There is a director that I occasionally work with who loves to give unsolicited vocal technical advice. She is a dear sweet lady, but when she starts trying to tell me something technical, it drives me up the wall. Tonight I was ready. When she gave a technical note, I told her that I would appreciate it if she would tell me what she is hearing that she does not like so that I can translate it into terms that I work with with my own teacher and coach. She was a little taken aback but I finally got thru to her after she restated her original technical suggestion with yet another technical suggestion, and I answered, “No, you’re still to telling me ‘how’, I need to know what your desired result is”. “More air” is a stock phrase of hers, for example. What the heck am I supposed to do with that? This is an opera, not a birthday cake. I asked “Do you mean you want more sound – louder?” No, that wasn’t it. Finally got her to say what she was after tonally. Phew! Was that so hard?
This director and I have a longstanding relationship, but it is also common to have this happen in a situation where one is being evaluated in a one-time situation, such as an audition, a particular show or music festival, or a masterclass where we may not be able to push the commenter to re-explain something. One of the important skills we need to develop as singers is how to deal with comments about our singing. Sometimes they are strange one-off comments that can be dismissed. However, if several people make similar observations, or one very respected person makes an emphatic point, we should at least consider them seriously. Just because they may not use our lingo does not mean that they can’t be helpful. The question “What are they getting at?” is an important one.
Of course, sometimes the comment makes sense right away, or does it? When I’m attending a master class I often get the impression that the student, wanting to please the teacher quickly, acts like they’re understanding when they do not. Or sometimes the teacher is not able to communicate what they mean clearly. I try to remember that I may sometimes be that student or teacher and that the process of trying to understand what is meant is not always as simple as it seems. There are a number of favorite terms in the voice world that people think they agree on, but I have found that there is actually a lot of variation in their definitions of these terms. Add to that the multiple things we have to think about when we are performing, and it is easy to miss the point of what the (usually helpful) person was trying to say to us at that time.
I think it’s always worth running comments by your team of teacher, coach, and other trusted ears to see what they think was meant. I try to record and recall the exact words used, because I sometimes filter and/or interpret things excessively. I still surprise myself at the degree to which my memory can warp things said to me when I revisit the actual words used.
Sometimes we may want to deliberately get feedback from people who we know will say very different things. This can have great value. It enlarges our capacity to evaluate and use comments from differing sources and helps us to have a multidimensional view of our own goals as an artist. Dealing with comments will always be an inexact science, but it’s a very important skill to our growth.