The Power of Language

Having spent the better part of the past year working on my doctoral dissertation, I’ve become obsessed with the subtleties of language. Word choices I once regarded as arbitrary have now become obsessive decisions. Ultimately what matters most about language is not what it means to the writer, but rather what it means to that writer’s audience. This has also led me to reflect about how important language is with studying, teaching, and performing music.

In its most basic form, the act of teaching/learning is a two way information transfer. The student communicates to the teacher what they need to learn, and the teacher responds by supplying the necessary information to help the student. The student then communicates back the effectiveness of the teaching by demonstrating their perception of that information. The teacher again responds by modifying their presentation and providing additional or alternative information.

This process essentially repeats itself over and over again over the course of time. If it is successful, the student will make tremendous improvement in a relatively short amount of time. If it isn’t, the student will struggle and in some cases even regress. This model applies equally well to both to one-on-one situations such as lessons and large group settings such as classes and ensemble rehearsals.

The process of teaching/learning fails as the lines of communication break down. Some teachers teach AT their students. They ignore all the feedback their students continuously provide about the effectiveness of their teaching. This can occur for both intentional and unintentional reasons. It is an unfortunate mistake that some teachers often make.

On the other hand, some students intentionally block out a lot of advice from their teachers. This can be both intentional and unintentional as well. Some students won’t heed advice from their teachers because they interpret it as a personal criticism. Rather than take the opportunity to learn, it’s too easy to become defensive and resist improvement. This is also an unfortunate mistake.

However, I’ve discovered over the years that a much more common cause of teaching/learning breakdown is simply misinterpretation. A well intentioned teacher says something like “tighten a little bit to play higher notes” to their student. Their student clenches their neck and abdomen and squeezes all of their facial muscles to get high notes out. Then the teacher sees this and says “relax a little bit.” The student then loosens the embouchure and puffs their cheeks. In a very short time, the teacher has just unintentionally made things much worse for that student.

The problem of course was over the exact meaning of the words “tighten” and “relax.” To the teacher, “tighten” meant “make the embouchure more firm.” It was a specific command to certain embouchure muscles. The student interpreted it more generally and metaphysically. “Tighten” was a general state of mind which included a whole range of physical actions. Consequently, the word “relax” was intended to mean a general state of whole body relaxation by the teacher. However, to the student it specifically meant to relax the very embouchure muscles the teacher wanted them to tighten.

These types of miscommunications occur all the time and often go uncorrected for weeks, months and even years. The student’s struggles persist, and both parties tend to blame the other. The teacher assumes that the student either isn’t working hard enough, or merely lacks the talent or intelligence to succeed. The student blames the teacher for either not knowing what they are talking about or not knowing how to teach.

The language problem originates when each party is unaware of what their language means to the other. Teachers should carefully consider exactly what the words they say mean to their students. Have your student explain the information you just told them back to you in their own words. Ask them a series of questions about it. You might be surprised how frequently they are misinterpreting the content and intent of your words. Your students want to convince you that they are very intelligent. They will often nod in agreement when they really don’t understand what you are saying.

And likewise for the student, ask your teachers many detailed followup questions. Make sure you always understand exactly what you are being told. You might even think you understand everything when you really do not. It’s not a matter of stupidity or ignorance. The same words often mean very different things to different people. I’m only now beginning to understand the meaning of much of what my teachers had told me many years ago, yet I was certain at the time that I understood all of it and didn’t ask any questions. I could have learned so much more had I just asked more questions.

Not only does language affect what we do, it affects how we think about what we do. I once had a teacher give an analogy to describe the act of performing as taking a test. For years I used to imagine audiences who were hostile and just waiting for me to make mistakes so they could lower my “grade.” What was probably a thoughtless casual remark at a lesson actually had a deep impact on how I approached performing for a very long time. Eventually I realized that most audiences were simply not hostile and really just wanted to be entertained. That realization was also a huge revelation for me.

Any words we say, hear or even imagine that we said or heard will stick with us and influence our progress both positively and negatively for a very long time. Music is intimately connected with the language parts of our brains. We should always be mindful of the content, quality and clarity of language in each of our musical endeavors. It affects absolutely everything we do whether we realize it or not.

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