Have you ever been in a singing lesson and the teacher has encouraged you to “open your throat?” You may have also had a singing teacher ask you to “place the sound forward” or “squeeze your trapzoid” too.
In these moments, there’s a chance you’ll hear a tiny voice inside of you shouting:
“What the hell does that mean?”
– But everyone in the singing world says stuff like this so it must be useful.
– And the fact that you can’t do it right now, or even understand it, is merely a reflection of your current ability and experience.
Well, yes and no.
Welcome to the world of singing teacher language. I have a feeling that if you, the singer, have a deeper understanding of this language and/or where it comes from: three great things will happen.
1) You’ll feel less overwhelmed
2) and you won’t feel (as) dumb
3) and you’ll find that you have a better handle on your training.
What are we talking about here?
There has been a lot of research carried out in the field of ‘linguistics’ and the meaning of language. But, simply put, we are talking about words. We’re talking about why people say what they say. The same topic that makes singing teachers fight,* when they come together.
*Not in a fisticuffs type of way – more passive-aggressively. They might type into the Facebook forum “I wouldn’t say it that way” or be thinking “ha! Can you believe that other teacher actually says things like that? How thoroughly stupid.”
But, the other singing teachers aren’t stupid and nor are you. (correction – some might be stupid, but for different reasons. Jokes)
Blue corner vs the red corner
You could say that there are two camps of language in the singing teacher instruction realm. Some good examples of this are:
|Blue Corner||Red Corner|
|Place the sound (somewhere) in your face||Repeat this word after me|
|Give more support||Move your body this way|
|Relax/let go/be free/release||Make this noise|
Some would describe this as either: teaching by the result (blue corner), or, teaching by giving step-by-step instructions (red corner). Others would describe them as being “ambiguous” (blue corner) and “actionable” (red corner).
An example of this, in sports, would be to instruct a footballer to “score the goal” (blue corner) or, “practice drills and kick the ball really hard many many times” in order to become more familiar with scoring a goal (red corner).
But, does it make a difference which approach is used by your teacher?
Well, it turns out that it does. And to find out why it does, I think it’s worth understanding a few things. Namely, starting with the blazingly obvious:
Why what-a-singing-teacher-says matters to you
I’m sure there’s a good reason for why you visit your singing teacher. I’d hazard a guess that this has something to do with feeling better/happier/inspired when you sing. That, and the fact that they “have become a good friend over time.” But, the latter doesn’t relate to this topic, so more on that some other time.
Within these visits (often called lessons), normally lasting between thirty and sixty minutes: your teacher needs you to do things. He or she needs you to do things with the view/hope of producing a positive result. That’s the basis of most teaching environments.
Positive results in singing
In singing, an obvious positive result can range from singing a note with gusto to expressing the song with more emotion. In these moments, a number of different thoughts and questions will surface for the teacher:
- How do I make them do this ‘thing?’
- How do I make them do this ‘thing’ without freaking them out?
- What if they don’t realise they aren’t doing the ‘thing?’
- Maybe they need to do a different ‘thing’, that will enable them to do this ‘thing’ later?
The basic science behind how singing teachers make you do the ‘thing’
For a second, just imagine that your sensory organs (eyes, ears, nose, skin, tongue) are entering into battle. They will be brawling it out to see who can process the most information in a second. Who do you think would win? According to Dr. L.D. Rosenblum et al, and their fascinating book See What I’m Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses, the eyes would annihilate the other sensory organs. As you can see from the stats, the ears, tongue and hands wouldn’t get a look in:
83.0% – Sight
11.0% – Hearing
03.5% – Smell
01.5% – Touch
01.0% – Taste
Given that research indicates that our eyes are our most powerful asset when trying to learn something, you’d think that all singing teachers would try and incorporate as many visual aids as possible into their methods. That’s tricky for a singing teacher though, and you don’t need me to tell you why. Okay, you do: singing is an audio-based game.
Although there is always room to challenge our current teaching methods and optimise the teaching tools used in the studio – it would take some serious creativity to prioritise sight over hearing in vocal tuition.
