A Plea About Terminology

If I could make “the rules” I would pass one that said: NO MORE NEW TERMINOLOGY ALLOWED!

The need to name things run deeply in our collective consciousness. Oliver Sacks explained this beautifully in an essay long ago in which he stated that by naming things we make them real to ourselves. We distinguish that one thing is not another thing, or said another way, that this is not that. We name things generically first; man/woman, tree/flower, dog/bird. Then, later, we name them specifically; Al/Alice, pine/rose, terrier/thrush. Maybe after that, we name them further; Albert Anthony/Alice Marie, blue spruce/miniature rose, West Highland terrier/American robin. Each level of naming makes things more specific. It clarifies things for ourselves and others.

It’s said in the Bible that Adam went around the Garden of Eden naming the animals. I take that as a metaphor. We all name the new things we discover. Scientists are often the ones who get to pick names for new species or new stars but people who invent new products or services (laptops, search engines) can do that, too.

What we have in voice, however, is really quite awful in terms of “naming” things. There are so many words, used so many ways by so many people, that it causes great consternation to those of us who are in voice-related fields. We are moving towards more scientific terminology, thankfully, and that is the best thing to happen in a long time, but we are not going there quickly and there are still far more people who do not use scientific terminology than those that do. Further, even in teaching singing, where subjective words have been the mainstay for hundreds of years, those individuals who have created a “method” of teaching have found it necessary to add their own new words or phrases to the already overcrowded stew that we have. Everyone, that is, but me.

I stuck to the words generated by the profession (words that were used primarily on Broadway) and those that were accepted in the pedagogical community going back at least to the time of Garcia. I did not make up or add one word of my own, although I did create the phrase “Contemporary Commercial Music” to cover those styles. [That seems to be working.] I use scientific words as much as possible and plain English words, not “voice teacher jargon”. In other words, if the waitress at the diner wouldn’t understand my words, I don’t use them.

I don’t use: spin, focus, float, project, anchor, compress, resonate (as a verb), release (as a verb), “mask”, or vibrate. I do not tell people to retract the false folds, constrict the aryepiglottic sphincter, or go to Larynx Position No. 3. I do not ask them to make their heads or faces vibrate, or to manipulate anything (except temporarily during an exercise). Except for CCM, I have not added one word or term to the lexicon that didn’t already exist long before I came along.

I recently heard that someone who teaches rock singing in Europe has declared that we no longer use the word belt. Now it’s called “edge”. Says she.

My response is, “Oh, really?” Perhaps she should take out a full page ad in Back Stage or Billboard or Variety so the musical and theatrical communities can know that she has decided the language they have been using and still use is “out of date”.

Guess what, the MARKETPLACE couldn’t care less. Casting directors and producers do not care what we call the sounds. They make up their own terms anyway and they don’t check with us first to see if they are acceptable. The are only interested in the sound themselves, not what they are called or who made up the descriptions.

Further, what’s even worse, as I explained a couple of posts ago, is the misuse of a term that was already in existence and had a history, usurping it and applying it to something else that, also, was already labeled. Calling belting “twang” when belting was already associated with “brassiness” was a disaster and that mess still continues. Country/western singing already had its own credentials that were quite valid. Using “twang” for Broadway instead of the music that comes out of Nashville was a big mistake. It confuses what people should be listening for in music theater and country music both.

The word hamburger is well known. Millions of people know what it is and use it to define a specific food. If I decide the best way for me to distinguish myself as a maker of a new way to cook hamburgers is by calling my food a “fried ground beef pancake”, have I added anything to the world of cuisine? Am I making this phrase up to clarify the way people cook hamburgers or am I just making up something to show how clever I am? Am I making a contribution to the field that benefits everyone (including the people who eat hamburgers no matter how they are cooked) or am I just trying to get you to see me as being better than everyone else?

There are very few options when it comes to making sound. We all have vocal folds and a vocal tract. We all have an air supply in our lungs. We can configure things inside to produce certain kinds of categories of sound within the acoustic spectrum available to us as human beings. You can imagine that you have discovered something that no one else has ever discovered, but that is very unlikely and hubris of the highest sort. The most you can have found is a new way to explain it or communicate it to others. Making up terminology isn’t necessary unless you have a really small vocabulary or a very limited sense of self.

I don’t need to be a “voice-ologist” or a “functional singing educator”, or “sound facilitator”. I am content with being a singing teacher, or, in some circumstances, a singing voice specialist (not a term I invented). If you study singing, and you run into someone who has made up a new vocal term or has decided to call him or herself something that didn’t exist before, but what they are doing is just another version of what has been done for hundreds of years — teach singing — RUN AWAY!

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10 thoughts on “A Plea About Terminology”

  1. You say: “I don’t use: spin, focus, float, project, anchor, compress, resonate (as a verb), release (as a verb), “mask”, or vibrate.”

    Why? I get the point of your post, but not every word/image works with every person, and if using the word “spin” or “release” clarifies a concept for the student, then shouldn’t it be fair game?

  2. If you go to the garage and ask the mechanic to “spin” out a sound, he would look at you like you’re are crazy. If you asked him, instead to “sing softly, taking as much physical effort as you can out of making the sound, while allowing your tongue, jaw and face to relax,” he would have a good chance of getting a tone that seems to “spin” and, even if he didn’t get there on the first try, he would have a very good idea of how to practice until he did. Things that spin are wheels of various kinds and sometimes “minds”. Sounds do not spin.

