Mouthing the words – the golem effect

Singing is a wonderful gift. To be able to entertain oneself and others with no instrument other than one’s voice must give enormous pleasure.

But I can only imagine the joy it must bring, for I am no singer.

When I was at school and we were all lined up and squished in on the stairs performing for parents in our end-of-year concerts, I was told to mouth the words.

Unlike the recommendation in the song written by Joe Raposo for Sesame Street and made famous by the Carpenters “Sing a Song

“Don´t worry that it´s not good enough for anyone else to hear.
Just sing.
Sing a song.”

I was told to not sing, for it was not good enough for anyone else to hear. I accepted the verdict without question, as was expected of us at school, and mouthed the words.

Of course, my school days were long over before Joe wrote his wonderful song, and maybe no one since then has been subjected to the same humiliation.

Over the years various family members and friends have tried to be encouraging but their words have seemed hollow, for I “knew” the truth to be otherwise. One family member even told me that, when I “sang” nursery rhymes, I sounded just like Patsy Biscoe. But that’s not true. Patsy has a beautiful voice. You can listen to her here.

Sometimes it is difficult to not sing along for music is so inviting, often almost demanding that one join in.

In an early childhood classroom, music is a very important part of the day; and as an early childhood teacher, I incorporate music and singing into the program, always at the beginning and end of the day, and many times in between. I have blogged about this before here and here.

Fortunately for me, and the students, music is so readily available on CD or the internet, that finding songs for the children to sing along with is no longer a problem.  I apologise here to all the students who have had to suffer my joining in and “singing” along with them though, when I couldn’t resist the temptation. I must admit that none of them ever complained when I joined in. But I have no idea what they went home and told their parents either!

I believe strongly in the power of positive encouragement to improve children’s self-esteem, confidence, willingness to have a go, and learning outcomes.

I also know that a negative attitude encourages children to have a negative attitude towards themselves and their abilities, decreases self-esteem, erodes confidence and creates anxiety and a fear of trying new things or of having a go.

According to Wikipedia

“The Pygmalion effect, or Rosenthal effect, is the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. The effect is named after the greek myth of Pygmalion.

A corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the golem effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. The Pygmalion effect and the golem effect are forms of self-fulfilling prophecy. People will take the belief they have of themselves (negative in this case) and attribute traits of the belief with themselves and their work. This will lead them to perform closer to these expectations that they set for themselves. Within sociology, the effect is often cited with regard to education and social class.”

Surprisingly I had never thought of this in relation to my singing disability, until recently.

Engaged in a Twitter discussion with Anne Goodwin (@Annecdotist) and Caroline Lodge (@lodge_c) I mentioned that I listen to audiobooks on my drive to work. Anne replied that she listens to music on long journeys, trying to “fix choral music in my head”.

I replied, innocently enough, I thought:


To which they both responded with the type of “encouragement” I had heard many times before “Give it a go. Everyone can sing.”

So I told them about being told to mouth the words, and I was both surprised and challenged by their responses:




I had never thought of my singing disability as a learned disability. I had always thought of it being a physiology issue and, later, perhaps a hearing issue.

I am not very good at mimicking vocal (other than speech) sounds, or at identifying which note, of two given notes, is the higher or lower. I did enrol in a brain training program which included aural exercises involving recognition of higher or lower pitch. While I did make some improvement, my scores weren’t high (I could tell that high/low difference).

The comments of Anne and Caroline made me think about this:

What came first: the singing disability or the disability teaching?

Could I have learned, if given the opportunity, to sing a least a few bars in tune? Could I still be taught?

It has sometimes crossed my mind that singing lessons could be an interesting experiment.

Anne and Caroline are both encouraging, and Caroline commented:


I do love music and perhaps, one day, I will go for it and find out the truth about my singing ability.

Perhaps I will learn to sing and fulfill the dream “to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony”.

But for now, the experiment will have to wait, I have other things to learn.

What do you think?

Do you consider yourself a singer?

Can everyone learn to sing?

Is it a human right?

Could my singing ability really be a “golem effect”?

What disability have you learned, if any?

As a parent or teacher, how do you ensure your children do not suffer from a learned disability?

You can read more from Anne or Caroline by clicking on their names.

