if they learn how.
posted by biscotti at 5:30 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

As an alternative - is your boyfriend a video game player? Can you get him Rock Band or the like? Let him be the singer and have fun, and he'll start learning how to match his voice to the bars given by the game for more points. Eventually, it'll carry over to other singing a bit.
posted by skittlekicks at 5:35 AM on April 27, 2012

You could suggest he post his songs on one of the many "here's my music, listen to it" websites like thesixtyone; if his singing needs work, people will tell him so in comments, as I know from personal experience.
posted by escabeche at 5:39 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I've always thought Bob Dylan is technically a bad singer.
posted by jayder at 5:48 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

It works because voice lessons would be a good suggestion even if he was a good natural singer.

This is true for sure, but please be careful about voice lessons. If he really is just enjoying singing for its own sake and because it brings him joy, and he isn't interested in singing publicly or professionally, then I wouldn't even suggest it.

Try to take pleasure in what his singing* brings to him, rather than what it brings to you.

*or piano playing, or poetry reciting, or woodworking, or painting, or ...
posted by headnsouth at 5:59 AM on April 27, 2012 [8 favorites]

If you try to tell him anything, it is important to let him know that you *like* his singing, whether it's good or bad. Because otherwise you're just putting him down.
posted by grog at 6:01 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a moderate-to-severe hearing loss. In 6th grade we all had to take a music class, and I chose choir, because I wasn't interested in buying an instrument that I couldn't really play. I guess I sang too loud or something because the mean girls made fun of me. Despite feeling relatively unaffected by this, I didn't sing again for about ten years. I would mouth the words to "Happy Birthday" at parties. So sad!

Now I'm sort of over it and I sing songs to my cat and my boyfriend. It's not about sounding good, it is about expressing my affection and emotions in a joyful way. If my boyfriend pointed out that I'm no good at carrying a tune, it would provide me no new information, but it would make me feel bad. Is it really true that we have to be perfect before we can be vulnerable in front of those we love?

Singing is fun. Why take that away from him?
posted by newg at 6:14 AM on April 27, 2012 [6 favorites]

Don't ever tell him and anonymize this question.
posted by bonobothegreat at 6:19 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

If he's not trying to go into music professionally, I don't understand what could possibly be gained by telling him. Unless there's an underlying assumption here that people shouldn't sing in front of other people unless they're good at it, in which case I challenge you to a duel, because that will not stand, man.
posted by Ragged Richard at 6:43 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

As someone who was once told by my spouse that I must be "tone deaf," .... do not ever tell your SO that he can't sing. You'd be putting a load of shame on him for many years to come. Do you really want that on your relationship karma?

For the record I can sing, I do it well much of the time but am not always on key if it's a new song or a new group I'm singing with, etc. People have complimented my voice. I still love to sing. But not in front of my spouse, who I feel is constantly silently judging me and yes, it has affected our relationship. He said that 12 years ago and it still really bothers me. Do not say anything.
posted by cuddles.mcsnuggy at 6:52 AM on April 27, 2012 [4 favorites]

I have this flaw, in which I get incredibly annoyed by people 1) singing badly around me, or 2) singing well around me, but in a simpering Betty Boop voice. However, I would NEVER tell anyone they were a bad singer, or that their singing irritated me. This is my problem, not theirs.

Seriously, if I have put up with 30 years of my mother's awful singing (both atonal and gigglingly breathy and flirtatious), and never told her it's terrible, even as a kid? You can extend this courtesy to the man you love.

People usually like my singing voice, and I STILL don't like the comments because they make me self-conscious.

(So glad my mom can't work the internet.)
posted by Coatlicue at 6:53 AM on April 27, 2012

Maybe this is the style he's going for a la roboton666's comment...? Maybe he has some 'avant-garde' quality that he's going for? No?

Does he earnestly think he's a "good" singer? Maybe when he listens to the tracks he is just listening for the guitar parts (if that is his focus)? I feel like a sit down, your-hand-over-his-hand tortured confession from you is obviously a joy killer. But if he has a sense of humor about himself, maybe a kind of playful teasing is in order? I kind of like it when people are bad at singing. I've teased a few different people in my life and I find it only ups their joy quotient because they take great glee in performing Pianoman like a cat trapped inside of a piano. Another friend knows he's only good at singing "This is How We Do It" so he just sings that at random or waits for it to come on at parties.
posted by Katine at 6:54 AM on April 27, 2012

When I was twelve I was told by the director of our church choir that "God has plans for you, other than singing." I have been extremely self-conscious about my singing ever since.

