One of my favorite choir tricks was to telling my singers to ‘aim for the top side of the pitch.’ This was, of course, because they were singing flat, and I thought the imagery would give my singers a way of thinking about an abstract concept (singing in tune) in a simplified, easily understood, silver bullet fashion. In reality, this – and other reductive metaphors I used as a director – skimmed over all problems that needed to be tackled and reduced an endemic choral pitfall to a two second soundbite that was utterly impossible to put into practice. No one knew where the ‘top side of the pitch’ was, or how (and with what) to aim for it.
As a singer, I heard this kind of reductive metaphor over and over again. About singing in tune: ‘sing right in the center of the pitch’; blend: ‘get inside the sound of the person next to you’; posture: ‘like you’re hanging from a string coming our of the top of your head’; volume: ‘bounce your sound off the back wall’; high notes: ‘imagine taking off helmet.’ And many, many more. We’ve all used them, and they seem awfully like finding solutions in an incredibly short rehearsal period with a performance or service bearing down.
In the long run, however, they don’t help. They don’t assist amateur singers, or teach them about singing, or teach them about singing in an ensemble, or instruct them on how to approach an intangible expression of an intangible art form. Reducing the act of singing to a metaphor – using terms that describe anything except singing – doesn’t make singing any more tangible.
It’s better to instruct. It’s better to find and offer one piece of concrete direction that can ground an amateur singer’s physicality, or work to clarify one vowel across the ensemble, or make someone aware of the tension in their jaw, or hear what a tuning a perfect fifth sounds and feels like.