Words Matter

The lifespan of a note, as I was taught (along with countless generations of musicians), goes something like this… First, we attack the note. Then we hold the note… Finally, we cut off. My goodness, are we angry at the poor note???

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The purpose of this post is to explore the ways in which words used in the study of singing have serious connotations and consequences, many unintended, and most unhelpful… To use the earlier example—by using onset, sustain, and release in place of the much more aggressive terms above, we can help eliminate several traditional problems:

  • Onsets are slippery things—one must coordinate the beginning of the tone just so with the beginning of the exhalation. Calling it an “attack” obviously complicates a balanced onset, and leaves conductors and teachers with linguistic absurdities such as “gentle attack.”

  • Perhaps my favorite word substitution is replacing “hold” (which sends shivers up my spine every time I hear someone use it in conjunction with a musical tone) with sustain. To sustain something is an active pursuit. I often challenge myself in the practice room by simply singing “long tones”—no messa di voce, no nothing—just long sustained tones, perfectly free, even vibrato, no tension… Simple, but far from easy.

  • This brings us to release. What a massive upgrade we give ourselves when we use this term rather than “cut off!” Many students struggle with an elegant release, just as they struggle with an elegant and balanced onset. The singer’s mind has moved on to the next phrase, and the “falling action” of the phrase they’re currently singing is left to take care of itself, often to sub-optimal results.

Another term, handed down since time immemorial, is “breath support.” I don’t think I’m alone or over-reacting when I say that I’m troubled by the static connotation of the word “support.” The foundation of the building I’m sitting in is only operating optimally if it is absolutely still and static. To transfer that to my singing would be unthinkable! I vastly prefer talking to my students about how they energize their sound. Likewise, I replace the traditional term “breath control” with “breath budgeting.” Like it or not, “control” has negative baggage. “Budgeting?” No such baggage, but the clear invitation to spend the air, but to spend it wisely.

Perhaps it’s obvious by now, but I do not think this is a case of simple semantics… Words matter — they have connotations which we ignore at our peril.