Only in the last few years when my then-boyfriend, now-husband caught me singing in the car and in the kitchen while cooking, have I gotten over it. I know I'm flat, I know I'm pitchy but when I'm singing "Jolene" while making dinner he comes in and joins in. And then our horrible, pitchy caterwauling somehow merges into something sweet and awesome. It's gonna take a lot of alcohol for me to sing karaoke, but I'm not afraid to sing in front of my husband. Because he loves me and would never tell me how bad I suck.
posted by teleri025 at 6:59 AM on April 27, 2012 [20 favorites]

Another vote for no, don't tell. My mom was playing a Christmas carol on the piano when I was nine and I sung along with her. She said "you're so out of tune, you're terrible" and I have never sung in public again, not at birthday parties, not even at karaoke when I was falling down drunk.

I like to paint, and if my husband told me I was bad at it, I would be forever self-conscious and I don't know if I'd ever forgive him.
posted by desjardins at 7:12 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Tell him his guitar was great. Tell him you love that song. You love the enthusiasm. Whatever. You don't have to lie to him and say he has the voice of an angel, but don't tell him he doesn't, either.

Yes, this a thousand times if confronted directly with a "how does this song sound?" And if you must criticize, then try to soften the blow by criticizing how the song sounds to you rather than criticizing HIM, and also enthusiastically bookend with a positive note

eg. "you know, to my ears, the song sounds a little pitchy* but I really love that you put so much feeling into the words."

*as opposed to "YOU sound pitchy"
posted by kitkatcathy at 7:29 AM on April 27, 2012

Hm. I really think you missed the window of being honest a while ago, and gently suggesting lessons or the like after years of applauding it may come off as weird, especially if it's just a casual hobby. I think it depends on how seriously he takes what he does, and how seriously he takes your opinion about it too. I think generally I would not tell him that his singing makes my ears bleed. In a similar situation I would just point out the things that I liked rather than saying what I didn't like, but this might not work with someone who takes it really seriously.

Do other people tell him that his singing is good?
posted by sm1tten at 7:38 AM on April 27, 2012

Voting not to tell him. Check out #6 on this great list. Sounds like you know enough about singing to recognize that he's "bad," but what I realized from that point is it's pretty great when your SO is on the sidelines cheering you on while you're doing something you really care about (even if you're just mediocre or even bad at doing it).
posted by TessaGal at 7:45 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

I see no reason to tell him this:

(1) if you're telling him this so that YOU will not have to hear him sing, that's selfish.

(2) if you're telling this to "help" him, my question is how does this help him?

(a) if he doesn't aspire to be a performer, he's harming nobody by singing badly, so you are not helping him to tell him his singing is bad.

(b) if he aspires to be a performer, there will be many, many people who will let him know his singing is bad (professionals or his audience), so your criticism is not necessary.

So -- the only possible one to benefit from your criticism is you, and that's a selfish motivation.
posted by jayder at 7:48 AM on April 27, 2012 [5 favorites]

When I was a kid, my father would not let stop taking the violin even though I was terrible. I was so terrible that my violin teacher of ten years later told me that she almost told me to go home and never come back because I she thought I was irredeemably tone deaf. But she didn't and I kept at it because my dad wouldn't let me quit. Then something happened. It was like something clicked in my brain and I actually stopped being tone deaf. My teacher was amazed. By the end of ten years, I could definitely fiddle and I could play some mozart and Bach, without it being painful. All of this is to say that if keeps at it he might actually get better. He has an advantage on me in that he's enthusiastic. So don't make a final judgment on him yet, and if you see any improvement encourage that.
posted by bananafish at 7:59 AM on April 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

Hm. I'm a terrible singer (like, seriously awful) but I love to do it. For me there would be a huge difference between these possibilities:

1. I am singing and my partner, without me asking, volunteers that I suck.

2. I have sung a song and ask for direct feedback about the singing.

In the first case, I would be very upset and offended. I know I suck, I was just having fun, and offering unsolicited negative feedback like that indicates little concern for my feelings and was neither necessary nor nice.

In the second case, I value honesty in my relationship very highly, and I was presumably asking for some reason (probably to get specific thoughts about in what ways I suck). I would feel awful if my partner felt they couldn't be honest in that situation.

