More Useless Terminology

Everyone who has taken even one singing lesson has encountered some form of useless terminology. There is an endless list of terms that don’t mean anything, and new ones are coined every day. While this may be a show of creativity, it certainly isn’t helpful to anyone wanting to learn how to sing, or to improve their singing.

Think of the list! “Support the tone from your diaphragm”, “Spin it out”, “come down from the top”, “Cover over the back”, “Lift that more”, “Expand the lower space”, “Buzz the cheekbones more”, “put it higher into the skull”, “use more support”, etc. etc.

What is “it”? How do you control “it”? How does one make the cheekbones buzz? What is coming down from the top of what? No matter what kind of phrase you use, how can it be understood if the average person, with no background, has no idea what it means.

This is where the profession got lost. The idea that the larynx must always remain in a low, unchanging position, costs us beautiful, shimmering high notes. The idea that the sound should “be big” makes everyone strive for volume for its own sake, instead of as a means of expression. The idea that the sound has to be positioned or placed in an unchanging “focus” makes for uniformity, but for the wrong reasons. The idea that vocal sound couldn’t be nailed down in simple, basic ways, gave teachers license to make up descriptive phrases that conveniently avoided any connection to physical reality.

In the same way that teachers who do not understand vocal function and mechanics use “breath support” changes as a “fix-all remedy”, so do teachers who do not understand basic acoustic or physiologic response use “placement and resonance” issues as a teaching tactic. It isn’t uncommon for a teacher to “like” or “prefer” certain resonances as being “better” than others, regardless of whether or not they are produced freely and efficiently or with struggle and excess tension.

I remember attending the master class conducted by Alfredo Kraus a few years ago……the auditorium was huge and the audience filled every seat. Mr. Kraus had a long and illustrious career as an operatic tenor and was much esteemed due to his artistry and longevity. What he did during this master class, however, was nigh on to unbelievable, and he got away with it.

He began the evening with a discussion of “voice science” announcing that the vowel [i] (as in free), “has the biggest and most resonance”. He said other equally bizarre things, and, of course, no one stopped him or questioned him, since most people probably didn’t know that this statement is false. He went on to tell the lyric soprano who sang “Signore, Ascolta” from Turandot that she wasn’t “singing in her head register” or something similar (what, she was belting?) Kraus was looking for a “foward, pointed sound” and this voice was round, full and lush. Of course, she was singing a head register dominant tone, but her vowels were not so much bright as “chiaroscuro”. Her issues were that she had no way to interpret the deep emotion of the character. It was astounding that he didn’t help her where she needed help and that he didn’t know enough to leave her beautiful singing alone.

Next, a young tenor came out and sang one of the arias from William Tell (it has lots of high Cs and C#s), which Kraus had also done when he was young, Kraus told the young man that “his vowels were all wrong”. The French of this artist was just fine, but his tone was so heady, it bordered on falsetto. It was “too light” to be really commercially successful in a mainstream opera house. Since Mr. Kraus had inaccurate words as his tools, he could not distinguish between the vocal tone (ultra light) and the vowel sound (just fine) and kept harping on the tenor for “the wrong vowels” while making vocal examples that had the exact same vowels but were considerably heftier in tone quality. You could see the young man straining his brain trying to figure out how in the world his vowels were different from the ones that he was hearing Kraus produce, and you could hear him desperately trying to imitate Kraus’ chestier sound unsuccessfully. Finally, after an agonizing few minutes Kraus announced that this young singer “would never have a career” and sent him away. I was ready to throw things at Kraus, but no one else in the audience seemed to be the least bit perturbed.

Perhaps if Mr. Kraus had had accurate words to assist the singers in understanding what he was trying to convey, the entire evening would have been different. Perhaps, if the profession of teaching singing had some STANDARDS about what the terminology means (not impossible at all), the audience wouldn’t have sat there like a bunch of sheep, listening to a good bit of nonsense and gobbledegook disguised as instruction. Perhaps if we had terminology that related to vocal function rather than vocal effect these two singers would have left the stage as stronger, wiser artists rather than vocalists who had been made to feel bewildered in front of several hundred people.

Does the buck stop here? YOU BET!

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One thought on “More Useless Terminology”

  1. The Kraus “master class” reminded me of an experience I had one summer quite a few years ago. I was blessed with an excellent coach. She was always quick to tell me she “wasn’t a voice teacher”. She had a standing commitment every summer and during this time I would take some lessons from different voice teachers in town. The hope was I’d find a really good one and stick with them.

    Controlling the volume on high pitches had always seemed impossible for me. (Thanks Jeanie, I now know why, haven’t fixed it, but I know what is causing it.)
    There was a singer/teacher in town who did this as easily as anything and this particular summer I decided I would take some lessons from her.

    My coach said that she was sure this woman had no idea what she was doing, but that I was pretty bright and perhaps by studying with her I could figure out what she was doing and teach myself.

    Keep blogging, Jeanie! It’s like throwing out a lifeline.

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