Labels

We all know the value of a label. What’s worth more, a Cadillac or a Lincoln? A Ralph Lauren or a Donna Karan? A Rolex watch or one made by Movado?

If we are talking about sound, the label matters, maybe more than for a watch, except how do you label a sound? You can’t weigh it, you can’t see it or feel it, it has no smell. We don’t understand much about the relationship between hearing and sound making except that there is one and if it goes away, speaking gets much harder and singing probably gets impossible unless you lose your hearing in mid-life. Are you hearing what I hear in the same way I hear it? Probably not. How can I know how something sounds to you when I can hardly label it clearly to myself? (I know, be psychic!!)

There are only a very few words in English that describe vocal sound and nothing else: hoarse, breathy, raspy, and throaty are some examples. Additional words that describe voiced sound come from the other four senses or from descriptions of the personality. Warm, sweet, clear, powerful, squeezed, harsh, flowing, etc. Those words are endless but not very precise or telling. If we get into describing specific types of vocal sound, ones that have only certain characteristics, we are in even choppier waters. Belting is a kind of sound, but what kind? When is a sound a belt and when it is not? How is this decided? What kinds of words are used to describe a belt sound? Want to enter a quagmire? Door’s open, com’ on in.

If we do not come up with labels based on acoustics and physiology, then how do we know we are talking about the same phenomenon? We don’t. But, in order to gather information that can be measured, someone has to make the sound, saying, in effect, “This is the sound and it is because I say so”. Whew!

When talking about any kind of vocal sound, sung or spoken, and describing vocal quality with words, we are bound to have issues of communication because our language has few and poor descriptive words and because our awareness of vocal sound doesn’t have to be that acute in order to live and be understood. If we complicate matters by saying “I am going to sing in this sound a lot” or “I am going to teach someone else to sing it” and we can barely describe it or understand how it gets produced, can there be anything as a result that is not just plain confused?

I have dealt with the entire situation for 37 years. It may be, and I emphasize, MAY be, that things are getting better in the vocal community of teachers, researchers and singers, but not at the speed of sound, or even the speed of a car in Times Square at rush hour. We have to keep trying, though, as just because it is difficult, it is an important topic to address. It’s just that sometimes, I get tired. Want to take over? Volunteers welcome.

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One thought on “Labels”

  1. Dear Jeanette,

    Thank you for this post. I’ve been a fan of your work through working with some students over the past couple of years who have worked with you and through the unanimous praises of our mutual colleagues. I have been following your blog for a while and am happy to read this post. My own blog is dedicated to translating in layman’s terms the vast amount of scientific information that has come to us especially in the past two decades.

    I agree about adopting a language that is more precise and such a language already exists.

    Examples:

    Words such as breathy or pressed or balanced speak to pressure/flow balance.

    When we speak about belting we have acoustic and muscular information that gives us a definable spectrum:

    Heavy belt/open chest voice is based on an extremely “heavy” muscular dynamic (vocalis dominant) that prevents full glottal closure. The result is loud and inflexible. The vocal folds are very thick in that production.

    Light belt/focused chest voice follows a similar production to that of the classical singer (a modal balance between vocalis and cricothyroid), at times a little heavier. The difference however is that acoustically the resonance is reversed (Second formant resonance for the classical singer and first formant resonance for the belter). In layman’s terms this means that the laryngeal position of the successful light belter must be considerably higher.

    What we often hear from both CCM and classical singers is neither a true light belt nor a classical approach. Some try to avoid either the low larynx that produce the classical sound or the high larynx that produce the CCM sound. The in-between adjustment is simply non-resonant.

    The information is there and I know that excellent teachers like you avail yourself of it. But the reason the speed of the vocal discourse is so slow is that too many teachers are complacent. If they are getting moderate results they are happy enough.

    I think it is important for us to bring some standards to the vocal discourse. It is not going to happen unless teachers at this level begin a serious conversation about the problem of language and influence the scientists who work with quantifiable information to standardize the language with definitions that the layman can appreciate.

    Thank you for this excellent post.

    Jean-Ronald LaFond AKA Toreadorssong’s Vocal Technique Blog

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