If you look at the ‘how I make singers do things’ chart below, you’ll see how I make singers do things in their lessons.
I don’t think this is too dissimilar to the way most other singing teachers behave. Perhaps the ‘where am I?’ wedge is a little smaller with other teachers. But, nevertheless, this is why words matter.
You, the singing sponge, looking to achieve your goal – that probably has something to do with feeling better/happier about, or inspired to use, your voice – has to navigate around the words that your teacher offers you in an attempt to do as asked.
So, before we talk about how you do just that (you can scroll to that here) you may find it useful to understand why singing teachers (or your singing teacher in particular) say what they say.
Why your teacher says what they say
“They only know what they know.”
I say this sentence a lot, in workshops, and it is often met with silence. I can only assume that’s because it’s stunningly vague and, frankly, is a cheap way to fraudulently suggest one-has-superior-insight.
To put it another way, American Jazz pianist and composer, Henry “Hank” Jones, once said, “I am the sum total of everything that I have experienced musically.” Although this may just seem like a beautiful depiction of his life’s work, he was on to something.
In short, it comes down to three things.
- What they have listened to.
- What they have done.
- What they believe in.
What has your teacher listened to?
If you spent most of your days living in a box under Dr Ingo Titze’s (leading voice scientist) desk, you’ll likely end up with some very interesting social integration issues and, more importantly, serious familiarity with vocal anatomy terminology. As a result, you’ll think, for example, that it’s ok to talk about “the need for decreasing phonation threshold pressure” in a singing lesson, or on a first date perhaps** as opposed to someone who didn’t have that experience.
** No one should talk about phonation threshold pressure (PTP) on a first date.
The exposure to different terms or approaches can be fleeting, too, as industry trends come and go. Using “abdominal support” may be a hot topic in singing communities one week, but that can be trumped a few days later when everyone is talking about the “power of the aryepiglottic sphincter.”
It’s worth remembering here that just knowing different or “sciencey” words doesn’t necessarily put you in a more advanced position when training your, or someone else’s, voice. Or, that you’re a better/more helpful/cooler person. It just means you’ll behave differently and say different things – to those who didn’t have these particular experiences.
What has your teacher done?
In addition to what they’ve heard, ingested, and retained, a singing teacher’s own experience will govern what they say in a lesson.
If they were once told to “breathe from your diaphragm,” and something felt awesome when they attempted it… it’s likely that you’ll be breathing from your diaphragm in your next lesson.
Equally, if they have instructed someone to do something in the past, and it didn’t help them, it’s likely that the teacher won’t say it again. A good teacher would reflect on these events and use them to mould (or codify) future teachings.
What your teacher believes
You throw what-a-teacher-has-listened-to and what-a-teacher-has-done in a pot, give it a stir, and you end up with some beliefs.
Over the years, scientists have spent a lot of time talking about how beliefs and values (what we think), affects our behaviour (what we say and do), and how that affects our beliefs and values (what we think), which affects our behaviour (what we say and do), which, in turn, affects our beliefs and values (what we think), and our behaviour (what we say and do).
I could unnecessarily labour the point by writing the same sentence over and over, or I could display it in a simple image below. I’ll do both.
These beliefs make up many stories, created in the mind of the teacher telling them what is good, bad, right, wrong, helpful, ineffective. New beliefs are added to pre-existing beliefs and the teacher goes on to make the best use of that information to try and help you, the singer.
And so it goes, the teacher’s story will direct what they want to do with you and what they say to you. Yes, even the most empathetic of teachers who are consciously trying to be ‘student-centered’ (a fancy term for working to the students’ goals) will be guided by their own story.
Outcomes may include: do they teach to make you a star? to help you enjoy music? to make an income? Do they use particular exercises? Or particular terminology?
But it also means that your teacher will feel that it’s more or less acceptable to tell you to “sing with support” based on his or her own relationship with those particular words.
This doesn’t mean you, as the recipient of this information, should/could/would understand what is meant by the sentence “sing with support” or can translate it to achieve a similar result.
