Singing terminology confusion – should we really care, and does the singer have to know about it anyway?

A couple of weeks ago, I read an interesting article on the Voice Council Magazine blog, written by vocal coach Kim Chandler. In case you haven’t read it, please have a look here.

In short: Should we really try to formalise the language we, as singers and teachers, use? Do we need to mean the same thing when we use the same word, or should certain terms even be dropped in favour of others?

At first glance, many of us might say: “Yes, stop that confusion, I’m never sure what a person means when they say “head voice”, unless I have a lengthy discussion about it.” As a teacher, I sometimes also catch myself thinking: “What a pleasant dream.” However, then another thought immediately springs to mind:

Should singers really endlessly TALK about singing? Shouldn’t they SING?
Portrait of Harry Belafonte, singing, 1954 Feb...
Portrait of Harry Belafonte, singing, 1954 Feb. 18. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Tweet: Should singers really endlessly TALK about singing? Shouldn’t they SING? @singingtutor

I agree with Jennifer Hamady, who (very gently) criticises the not so recent trend in vocal pedagogy to take the voice apart instead of seeing it as a whole (and don’t even get me started on the mind). If you don’t know her work, I highly recommend her books and columns. I also agree with her that this approach can lead to a lot of tension, instead of eliminating it, if you don’t take extreme care.

Not every teacher and pedagogical concept are the same, and of course we get different types of students as well (teaching should always be student-centred, shouldn’t it?). I am quite firmly grounded in vocal physiology myself, and I therefore totally support the idea of the teacher needing to know how the voice works. I spot a worrying trend however that even (amateur) singers now start to compartmentalise their voices before they get the basics straight, and they ask questions like: “Should I not be singing this in a thin-fold setting, wouldn’t that sound better?”

WHO CARES?

Sing it in a way you emotionally connect with, sing in a way that feels right! Try it without overthinking first, and if you get stuck, you can still make adjustments. Who cares if your thyroid cartilage tilts, if you sing in thick or thin-fold setting, as long as what you do is healthy and sounds good? Stop thinking about what goes on physiologically whilst singing, stop tying your brain in knots by, yes, being brainy about singing ALL THE TIME! If this was a requirement for singing, most laryngologists would be excellent singers, and I assure you: They are not!

There is so much information available on the Internet these days; people read up on all that stuff, and they think that the ability to name body parts is somewhat of a necessity, or makes you a better singer. It isn’t, and it doesn’t. Not if you don’t feel what’s right, not if you don’t use your ears to really listen.

Don’t get me wrong: It doesn’t do the singer any harm to know how their voice works, it can even help to spot not so great instruction. However, the first recommendation would be: Trust your body before you think about words.

If it doesn’t feel right, chances are it isn’t.

Someone who hasn’t got any body awareness anyway won’t acquire it by being able to name the various body parts involved in singing. They would actually be better off with some body awareness work instead of learning about physiology as a theoretical concept, and the “right” terminology that comes with it. Learning to sing is much more than that. In fact, terminology is the smallest, and least important, part.

Tweetable:
Tweet: Someone who hasn’t got any body awareness won’t acquire it by being able to name the various body parts involved in singing. @singingtutor

A labeled anatomical diagram of the vocal fold...
A labeled anatomical diagram of the vocal folds or cords. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For a long time, I thought about why people are so keen on naming things, and I just put it down to human nature. It is also quite possibly human nature that something fancy-sounding is perceived as “better”. And that’s okay, it’s just how our minds work. We like categorising things, putting them into boxes – it somehow makes us feel safe I guess.

So what about that common language then?

Let’s say it this way: If you are discussing singing in a written way, there is much to be said for having a universal language everybody understands. Teachers, and especially voice researchers, need this for their daily work. The “safest” option would probably be to stick with physiological terms. However, there are already many wonderful, well researched vocal pedagogy concepts and methods out there, and their terminology is established amongst those who use them. I don’t think it’s necessary to change this. It is probably a better idea to just stay open-minded and learn from each other. Much more important than having the same term for the same sound is that you can actually produce that sound in a healthy way. What you call it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.

So talk less, sing more …

© Petra Raspel 2013

7 thoughts on “Singing terminology confusion – should we really care, and does the singer have to know about it anyway?

  1. Hi,

    I want to offer another view here, that knowing basic physiology actually did help me to sing well. I had a very poor what my singing voice was and had that ‘break’ in it like so many singers and had to learn what the heck the vocal instrument was. When I learned the basics, through direct body experience from a singer (not from books), it changed my voice dramatically. Knowing how the rectus abdomens and psoas function in support of the column of air that generates the voice was key for me. And there was emotional reasons that I was not able to tap into their power.

    I chose to learn anatomy. Some only need to learn the simple, functional basics. But in my 40 years as a singer and 30 years working with singers to help them unlock their bodies, many who did not know the functional basics of the voice, which includes the whole body, had vocal problem eventually, especially with many shows weekly.

    A fellow singer,

    David

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    1. Hi David, thanks for your comment.

      I agree with you to a point (as a matter of fact, my teaching approach is very physiology-based ;)).
      What I was trying to say is that too many people intellectually tie themselves in knots though, instead of listening to their bodies and really feeling what healthy technique is about. All that physiology knowledge is useless if it can’t be put into practice (and it happens more often than one might initially think).

      On top of that, the article was specifically sparked by the voiced wish to “unify” the singer’s “language”/terminology (hence the title): SLS calls it this, Estill that, CVT something else. Whilst the idea is noble, I don’t really think this is necessary. They’re all systems that work for some, but not for others, and we should just pick whatever gives us the best results personally. As long as the physiology knowledge underneath it all is sound, there’s no need for one terminology.
      At the foundation of it all, many (not all I hasten to add) of these systems teach the same thing anyway, and it sometimes just seems like a clever marketing trick to come up with yet another “system” that will solve all our vocal problems. Not really, because physiology is the same for everyone. The rest is just stylistic choice, and undoubtedly, that’s where some systems will work better for you than others, but that’s about it.

      Hope this makes my intention clearer 🙂

      Like

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