Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mind your language!

Unlike many ‘traditional’ classical or church choirs, Natural Voice choirs hardly ever use written scores, nor do we expect participants in our workshops to have had a musical education. Since we want access to music to be as wide as possible, we don’t assume any particular expertise or prior knowledge or training from our workshop or choir participants. Hence we most often teach songs by ear in the age-old traditional manner, and hardly ever use any musical jargon.

Recently I’ve been trying to write a code of practice for Natural Voice practitioners which captures the essence of how we differ from other choir or workshop leaders. I have put a phrase in the code which reads:

“I will strive to make my work as accessible as possible by ensuring that I use straightforward language and avoid musical jargon”.

This has exercised the minds of several of our members who feel that by including such a statement we are somehow being asked to ‘dumb down’ our work. Of course, there is nothing wrong with musical jargon as such. What is wrong is making the assumption that everyone understands it and that if participants don’t understand it, then they are somehow lesser beings. Those clever musical people who do understand it become superior and seem to hold the key to a magic kingdom full of secrets that mere mortals cannot enter. I have known of individuals who have tried out certain choirs only to find themselves feeling excluded and made to feel stupid because they can’t read music and don’t know what a minor 3rd is. It is that experience that we, as Natural Voice practitioners, are trying to avoid.

In fact, it’s not just musical jargon that can exclude people, it’s any jargon, be it anatomical (‘diaphragm’), musical (‘octave’), mathematical (‘count 7 beats as one group of 3 followed by 2 groups of 2’), foreign (‘andante’), Western convention (‘that note is higher than that one’), and so on. What we need to do is to not make assumptions, and to not have our teaching or choir leading relying on jargon, at least not without having explained it. At its best jargon is a short-cut to be used amongst a group of people ALL of whom know its meaning. Which is why people outside any particular discipline are often bemused or even exclude by its specific jargon.

I suppose the trick is to feel free to use any kind of language as long as you don’t expect everyone to understand it and to make sure it is not the sole basis for your teaching or choir leading. As good teachers and choir leaders we should use a variety of language, teaching styles and material to maximise everybody’s involvement. If we don’t use jargon at all, then some participants who do have a musical training might feel patronised. But if we rely solely on jargon, we may end up excluding almost everybody.

go to Chris Rowbury's website

Chris Rowbury


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