Re-Translation and Wasted Time

Definition of Gestalt:
“…something that is made of many parts and yet is somehow more than or different from the combination of its parts” (retrieved from

Someone asked me recently why they felt like learning the correct scientific terminology for vocal events and issues was difficult. For me, a lot of the aversion to the science-loaded concepts is that they tear singing into pieces that are very hard to put back together.

A student is in front of me, singing, and I want to help them make an improvement. My first observation is non-verbal, before the words flood my thoughts. For this example, I’ll try to put words to this pre-verbal situation: I hear a tightness, a sudden disturbance of the vowel sound at a certain point in the scale, a place where ease suddenly hits a wall and extra effort starts. There are clues all over. There is a slight flinch in the face, a small shift in posture, a hitch in the rhythm. It simply doesn’t sound good. All of these observations are part of a Gestalt.

Our teacher-light-bulb, with scientific training, may learn how to say “The formant strategy is not appropriate for this vowel and volume, resulting in an increase in both subglottic pressure and medial compression in order to continue the emission, with concomitant recruitment of extralaryngeal muscles that result in strain and fatigue.” OK, that is lovely language and is a way to describe the situation that must be dealt with. Say that to your singer in the moment, and watch them blink. The question at hand is fundamental – How do we fix this?

You will only fix it if you take your scientific observation and bring it back to the Gestalt. If you alter something in the way they are doing things, you can get a different result. If you give them scientific language, then you are putting a burden on THEM to translate it into action that can give a better result. This isn’t fair, if you are capable of guiding them to that action. I suppose it’s OK to give a science-laden diagnosis of an issue if that’s all you have, but the art of teaching is in the next step, the proposal of a solution.

This means that, if you are a skilled teacher who is capable of guiding a singer to a better action/result, you can avoid verbal scientific diagnoses altogether and get more done. Example: demonstrating and practicing vowel modification and the idea of “open” and “close(d)” vowels: getting the student to demonstrate an understanding of these simpler terms means that you can avoid the whole transmission of terminology of an abstractified “formant”. When they experience closing or opening as leading to greater ease in their singing, then they have the concept. They do not need to memorize your abstract of an academic book on acoustics.

Teachers with good ears, experience, success, and intuition are sometimes dragging their feet with learning the current scientific terminology, for good reason. What is the point of introducing a translation that needs a re-translation back to the Gestalt in order to get anything done?

I observed a master class lead by one of the current Titans of voice science. His computer-aided monitoring of the singers was very interesting and impressive. His verbal advice for remediation to the singers was not. My and a fellow teacher’s ears and experience would have conducted the lesson differently. The scientist-teacher did not have a large toolkit for guiding the singer to better action.

All of this is why I think there is an instinctual resistance on the part of some successful, experienced teachers to the current wave of interest in science in pedagogy. I firmly believe we can use “science IN pedagogy”, not “science AS pedagogy”.

One Reply to “Re-Translation and Wasted Time”

  1. Nicely said. I avoid scientific language in the studio. The student’s eyes always glaze over even if they profess to be interested in such things (and very few are) for the reason you submit: translation inaction is necessary—and that is the teacher’s burden.

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