31 May 2018

Dear Dr. Winslow,

I have been reflecting on recent conversations in the voice community about the utility of complex terms and the insistence that simplicity in the voice studio requires equal simplicity at every level of discourse surrounding the voice. First, yes, of course if you cannot explain an idea as simply as possible, you likely do not understand it as well as you think. However, I do want to bring up a thought. I can’t remember where I read it, though it was probably something that Chomsky said? Technical language is not a layer put on top of what we already understand. Language itself teaches us by drawing distinctions between abstract ideas. Some concepts cannot be simplified beyond a point and retain their character. If you encounter an idea presented with apparently complex language, it may mean that you cannot grasp it without literally changing the way you think. 

Just as an example, The somewhat abstract concept that there is a difference between the frequency of oscillation of the vocal folds and the cognitive experience of the pitch is near universally glossed over in voice pedagogy. One has to be dragged through the specific meanings of the terms pitch and frequency before anything approaching practical application makes sense. And for what it is worth, noticing that the actual fundamental of a sung sound has a specific tonal quality often distinct from the rest of the perceived pitch is revelatory to understanding voice registration. To someone who understands the difference, using the correct term is very important. Someone who does not would likely look at that need for specificity as overly fussy. The first person in this example understands the underlying concept because there is clarity in their language. The second person does not, and would have to change their basic concept of sound to understand. There’s nothing wrong with not understanding that distinction, but we cannot assume that knowing negatively complicates one's teaching. 

This is all just to say, if we see someone using a specific term in a specific way, it is possible that there is an underlying idea motivating that choice. And it’s possible the reason it seems like jargon is just that we don’t yet understand that underlying idea. Language itself sits at the core of so many conflicts and misunderstandings in the voice community. "Diaphragmatic breathing," "formant," "mix," "SOVT..." These terms are easy to dismiss as buzzwords, however, understanding the context of their use can provide great insight into the way somebody else understands the world. 

I have really enjoyed writing these letters this school year, and look forward to picking them up again this fall. Enjoy your summer!


Dr. Ian Howell
Voice Faculty
Vocal Pedagogy Director
The New England Conservatory of Music