The key is that I asked specifically about the singing - not like "how was the song?" or "did you like it?" but specifically "how did you think my singing went?" In that case, and in only that case, I think you can politely tell him what you think - but as always when giving negative criticism, try to be specific (e.g., "I thought you had a tendency to be a little flat") and give him a face-saving out ("I don't have the best ear myself, but...") If he never asks specifically about his singing, chances are he knows it's not great but doesn't care to hear all about why, and that's fair enough; let him sing his heart out.
posted by forza at 8:02 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm not a great singer. I'm not even a great guitar player or really, any other instrument, but I am especially shy about my singing ability. I don't think I'm inherently terrible or anything, but I have always recognized that I tend to be "sloppy" when it comes to making music. Even so, I love it. Who cares if it is sloppy? I have fun doing it! Not everyone has to be Frank Zappa or Mike Patton when it comes to technical exactitude. It rarely comes out the way I want or anything, but there's something about simply creating something that you feel is worth sharing with others. And you know what? The couple songs I have posted to Music have gotten some good feedback. The criticisms are present, but they are useful; supporting, even. I've listened to quite a few songs by other MeFites on there, and many of them have the same air of feedback, support, and constructive criticism in the comments. That's the community that we have here, and it is great to be a part of it.

However, as his girlfriend, you should probably lean towards the side of encouragement rather than criticism. That's what my wife does - to my knowledge, she doesn't listen to my songs in the car or while cleaning the house or anything, but she will listen to my songs when I play them for her, and if anything, her biggest complaint is that, in her opinion, I tend to have the volume on the vocal tracks too low in my mixes!

I also mentioned the Mefi Music thing above, because what I would do if I were you, is introduce him to the community we have here. I think people tend to the "nice" side on Music, but also, I see advice given all the time, often followed to good effect. I know that I would be a lot less hurt (and more likely to follow advice!) if the criticisms were given by musicians whose work I respect, rather than my wife.

Note to self: start posting to Mefi Music again!
posted by mysterpigg at 8:25 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Years ago, I was at an outdoor festival in Cambridge. A block party, sort of thing.

All kinds of people were out and doing all sorts of things, and I was one of them, and I was out walking and taking everything in. Outside what was then called Z Squared but is now Russell House, there was this little circus act, and they were a family. A little family circus. A father, a mother, and two kids.

They had the spandex jumpsuits and all, blue and shiny, and it kind of seemed like they were handmade, maybe by the family themselves. They were doing all these little circusy things - balancing acts, unicycles, juggling, that sort of deal, you know?

And they really weren't very good at all.

They couldn't stay on the unicycles for more than a couple seconds. Their juggling act was performed as if the ground was an intended participant which wasn't holding up its end of the task. All of the balancing acts were composed mostly of wobble and tentative, hunched-over postures because they just weren't great at what they were trying to do.

But through all of it, they smiled. And the smiles looked real, not the sorts you'd see in beauty pageants but honest, happy smiles. In each clasping of hands and dutiful, showbiz-swaggery retrieval of props, one could see the hours they'd spent together, this family, practicing really hard so people could see what a great act they had. They loved doing it. They loved being together, and they were happy.

At that moment I decided that I'd rather watch one happy, not-terribly-good family circus than a thousand of the world's best, most precise acrobats.

Especially since it's just something he's doing in his spare time and noodling around with, your boyfriend's ability to sing is the least important thing about your boyfriend's singing. If he knew how bad you thought he sounded, no matter how nicely you put it, he'd never sing around you again and you'd realize that you never imagined you'd actually miss it. Learn to love his terrible singing for the vulnerability it requires and how much it shows he trusts you, so when he asks about it, there are any number of encouraging things you can say that will have nothing to do with the actual quality of his singing.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 8:40 AM on April 27, 2012 [22 favorites]

I have a little sister who loves to sing, and she is freaking terrible. Someone she has made it through school musical theater tryouts, talent shows, etc. without anyone straight up telling her how terrible she is except for my little brother, whom she assumes is just being a jerkface sibling and therefore doesn't count. It is excruciating, and also I worry that someday she'll be in a less supportive environment (than her tiny, quirky high school) and someone will finally tell her and she'll be totally devastated. But we don't tell her. My mom signed her up for voice lessons and she actually got DRAMATICALLY better for awhile, although I have to say that after the lessons stopped she kind of regressed again. It would be very very very tempting to tell, but it's better that you don't.
posted by naoko at 9:29 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

not all singing is for the audience, some is just for the joy of singing.
Yes - this is why I sing in the shower yet would never enter X-Factor. Occasionally I do wonder how good I might be if I took lessons, because I enjoy it, but I know the raw material just isn't there.

