Inaccurate Descriptions

Inaccurate Descriptions or… Huh?

We have a lot of words in singing that are attempts to describe what we hear when someone sings. These words are very meaningful to those who use them but typically not so much to others.  They are mostly inaccurate descriptions. Bad news.

Labeling, or the process of defining something by noticing what it is and is not, or by noticing its characteristics, borders, or distinctiveness, is what sets it apart as a specific entity in your mind. You have to define what it is and also what it is not. A label is crucial if you are to store it in your memory and categorize it in a useful way. Mis-labeling is a big problem in communication.

Objective words are more easily understood. Tree, chair, book, car, shoe, pencil. You don’t have to wonder what those mean, you can see them. It’s harder to understand abstract concepts  because they are defined by clusters of words and are not concrete things. Condescending, impatient, compassionate, melancholy, cheerful, confident, fragile. All of these words need clusters of other words to explain what they represent. If you go to things like sub-atomic particles, fuel-injected engine, polyphonic composition or borderline personality disorder, you really need an expert definition. In some cases you could get several different versions of a definition and they could all be correct.

Lets say you hear a vocal sound that is penetrating (easy to hear) and you label it “bright, forward, ringy”. Let’s also say you think it was a good type of sound. Let’s say someone else heard the same sound and called it “nasal, piercing, edgy” saying it was not so good. The description would have everything to do with the listener’s personal experience, their taste and their ability to use specific words accurately. Inaccurate descriptions are very deadly but they happen every day and mostly go unchallenged.

Teachers decide that they like or dislike a sound coming from the student’s throat. They label it. The label could be positive or negative. If the student is criticized, he might try to make a correction in his sound, more or less from a trial and error approach towards something the teacher likes better. If he succeeds, he will be acknowledged, if he does not, there will be more criticism of his vocal efforts.

Teachers of singing often decide  a certain kind of sound is not aesthetically acceptable and want a student to make a change. If the evaluation is subjectively described, the student could be quite confused as to what was wrong or how to attempt to change it. If a teacher tells a student that a certain sound is “too bright” or even that it is “nasal” and says to the student , “You are singing in your nose. Stop that. Get it out of there.” The teacher may not know that this “over-brightening” could be caused by any number of physiologic factors over which the singer has little to no conscious control. The vocalist would not be able to apply counter measures to change the unconscious default of the throat and the labels, whatever they are, would be of no use to the vocalist in making changes. Again, understanding how to describe what you want, one step at a time, is a good way to avoid the trap of an inaccurate description and that is something you do want.

If, while I am singing for you, and you are my teacher, and I am trying to get myself to produce the sound you are seeking, I might, after some time, figure that out. But, I might not. If you keep singing examples, I might, by listening carefully, be able to emulate what you are doing and how you do it and finally get something you want. If you then announce to me with great confidence, “There! Now you have found the “spinning forward tone” that has a lot of height. Do you hear that? Do you feel it?” In contemplating your answer, I might think I do hear it and feel it and that I could locate it and sing it again. Knowing what to think of when you go into your memory to call it forth would be enough to produce the same sound multiple times. You would have stored it as the  “spinning forward tone”, and use the words that way probably for the rest of your life. If you would ever go on to teach, you might seek that same sound in a student who would not have any clue what “spinning forward tone” meant until you sang it a thousand times and they tried to imitate what they heard and observed, with the idea that it would show up eventually. In every case, however, a  negative description of a sound over which the student has little to no conscious control isn’t going to make it easier to find something more pleasant or comfortable to sing instead.

If you do not know, for instance, that an “unsupported squeaky tone” is the result of a high larynx, tight tongue muscles, tightly pressed vocal folds, and constriction in the muscles of the tongue and throat, (or some combination of any of these) which disconnects the larynx from easy inhalation and controlled exhalation, you wouldn’t be able to know what to ask the student to do that would get him out of his problematic vocal responses. You might simply say, “Don’t sing in your nose” and expect the student to immediately stop,  just because you pointed it out and implied that you don’t like it.

Sorry, but that’s not how it works. Inaccurate descriptions produce inaccurate results, and they produce frustration, wasted time and confused mental concepts. They often also produce a student who feels stupid, untalented, stuck and discouraged. Not a recipe for success.

They Don’t Know That They Don’t Know

The profession of teaching singing is fraught with individuals, even very highly successful individuals, who teach and who do not know how to use words to help the student get a new behavior to emerge, over time, from her throat. Too bad, as the scientific concepts about how we make sound are not new and are available and understanding them allows the teacher of singing to use words with precision.

If you hear something that’s not good in a student’s (or your own) sound and you know what is happening physiologically to cause that response, you might be able to use words to describe it as well as what you want that is different.  If you know how to counter that response through vocal exercises, and if you are willing to let things change in stages, and if you are also willing to be patient through those stages while things gradually adjust more permanently, you will get where you want to go, both as a teacher and as a student.

Whenever possible, avoid inaccurate descriptions. If you don’t know how to describe what’s happening when your students sing and you don’t know how to accurately describe what you want instead, go find out how to do that. When you can use plain, simple everyday words in your native tongue (language) to define what you want, you will see results. In fact, you will see results right away.

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