That goes for any sentence in either red or blue corner. It’s just that sentences in the blue corner (“make this noise”) are, arguably, more relatable and easily interpreted.
If this isn’t understood, two very bad things can happen.
- A teacher can become wrapped up in their own story that they forget that other people haven’t been told the same story. In other words: they say things that no one else understands. This creates confusion for the singer.
- A teacher talks to other teachers and finds out they have different stories to tell. This challenges their own stories. It also makes them question the beliefs they have been living, and teaching by, for the previous however long. In other words: everyone has a different way of doing things. This creates a vulnerability, fear and, sometimes, anger in the teacher.
The short answer is: you shouldn’t be expected to, and you don’t have to – no matter which camp they’re from.
And teachers shouldn’t argue about it either.
It will only mean something to you if it means something to you (one of those vague ‘workshop’ statements again).
Your beliefs, experiences, and current knowledge base all govern how confused you will be when talking to other singing people, watching a singing tips video on Youtube, and/or listening to a vocal coach.
However obvious that last sentence is, it’s often forgotten in the singing world, as singers and teachers alike wade through a sea of terminology. Terminology or phrases that hold many different meanings, but can often still be delivered with a sense of “this is the only way to achieve your goal.”
If you are given the instruction to “think about the sky when you sing the next line” and you find it hard to translate that into anything practical, tell your teacher. It’s okay. It’s not the only way to make you do the ‘thing.’
Take away thoughts
A shared goal within the teaching community is: to inspire the other person to learn. Not to offload a lifetime’s worth of beliefs and experience. A learning partnership should be just that – two people meeting in the middle and working together.
Wherever the information comes from, it’s said that teaching in small, relatable, and actionable steps is a valuable approach.
You, the singer, will need/want to learn different skills along your way, which will also affect the type of singing teacher you choose to go with, but before booking your next lesson, it’s worth having the following eight thoughts and action points in your mind:
- 1) It can be useful to adopt the belief that, in singing, there’s is no absolute truth, and that no one knows everything (wow, we just got deep).
- 2) Acknowledge that most teachers are just trying their best to make sense of, and summarise, complicated topics in their own language.
- 3) Acknowledge that the reason most teachers want to compartmentalize complex topics is that it gives us a sense of control which, in turn, makes us happy. It doesn’t mean that there is a ‘best’ way to summarise for all or that you’re wrong for not understanding something they say – even if it is common-talk in the singing world.
- 4) Acknowledge that however common a word, phrase, a term is… it doesn’t mean you should be able to relate to it or be able to use it for your development.
- 5) Seek an open relationship and understanding with your teacher – when the teacher understands the way you ‘work’ he or she can alter the language.
- 6) Gain as much knowledge as you can on singing and the infinite amount of approaches.
- 7) Secure a good balance between point 5 and visit more than one singing teacher/vocal coach to improve point 6.
- 8) Aim to be in a position to make up a language that works for you and, as a result, have the ability to teach yourself. This is an outcome of following the above seven points. Getting good at reflecting on what works for you, and what doesn’t, is a powerful skill to hold in the development of your voice.
Have you ever been confused by something that was said in the singing world? I’d love to know what it was, and how it turned out for you in the comments below.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linguistics (I know it’s a Wikipedia page reference – but there is some good stuff on there).
- Learning from My Success and from Others’ Failure: Evidence from Minimally Invasive Cardiac Surgery | Management Science. [online] Available at: https://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/mnsc.2013.1720 .
- Deliberate Learning and the Evolution of Dynamic Capabilities | Organization Science. [online] Available at: http://pubsonline.informs.org/doi/abs/10.1287/orsc.13.3.339.2780
- The Biochemistry of Belief. Indian Journal of Psychiatry. 2009;51(4):239-241. doi:10.4103/0019-5545.58285.
Co-Founder of Singfinity, writer for iSing Magazine and co-founder of The Naked Vocalist Singers’ podcast. He has lectured workshops at conservatoires and vocal development programs in the UK and USA.
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