I used to go out with an aspiring comedian. When we started, he did straight stand-up and got far in a few competitions. He also wrote scripts for radio comedies, but he never sent them off because 'they're not ready'. (One was about hunt saboteurs - three years after he showed it to me, hunting was banned, making the script fairly irrelevant. But it was funny.) Then after two or three years, he started doing character comedy - dressing up as a 50yr old provincial town councillor and performing a routine. It was not good. I went along to some shows, and I saw the audience reaction, and it made me sad because he ignored what he was actually good at to plough this embarrassing furrow. And it made me sad not because he was doing something he found fun, but because he also aimed to become successful doing it. Since we broke up, he's doing more personal, political stuff and seems to be getting decent reviews, so something good came from it.

If your boyfriend is an excellent guitar player, then tell him to go down that road career-wise. Emphasise the strong point, rather than telling him what his weak point is. Can you sing with him?
posted by mippy at 9:33 AM on April 27, 2012

I'm a sort-of professional singer. (I get paid for it, but not enough to live on or pay bills.) I think if he's actually a musician and if he's coming to you for critique, then you can help him out. But as others have mentioned, it is very, very tricky -- singing is an inherently joyful and personal act, and the last thing you want is to make him feel like he can't express himself that way.

IF you say anything at all, make it after he's asked you for your opinion, and say "OK, look. You have fabulous emotion, your mic presence is amazing, and I love to hear you sing because it is such a wonderful expression of who you are. Compared to your guitar playing, though, your technique's a little rough. That can totally be fixed if you want to put a little work into it."

Singing is work, and it is a craft. Nearly anybody can get a LOT better at it with the application of effort. There is no aspect of the voice, outside of illness or injury, that can't be improved with study. If he wants to get better and he's willing to work on it, he absolutely can. You just have to be careful to phrase it to him as a craft issue, not an art issue.

(As an aside, it really grinds my gears when people say stuff like "Oh, you're so lucky, I wish I had your voice." I've worked HARD for more than half my life on this. Luck may have something to do with it, but it is the least part of the equation.)
posted by KathrynT at 10:02 AM on April 27, 2012 [2 favorites]

Don't tell him unless he specifically asks, especially if he's asking about feasability for something he wants others to enjoy or that he hopes will net him success. Then tell him his guitar-playing is ready but his voice isn't and leave it at that.

If there is any way at all to do it with dignity, I would seriously consider giving him the gift of singing lessons from someone really awesome, so he can have his joy and share it, too.
posted by batmonkey at 10:14 AM on April 27, 2012

The big question is why he sings.

Is it "I've written this new song, let me sing it for you" or "I can't get this tune out of my head but I can't remember what song it is, it goes like this"? Don't tell him, unless he's going to have to sing in a professional context and doing it badly may harm his career.

Is it "God, I'm happy" or 'hey, little daughter, let me sing you to sleep"? Don't tell him unless it's driving you nuts and you're unable to ignore it.

Is it "I know I'm a fantastic singer and I know how much you love to hear me sing so I'm giving this one-on-one performance just for you"? You might want to tell him.
posted by rjs at 10:57 AM on April 27, 2012

MeTa, but in good way.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:32 AM on April 27, 2012

Buy him singing lessons. It's something he likes to do anyway, turns you into a good guy/girl for doing it and will make his singing more tolerable.
posted by cnc at 11:49 AM on April 27, 2012

Singing is fun. If he's enjoying it, let him enjoy it. If he asks you in earnest whether his voice is good enough to pursue a professional career -- or if he's going to perform publicly and wants to sanity-check with you to avoid embarrassment -- then say "your voice is good enough for me, and good enough to sing for fun, but if you're going to take it further than that, you should probably try a few singing lessons to see where it goes."
posted by davejay at 12:10 PM on April 27, 2012

data point: the first time I ever sung for my father as a young kid, he criticized me for singing with a fake accent -- which I hadn't been aware I was doing -- and I didn't sing again for anyone including myself until college, and barely then.
posted by davejay at 12:12 PM on April 27, 2012

My mom signed her up for voice lessons and she actually got DRAMATICALLY better for awhile, although I have to say that after the lessons stopped she kind of regressed again. It would be very very very tempting to tell, but it's better that you don't.

