Metaphors and the Semantic Chauvinist

Metaphors copy

Evan Bortnick

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

I have a real place in my heart for method-chauvinism. I think that’s probably because some of my best voice teachers were convinced that there was only one way to teach and that was their way. Another way of saying this is: “I’ve seen God and he/she looks like me!” I have to admit to having succumbed to this limited way of thinking myself at times. I would even argue that, in certain phases of a singer’s development, it’s actually necessary! Perhaps this even expands out to all of us. That would mean that the certain belief in Santa Claus, for an over-used example, is a necessary step in human maturity. Some models and research I’ve read definitely point in that direction.

That’s where “Metaphor” comes in. I vaguely remember an English class where a distinction was made between Simile and Metaphor by pointing out that Simile uses ‘like’ and metaphor does not. So “my love is like a red, red rose” is a simile and “my love is a red, red rose” is a metaphor. That would mean that most of our language consists of metaphor, which so often gets filtered out in the speed with which we ‘understand’ what’s said: ‘river bed’, ‘sunset’, ‘grasping a concept’, ‘embracing an idea’ and literally millions more.

As teachers generally (this includes parents, of course) and as voice teachers specifically, we rely on metaphor even if we don’t realize it. Have you ever used or heard the terms “Voice Color”? Register? Chest Voice? All these ARE metaphors! Color is a visual term being utilized to describe both a sensory and acoustic phenomenon. A voice doesn’t have a ‘color’ in the literal sense. Register is, as we all know, a metaphor borrowed from the Organ. There is no such thing as a ‘register’ in the voice. There are the Vocalis muscles, Crico-Thyroid muscles and Arytenoid muscles which alter the dominance of their muscle tone in subtle and distinct ways. There are formants which are filtered and strengthened based on acoustic laws. There are different vibrational organizations of the Vocalis itself and the propagation of sound waves within the vocal tract. Face it; “Register” is a complexity reducer which we use regularly and PRAY that the student doesn’t understand it in a way which confuses more than it elucidates! We’ve all experienced the former!!

Is there really such a thing as a “Chest Voice”? We definitely ‘feel’ resonance in the chest when the dominant secondary resonance flows there. But the “Voice”, at least as we usually understand the term, is situated in the larynx. If we went by feeling, then there must be an ankle voice and an elbow voice as well….something which we don’t usually hear. All kidding aside, if the car or bicycle were invented before the organ, we might be referring to first gear and second gear instead of ‘register’. That’s another metaphor which *could* apply.

It was also valuable for me to learn that in many students and indeed in my own singing, often a non-anatomical visual metaphor served to anker and imprint a VERY important functional principle. I remember clearly on a high-C feeling such an ecstatic resonance in my parietal bones that a vivid picture of a dragon with two heads arose. Just thinking of that picture evoked for me what I later learned was the damping effect and a powerfully sustained singer’s formant. I used it to good effect for years. Did I really think there was a dragon in my head? Of course not. BUT the metaphor was a potent and very usable complexity reducer for all the stuff going on. That’s the way our neo-cortex works sometimes. It takes processes from the limbic system and reptilian brainstem which are too reflexive to control directly and gives us a usable indirect control through a synaesthetic of felt sense and inner image. At least that’s the way I experienced it. Enough of my students have reported similar experiences that I’ve made it something of a pedagogical edict for myself.

An example of this: I was working with a lyric soprano singing a ppp high-D in a demonstration in the context of a vocal pedagogy class. As she approached the ‘second lift’ the system was exerting excessive sub-glottal pressure and way too much medial compression and vocalis mass. The acoustical result felt, predictably, way too heavy and the tone was flat and a bit wobbly. Even though the class was well-schooled in functional anatomy, I decided to go out onto a limb to demonstrate a point. I asked her to simply imagine that her vocal lips were in the middle of her frontal bone, just above her eyebrows. As she sang the exercise again, those silver bells started ringing; in other words, there was a strong overtone strengthening in the 3,200 HZ area, what we call the singer’s formant. The students in the class, after getting goose bumps and sighing, asked how I could possibly request something so un-anatomical from a student. I explained that under this kind of tension, with the muscle tone dominance in the Crico-Thyroid, THE LAST thing she wants to feel or think about is her Vocalis muscle. The optimal, logical ‘sensory based’ strategy up there is to focus on and anticipate SECONDARY resonance and to filter out primary, vocal tract tuning. Of course, we anchored this balanced sense with some good wordings and some inner pictures WHICH CAME FROM THE STUDENT and not from me. They are HER metaphors. That’s what I mean when I say that metaphor for singers is a complexity reducer. That’s what makes them so effective and repeatable!

That’s also why I love the above J.Campbell quote. He implies (at least in my reading) that someone who’s an “Atheist” and someone who’s “Religious” have both convinced themselves of the absolute verity of their belief. Whether we were created by a ‘deity’ or it’s all chance, one way or another our metaphor for the HOW and the WHY we are in this world is a construct. For singers and philosophers alike, the question is; in which context is which metaphor-construct most valuable?

Evan Bortnick

Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden

About evanb54

I'm a passionate, curious learning junkie--- an X-Opera Singer turned Voice Teacher, Voice Teachers Teacher, NLP Lehrtrainer, Off-Path Coach, Cranio-Sacral worker and a few other even less mainstream things. Everything I've learned or taught revolves around THE VOICE. The Voice as a tool of artistic expression. The Voice as a tool of emotional transparency. The voice as a tool of flexible communication. More information can be found at my Institute Site: The Wiesbaden Academy of the Vocal Muse Gesangsunterricht Wiesbaden, Coaching, Voice Pedagogy
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