  3. I confess great sympathy for your view Jeannette however, as progress is made new terms need to be invented or we’d be stuck using some rather non-descriptive names from antiquity. Yes, I object to the invention of the term inertance to describe the inertia of air flow in the larynx, but what was wrong with the beautifully descriptive “impedance?” Beautiful and useful to me anyway because it has both static and reactive components. I am at the moment obsessed with the magic of the aryepiglottic folds in their dual role as a vocal source impedance and a second line of defense against protecting the folds from food ingestion. Is there a simple term for that?

    Nice one J.

  4. Pardon my second try but I must add to what Ranta had to say.

    There are two connections between spin and sound, one a semi-modern one related to spinning an LP or 78 and a more recent reference to spinning a CD or DVD, but what is missed is that all sound is intrinsically circular motion.

    This is physics and I promise you, will never change. Plot graphically the sine of angular increments from zero to 360 degrees in 10 degree steps and you will behold the basic sine wave, the core of all sound and lots of other things like washing machine agitators. Neat eh!

  5. A sine wave is an undulation, a W A V E. It is not a circle. Flags wave, planets spin. They are NOT the same.

    Telling someone to “spin” the tone is not a useful instruction. It means nothing. Creating new terms for vocal function is not necessary since the larynx has been behaving the same way since human beings evolved into human beings and we have known what that behavior was since Garcia saw it with his mirror in 1849.

    If new terms are created for music, as music changes, that makes sense. Mostly, however, people who want to create new terms do so because they think they have found something no one else has found and they want to lay claim to it. That’s typically about the “discoverer” and his or her ego rather than about being of service, being useful or being practical.

    Discussing the aryepiglottic folds in relationship to singing is like talking about the aortic value of the heart in relationship to heart health. Maybe we know they exist, but knowing about them and being able to sing well or keep the heart strong have nothing at all to do with that knowledge.

  6. Oh Jeanette, flags undulate and planets rotate. Stand at the Equator and watch a fixed point in the sky and you will presume the Sun moves in a 365 day sine wave from 23.5 degrees North of the Equator to 23.5 degrees South of the Equator. You’d be wrong.

    It does nothing of the sort. The axis of the Earth is slanted at 23.5 degrees to the Ecliptic and the Earth moves is a slightly misshapen circle around the Sun.

    Spin is what you use when you insist that the Earth is the center of the Solar System.

    Tip for the Day.

    “Resonance facilitates vocal fold action.”

  7. Jeannette if you truly and honestly believe this, …” A sine wave is an undulation, a W A V E. It is not a circle. ” … then you weren’t listening in Maths class and your vocal training has a tonal hole in the middle of it.

    Sinusoidal Motion is Simple Circular Motion. Glance at your bike pedals next time you ride in Central Park. Pure Circular motion transformed into Sinusoidal Motion as you watch, just before you fall off.

    If sine waves are beyond you then you have no hope of understanding the influence of the ayrepiglottic tube in the vocal process. You’re probably a belter, so it doesn’t matter.

  8. No, just one more attempt to pierce you irrationality Jeannette and to add some value to your blog.

    Your challenge to the concept of the heart valve and any relationship to sustained vocal process seems to mean that if YOU can’t see it, then it is not worth considering. Apparently for its visibility, mention of the tongue is your rational limit. Naturally you would not mention the lungs or dare describe anything that might represent vocal support, which probably does not leave you much to teach. Tell me this isn’t so sophisticated NY lady.

    Reg of Sydney.

  9. So, Reg, I have paid you the courtesy of responding to you in spite of your insults. That you presume to judge how I teach from blog posts and say so in public says more about you than me.

    If you want to make me a physicist or an engineer, you will not succeed. I’m not really interested, like you, in the finer points of sine waves or the behavior of the ayrepiglottic folds in terms of their effect on singing.

    Clearly, you have not read many of my posts, going back over six years, or you would know this.

    I am a lyric coloratura who last year sang Handel’s “Let The Bright Seraphim” with baroque trumpet and organ quite successfully at a sold out public performance alongside other artists. I am also a good belter when needed. I have sung Mozart, Schubert, Faure, Strauss, Debussy and many other works including new classical works composed for me as well as principle roles in opera and an Off-Broadway show. I have also had the leads in two musicals (two legit and one belt) in a professional company and have sung rock, jazz, folk and country music at various times over the decades. I am 63 and sing well in spite of a slightly compromised left vocal fold.

    I have read a good deal of vocal pedagogy and continue to read, study and learn every day. I am not influenced at all, as many are, by the work of Estill. I like Cornelius Reid, Oren Brown, William Vennard, Meribeth Bunch Dayme, and Richard Miller, among others, classical colleagues all. I have published peer-reviewed research, which you would know if you had checked.

    Most of the people who teach who become fixated on things like the ayrepiglottic folds and glottal impedance can’t sing very well, and they look to voice science to figure out the answer to their problems. From personal experience, I know that many of the strongest proponents of voice science here in the USA rely heavily upon it as their primary tool when teaching singing. Unfortunately, many of these men do not sing well, even in classical repertoire, let alone in the other CCM styles they teach but cannot perform. Their extensive knowledge of voice science doesn’t help them sing. Hm.

    So, I respond here to you for the last time. If you wish to disagree with anything I write, go right ahead. It’s a big world and all have a right to their opinions. I do not care to argue my philosophy here with you or anyone else. It is based upon 41 years of teaching and a lifetime of singing all styles of music. I do not need you to “pierce my irrationality” or “add some value to my blog”. It’s amazing that you would be so rude as to write such a thing without even having the integrity to include your entire name. I stand on my own life’s work and my own singing. For me, that’s more than adequate.

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