Buzz Words

Concise, consistent language for voice teachers and choral conductors

One of the most humbling experiences for a teacher is to hear a student recite back what they've recently learned. Invariably, something gets lost in translation or is simply forgotten. After all, it's not what a student *learns* that matters, it's what they *retain.* I play a game I call "You Be the Teacher," and it's one of the most valuable teaching modalities in my toolbox. Having the student teach the concept back to me shows what they've clearly understood, and what needs further solidifying. And one of the strongest mechanisms I've used to enhance student retention is a pared-down vocabulary, which I call "buzz words." 


Take, for instance, "open throat," or "OT" for short. This is perhaps the most powerful of all the buzz words I regularly employ. Go ahead, think "open throat." With one simple instruction, you very likely just 1) lifted your soft palate, 2) allowed your larynx to comfortably descend, and 3) relaxed the muscles of your throat. You're instantly in a setup that benefits inhalation, onset, resonance, proper chiaroscuro, etc. And since that one concept evokes so much, you can write in your score "OT" wherever you typically constrict. 

A second example: Several years ago, I was teaching undergraduate vocal pedagogy, and we were discussing breathing. A student said, "would you recommend teaching appoggio, or do you think it would be better to teach our students expansion or suspension?" My heart sunk... The student (and probably others) had not grasped that those concepts were synonymous. So, now I try to teach the term appoggio exclusively to avoid confusion. The other advantage to this particular buzz word is that it doesn't carry any baggage. As we all know, words like "placement," "cover," and "high note" carry connotations for some students that create more problems than they solve. Choosing buzz words that lack such baggage is wise. [I've also found that some students really respond to the Italian terminology--many treasure, as I do, a sense of connection to the great lineage of singers and teachers from the vaunted "golden age" of singing.]

Now, let it be said: not all students respond to the same concepts or images, so teachers have to build and diversify their toolbox. BUT, there is value to employing a concise and limited vocabulary, and allowing your students to drill the fundamentals without drowning in synonyms and a seemingly never-ending flood of new terminology. Whenever a concept or buzz word clicks with a particular student, I write it down in my notebook so that I can stick with it in subsequent lessons. I'll even ask them to play the aforementioned "You Be the Teacher"... "John, you really responded to the concept of Traffic Cone last week--teach that back to me"...

If we choose our words wisely, it is the buzz words that will last. Lessons must be repeated (and repeated and repeated) in order to truly stick. It's been 13+ summers since I studied at Tanglewood with Phyllis Curtin, but I still remember "tiger teeth" and "Raggedy Ann cheeks" like it was yesterday. The evocative power of those buzz words lingers, years later. 

Teachers, step awaaaaaay from the piano

I just completed a survey on the teacher's use of the piano in undergraduate voice lessons. This is a "soapbox" issue for me, so allow me to mount my soapbox.

As all singers are aware, there is a "singer stigma" when it comes to musicianship. We are looked down upon, very often for a good reason, as having lesser musicianship skills than our instrumentalist brethren. I am increasingly convinced that one major contributing factor to this is the lack of independence expected of us. S.O.P. in most voice lessons is *some* level of accompaniment, virtually at all times--in exercises, and especially in repertoire. As a result, students rarely sing unaccompanied, and therefore rarely have to face the particular challenges of that skill. Furthermore, when the teacher's attention is divided between monitoring student behavior and playing some percentage of the song, they are rendered less effective at both tasks.

My first instrument was the trumpet. My lessons took place in a room with a piano, but my teacher never touched it. That is of course not practical for singing lessons, as we must be furnished with starting pitches, etc. BUT, I have noticed a massive improvement in my students' pitch memory, a strong uptick in the level to which they prepare their repertoire, and an increased sense of musical independence / confidence since I started teaching almost exclusively unaccompanied. As their teacher, I have noticed so much more in their singing, and particularly visual information, since my eyes are no longer buried in the score. 

I also have urged my students to practice unaccompanied. In school, I used to play the bass line as I sang. That's lovely, as it's a decent proxy for singing with a pianist, but again it divided my attention. When I started practicing unaccompanied, I noticed so much more that was going on, and I more closely approximated a performance environment.

So, teachers: I encourage you to nudge your students towards practicing unaccompanied. Not only will they learn their music more thoroughly, but when they do eventually collaborate with a pianist, it will be on an equal musical footing, not as a dependent. And maybe, just maybe, we can narrow the "musicianship gap" with our instrumental neighbors. One lesson at a time, together.