The Songs We Don’t Sing

Why we all need to make music, no matter our age


| January-February 2010


To read more about rediscovering your singing voice, visit Utne.com/Sing.

I have been watching, in amazement, the cartoon Wonder Pets on the Nickelodeon children’s television channel.

Demonstrating the benefits of teamwork, Linny the guinea pig, Tuck the turtle, and Ming-Ming the duckling (Ming-Ming is everyone’s favorite, and mine, too) save an animal in trouble—sometimes a dolphin, sometimes a monkey, sometimes a bee—in every episode, and feats of great collaboration are always required.

But it’s not just the photo-puppetry animation, the message of teamwork, or the humor of the cartoon that’s engaging; it’s also the fact that the characters are always singing. It’s practically an opera for toddlers, but with a lot more recitative and not too many grand arias.



As the three creatures sing, answer distress calls by phone, and travel far away and sometimes through time, they are accompanied by a score written by current composers and played by an orchestra. The score climaxes every now and then in the Wonder Pets refrain: “What’s gonna work? Teamwork! What’s gonna work? Teamwork!” It’s an awesome achievement to set an entire cartoon series to music and to employ the voices of three young children. Deservedly, Wonder Pets won an Emmy award for music direction and composition in 2008.

Even in our wildest dreams as parents, however, we can’t imagine that Wonder Pets is going to grow an appreciation of singing, never mind opera, in our children. It’s just another passive experience that they sit through. Parents realize this, but we don’t need to worry about it in the toddler years because there is no lack of singing and play in children’s lives at that stage.

Kit Kellison
1/15/2010 12:36:58 PM

As a music venue owner, I have noticed an upsurge in the singer-songwriter phenomenon of late and a slide in the popularity of the garage rock genre. However, both genres frame their songs around the voice. If garage is more amenable to a voice less constrained by the bounds of the major scale, that style of song-structure is still heavily dependent on lyrics, whether or not their presentation is to your taste. But there is, unfortunately, something to be overcome in our society, by those who dare to lift their voices. I've seen my son's voice crushed by his paternal grandmother's assessment of his musicality and have had many similar experiences myself, from my own family growing up. Both of us, by the way, now play and sing professionally. Is it a case where the nail who sticks up will get hammered down? Or have we all just gotten too far (whether by time or space) from our native lands where everyone is expected and encouraged to sing? Don't get me started on dancing!


Jessica Pearlman_1
1/12/2010 2:31:51 PM

I understand where the author is coming from, however I have to disagree with his general thesis. I find that singing has experienced a societal resurgence in recent years. We need only consider the infamous show "American Idol" (and its counterparts world-wide) to establish how the "untrained" voice has become a commodity. Instantly, anyone, regardless of musical background, now has this glimmer of hope in becoming famous from an innate artistic skill - the voice. The popularity of this one show (stemming ultimately from the concept "hey, I could do that!") has fueled myriad ways in which those at home can participate, rediscover their own voice: karaoke, video games, youtube etc. So, I believe amateur singing has made a comeback. Furthermore, the observation that "parents sing, sing, sing in the early years of children’s lives—and then it stops" is more a function of children acquiring language skills rather than parents dismissing the benefits of singing. Before children can speak, music is the surrogate language. Parents sing to soothe because a baby who cannot understand in words "go to sleep now, everything will be ok," or "hey, we're playing, let's have fun!" Being a professional classical musician myself (I play the oboe) I agree that singing shouldn't stop in the lives of children, but I am just offering an explanation for why it does (I do not believe it is a matter of parental disregard, or that feeling that instruments serve as more esteemed substitutions).


Jessica Pearlman_1
1/12/2010 2:30:17 PM

I understand where the author is coming from, however I have to disagree with his general thesis. I find that singing has experienced a societal resurgence in recent years. We need only consider the infamous show "American Idol" (and its counterparts world-wide) to establish how the "untrained" voice has become a commodity. Instantly, anyone, regardless of musical background, now has this glimmer of hope in becoming famous from an innate artistic skill - the voice. The popularity of this one show (stemming ultimately from the concept "hey, I could do that!") has fueled myriad ways in which those at home can participate, rediscover their own voice: karaoke, video games, youtube etc. So, I believe amateur singing has made a comeback. Furthermore, the observation that "parents sing, sing, sing in the early years of children’s lives—and then it stops" is more a function of children acquiring language skills rather than parents dismissing the benefits of singing. Before children can speak, music is the surrogate language. Parents sing to soothe because a baby who cannot understand in words "go to sleep now, everything will be ok," or "hey, we're playing, let's have fun!" Being a professional classical musician myself (I play the oboe) I agree that singing shouldn't stop in the lives of children, but I am just offering an explanation for why it does (I do not believe it is a matter of parental disregard, or that feeling that instruments serve as more esteemed substitutions).















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