Don't be afraid to ask your sister "You know, I was thinking about how proud I was at your progress when you were working so hard at your voice classes. The best singers are the ones who diligently study their craft for their whole lives. Have you thought about going back?"
posted by davejay at 12:23 PM on April 27, 2012

if you tell him, you stand to lose a lot. if you don't tell him, it's no skin off your nose. there's no scenario where telling him is the best choice. don't tell him.
posted by facetious at 12:59 PM on April 27, 2012

One of the churches I often play at makes a point of valuing participation over performance, so we encourage whoever wants to get up with the worship band and sing. 18 months ago a gal with seemingly no sense of pitch began to do this on occasion. Then more often, and more often. And these days she has become very good, better than I would ever have thought possible. She developed her pitch ear through repetition and practice and fearlessness. Just sayin'...
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 1:08 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

You could be wrong. Lots of people hate Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, etc.

If he REALLY wants your opinion, then tell him specifics. "You’re a little out of tune", etc. If you’re not musical enough to do that then MAYBE "something seems off, I don’t know what it is". "You’re not very good" is a terrible thing to say, you could be wrong.

If he asks you what you think about his singing and you tell him his guitar playing is good, he knows what you think. The rest is just you wanting to tell him how bad he is. You might want to ask yourself why.
posted by bongo_x at 3:18 PM on April 27, 2012

There was someone who was a professional musician for decades, and may still be, put out many records, several on major labels, and even the only singer in a band for a while, who was completely and utterly tone deaf. And I don’t mean "a little off". So I’ve heard.
posted by bongo_x at 3:38 PM on April 27, 2012

My late mom told me that she was told by a choir leader to mouth the words because her singing was up to par. She still sang along to songs while driving, and I loved her voice. It was beautiful to me. I'd give anything to be able to ride with her, talk with her, and hear her sing.

I vote for not telling him.
posted by SillyShepherd at 8:49 PM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

There was someone who was a professional musician for decades, and may still be, put out many records, several on major labels, and even the only singer in a band for a while, who was completely and utterly tone deaf. And I don’t mean "a little off". So I’ve heard.

Heh, lemme guess, the one already mentioned in this thread? I still remember the shock of "Wait, seriously, this guy has a SINGING career? His songs are great, but...dayum." The things you can get away with as a dude, I guess?

I don't think you need to tell him unless he wants to go professional with it--and let the Simon Cowells of the world do that job for you. Especially if he really believes he can sing. And nthing the lessons.

For the record, I'm aware of my lack of singing voice and it sucks, but I don't hold it against my ex for telling me I canNOT sing along to Evanescence yonks ago. Unfortunately I have heard myself, so it wasn't exactly a shocker to my soul. But if he's in denial, then hell no, never tell.
posted by jenfullmoon at 10:33 PM on April 27, 2012

What is bad singing?

Is he trying to impress anyone with his singing? If so, he might want such feedback as will help him do that better, but it isn't clear that's what he's going for.

If he's singing for pleasure, and he is enjoying it, then he is in fact singing well.
posted by LogicalDash at 6:49 AM on April 28, 2012

"Once men sang together round a table in chorus; now one man sings alone, for the absurd reason that he can sing better. If scientific civilization goes on...only one man will laugh, because he can laugh better than the rest." -- G.K. Chesterton
posted by straight at 9:32 AM on April 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

If he enjoys singing, would he like singing lessons? Honey, you love singing so much I thought you'd enjoy a series of sessions with a coach! Otherwise, think about it the way many partners think about snoring "It's evidence that he's alive and well." If you sing along, you won't him hear as much.
posted by theora55 at 12:14 PM on April 29, 2012

Best answer: I certainly wasn't expecting such a response; especially the very opinionated comments from the MeTa thread. To be honest, I've hesitated to reply, because it hurt a smidge, so I should clarify:

1. I do not at all want to change him. I love this man, and I love his voice, as offputting as it is. I was shocked at some of the angry responses, as though by being honest about his voice I don't care for him, or love him.
2. Suggesting singing lessons would offend him, I think. He was in choir in college, he's gotten feedback.
3. In making this (lighthearted, I thought) post, I simply wanted to find things to say that weren't dishonest, but that didn't put me in the awkward position of being 100% truthful.
4. Forgive my slightly hyperbolic way of describing things.

