The Problem of Vocabulary – Spiral Learning, Part 3

TalkingPastEachOtherAre these pairs of words all talking about the same thing?

simply speaking/free-flowing air
reed tone/flute tone

Either “yes” or “no” is correct depending on the context. Your personal context is everything. As a teacher you need to use a vocabulary that makes sense to you first, and then communicate that to a student as clearly as possible, but do not believe that you will get the student to think exactly the same thought from the same words. Such is the nature of interpersonal communication. Agreeing on words is less important than agreeing on concepts.

Whether a student is grasping a concept will be apparent by how the student sings after applying a new concept. The teacher should circle back and make sure that the student can link the new behavior to the new concept. This assumes that the concept was a helpful one to begin with. Be ready for surprises! Often I have given an instruction, the student has sung better, and then after I ask “What did you do differently?” they tell me something quite different than my original instruction. People interpret. It’s natural. Sometimes we use different words to get to the same thing. Sometimes we apply the same words and get different results.

Is it hopeless to try to convey concepts with words? Not at all. Words are powerful tools, but we must stay humble and realize that they take on a life of their own in the other’s mind. Sometimes our words only work when combined with something the student brings to the lesson from their previous experience or their present creativity. Check back with students frequently, and have them describe what is going on in their minds when a change has taken place.

In spite of the interpersonal interpretive gap, standardizing one’s teaching vocabulary makes sense as a communication strategy in the studio. Using words consistently opens doors and gets you closer to your destination. When words fail, remember that the concept can be stated many different ways, and do not try to force an understanding that hasn’t arrived yet. Be flexible.

How teachers talk to each other about singing is even more tricky! We are attached to the vocabulary of our particular schools, and sometimes we defend that vocabulary ridiculously. I’ll save that topic for another day.

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