15 thoughts on “Mouthing the words – the golem effect

  1. Pingback: School Days, Reminiscences of Anne Goodwin | Norah Colvin

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  4. Caroline

    Hi Norah, your tweets and then this post gets to me because I have heard so often people say they can’t sing (also other stuff) because they were told not to. For me this is about learning bad things. It is easy to learn how to do something wrong, and music seems to be an area where this happens. But humans are capable of infinite learning, EVEN the OLD! They get discouraged by strong messages – like from teachers. And sometimes it’s easier to hide behind the ‘I can’t’ idea, rather than tackle something. We can all get better at whatever we want to get better at.
    I can’t draw, but I try to say to myself that I just havent learned yet. I know I could get better at it if I tried.
    For the theorists, attribution theory is at work in saying ‘I can’t’.
    Give it a go is you want to.
    Singing is soooo good for you.


    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Caroline,
      Thank you so much for your comment and its very powerful message. What you say is so true. It is about learning bad things. I like your idea of infinite learning, and I certainly want my learning to go on forever. There is more to learn and know than I could achieve in multiple lifetimes! I’ll do as much as I can with the one I have. I haven’t prioritized changing my singing “I can’t” into an “I can” but maybe I should give it a go. I might be surprised.
      Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, and encouragement.


  5. Annecdotist

    Hi Norah, I love that you’ve gone on to write such a fabulous post from our Twitter conversation. A couple of things to add is that often those of us in the helping professions, in which I’d include teaching, often fail to apply to ourselves the compassionate understanding we apply to others – you knew that your pupils just needed the right kind of encouragement but hard to recognise for yourself.
    I don’t think I was ever explicitly told not to, but spent most of my life not singing until I had some lessons about ten years ago. Even then it was a big step to join a choir a couple of years ago where I still struggle, but fortunately found one with a really supportive atmosphere and inspiring leader (who, incidentally, has just been awarded an MBE) and get to sing major choral works with an orchestra. I’m learning as I go along and still mime sometimes.
    One thing the conductor is always say is sing confidently (very hard when you’re nervous) but it’s true that the notes have a better quality when you’re not worried about getting it wrong. So that’s another dimension to our non-singing: the more anxious we are the worse it sounds but the problem can be anxiety rather than capacity.
    If you do have a bash at changing your status from a nonsinger, good luck and let me know how it goes.


    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne,
      Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your encouragement and support. It is interesting to hear how you came to join the choral group and to know that you are not always super-charged with singing confidence either. I like that the conductor always encourages you sing confidently. I guess there are many times in life when we bluff our confidence and it is certainly better than letting any little anxieties show through. I’m thinking of job interviews and being a stranger in an unfamiliar situation, or meeting the neighbour’s dog!
      While I don’t have any immediate plans to seek out a singing teacher, I will certainly consider the option and let you know how it goes, should I try.
      I’m very happy for you that you have found your singing voice and a wonderful group to share it with.


    2. Caroline

      And I too have had the happy experience of singing with a choir, a community choir. The conductor always said – sing out even if you are uncertain. It’s not about getting it right it’s about learning to sing. And we need something to work with. We all loved her. And we loved singing together.
      There’s plenty of research to say it makes you happier, and I’m not surprised. Music is a great connector.
      Thanks Norah for turning your singing issue into a blog post. Very good to air all this. others will have been feeling like you.


      1. Norah Post author

        Hi Caroline,
        Thank you for continuing the conversation and your support. I do know so many people who are wonderful singers and get a lot of pleasure out of it. I get a lot of pleasure out of hearing them sing. One day, instead of offering to play the tambourine in their bands, I should offer to sing!
        I certainly agree that music and singing is a great connector and makes one happier, This is a good part of my reasons for incorporating them into my daily classroom practice. It seems almost impossible to not smile when singing, and it brightens up the day.
        I really appreciate your ongoing thoughts and commitment to the conversation. Your contribution has provided much for me to think about.


  6. Bec

    Very fascinating stuff but also sad, Nor. The theory you discussed must be so powerful. I have heard similar things in the past, and maybe it was related to this theory. Thanks for sharing !


    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Bec. It is very powerful. Also reminds me of the Henry Ford quote: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right!”
      Another good one is: “Anyone who stops learning is old”. I’ll stay young forever. Lots still to learn, including singing. Maybe there’s a bit of unlearning in there too.
      The power of words is one thing we must never forget in our interactions with children, or anyone!


      1. Bec

        Hi Nor, I like the way you describe ‘unlearning’, and it makes me wonder how many of us have things we’d be better off unlearning (as well as new things to learn). Maybe it can be something for you to explore on here one day – I’d like to read it.


        1. Norah Post author

          Hi again Bec, and thank you for your further response. I think sometimes there are things we need to unlearn before they can be replaced with new understandings. The unlearning is not always as easy as the initial learning was, and the replacement sometimes even more difficult. When children are young learning comes so easily to them. It is important to ensure that what is learned is positive and appropriate, as well as correct.



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