Let’s take a look at “cracking the code” of a teacher’s vocabulary.
If you have been fortunate enough to have had a teacher who helped you acquire singing concepts that were helpful, you are lucky. Alternatively, if by your experiences and brain power you have figured out how to sing reasonably well even with confusing instruction, good on you! Either way, as you continue your studies you will probably work with multiple teachers and coaches and get all kinds of advice that may be expressed differently from what you have heard before – sometimes radically differently.
The teachers who use terminology or concepts that are different from what you have experienced, or what you can relate to, are responding to something that they have observed that may be valid for you. They are usually trying to do good! But you may experience frustration if you try to be a blank slate and take them at face value. You have worked hard to get where you are, and it is up to you to decide what is useful, what might be useful in the future, what needs clarification, and what is not useful.
When a teacher asks you to do something that seems brand new to you, and you have no idea how to do it, you need to do a little mental dance to see if you can work with it, lest your big bucks for lesson fees go down the drain.
Here are steps to follow when getting new and puzzling advice from a teacher or coach:
Is the thing they are getting at similar to another thing that I worked on before?
If yes, try doing the thing you did before. If not, ask for more clarification about what they are hearing and trying to target. It may ring bells from your past experience. If it seems like a totally new concept for you, then you are in a position to be open to the possibility that this is new territory to explore. Go with the flow, take notes and test the heck out of it at home.
If you have tried the thing to the best of your ability, and it went well, tell the teacher “We used to work on that when I studied with Teacher X. She used to call it “___”. This is useful information for your teacher, if he chooses to accept it. It also will solidify your connection between what you have previously understood and what this teacher wishes to impart.
If you have tried the thing, and it crashed and burned, start asking questions. “Am I missing something?” “I don’t think I quite understand what to do.” “So what happened there?” “Maybe I’m getting confused with my interpretation of what you said.” If you trust this person and want to give them a good trial, go home and see if you can work with their concept. If it makes no sense by the time of your next lesson, ask for clarification. The responses to your questions are how you will sometimes separate the wheat from the chaff in the field of teachers and coaches. An experienced, reasonable, effective teacher will welcome your questions and enjoy working for clarity in how you communicate in the studio. More autocratic, insecure, or ineffective teachers may be threatened by this.
You may find that you can work with a teacher who uses a very different vocabulary and concepts from what you prefer/know, if you develop your ability to translate what they are telling you into what you need. After a long time with one teacher, it can actually be very helpful to switch to a new teacher. With fresh ideas and ways of expression, the artist self can work with the analytical self to learn new things. This process of melding old with new, keeping the useful, discarding the non-useful, is something you can improve with experience.
Such questioning, accommodating, clarifying, and even debating, would also be useful for teacher-to-teacher discussions of voice. Rather than throwing a guard up, why don’t we build a helpful filter for ourselves, and see what good things we might catch in that net? We should at least try, before we condemn what we encounter!