This, above all else, is the comment I would highlight as best answer (from the MeTa thread):

[Previous MeTa Comment}:I take issue with the idea that her boyfriend is "unsalvageably terrible" at singing. (...) Second, both the voice and the craft of singing are something that can be improved in ANYONE with study and effort.

No. No, seriously not.
My husband is a terrible singer. His hearing is perfect and he is supercritical when he hears OTHER people sing slightly off key, but with his own voice, he simply cannot hear the difference when he is singing a B minor instead of an A.

(When I was young and immature I tried to break it to him, but he thought I was totally overreacting and couldn't fathom what I was talking about. Also, there must be something wrong with my hearing.)

So years ago, because I was taking singing lessons, he decided he wanted to take some, too. Not because he realised how badly he was singing, mind you. Just for fun.

The singing instructor was a very kind, positive person, the type who is always hopeful. After the first few lessons she was casting around for something to say and she chirped, "he's really trying hard!". Eventually, as the semester wore on, the hopeful look on her face was replaced with a gulping expression of supressed chagrin.

The semester came to an end. I watched him belt out "Let it be" infront of an auditorium of parents-of-singing-lesson-pupils.

And my husband decided that he'd had all the singing lessons he needed now, thank you, and went happily back home.

He still sings terribly, terribly. Earhurtingly awfully. It's ok. I've gotten used to it though I cannot bring myself to love this. And you know what? We have a one year old daughter. And her favourite thing ever is to have papa sing along to the music with her. She could listen to him for hours, and she laughs and it cheers her up anytime she is grouchy and he is the best papa ever.

That's some mighty fine singing!

posted by Omnomnom at 12:07 PM on April 27

Finally, people are very very right when they say a comment on one's singing is something that can lead them to never singing again, and is something they will always remember. My mother made a comment when I was very young, and I refuse to sing outside of the shower. And yes, singing is joyful.

Thank you to the people who realized I was approaching this from a perspective of loving someone, and wanting the best for them. Overall, the message is clear: be supportive, in whatever manner that takes. :)
posted by thatbrunette at 11:14 AM on April 30, 2012 [4 favorites]

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins had a voice that was (charitably) described by many reviewers as a "caterwauling cat". That did not stop him from having a very successful musical career until he self-sabotaged himself due to drugs and mental illness.

My point is that your husbands lack of musical talent is totally irrelevant to anything, and the fact that he doesn't want to make a professional living out of this only makes it even more so. Unless you really can't stand to be his captive audience, simply don't tell him. It would hurt his feelings, and it's only your subjective opinion anyway.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 8:57 AM on May 2, 2012

Best answer: Holy cats, I know I'm wicked late here, but wow I can actually respond to this question.

I have never been a good singer, but I've also never been afraid of singing. I know I have tone issues and I often forget to support properly which makes my upper register notes alternately wicked strong (when I support) and wicked reedy (when I don't). If somebody else singing or playing screws up, I'll follow them instead of singing what I'm supposed to sing.

Somehow, through sheer chutzpah or blind luck or divine intervention, I've ended up being in musicals (including Gilbert and Sullivan, for God's sake), Chinese operas, and (most recently) have ended up as the lead singer in a rock band.

This makes absolutely no sense to me. I'm not being falsely modest when I mention my lack of singing ability. I've listened to myself sing. I've listened to other people sing. I recognize good singing when I hear it. I don't got it.

Anyhow, my poor, long-suffering wife has to listen to me sing all the time because I love to sing. She doesn't pull any punches with her critiques of my singing, but she doesn't do it in a mean way. There's a way to say "you suck" and a way to say "you went flat on that line." One is an insult. The other is critique.

He's recording his singing, so he wants somebody to hear it. I am going to go against the grain here and suggest that you consider couching things the way my wife couches them to me:

"Joey, you know I love your singing, but it sound to me like you were a little off on that song. You should talk to [band mate/singing instructor/other person who has a respected music opinion] about that."

I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. I feel like she's supporting me because, even if she's thinking "lord, stop singing," she's encouraging me to sing and I also feel like I can go to her for her honest opinion about my singing. I've become a better singer because of it. Not a great singer by any stretch of the imagination, but a better one.
posted by Joey Michaels at 5:29 PM on May 2, 2012

« Older Please help me find a strapless bra for my wedding...   |   seeking the real name of a common U.S. roadside... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.