Soapbox: On the Value of Metaphors

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soapboxMetaphors sometimes get a bit of a rough ride in our scientific world. There is sometimes a sense that talking about, say, voice production in anatomical terms is always and inherently better than what I have heard derided as the ‘pink fluffy cloud school of singing teaching’. Or that precise, concrete performance instructions are more grown-up than expressive imagery. ‘But do you want it louder or softer?’ is the kind of passive-aggressive put-down that players use to tell conductors to stow it with the airy-fairy stuff.

Now, I’m not going to argue against either scientific knowledge or directness of communication. Both of these are Good Things. But I am going to argue that the things they do well do not and cannot replace the things that metaphors do well, and if we replace all our figurative language with literal language, it gets harder to make good music.

There are three things that metaphors do that literal language does not.

The first is to encapsulate complex information. For example, Mike Brewer uses the metaphor of holding a large flower pot in which a tall and fragrant flower is planted to engage both support muscles and the head voice at the same time. How to balance vocal support and resonanceHow to balance vocal support and resonance
He could give physical instructions about how to stand, about which bodily muscles to engage, about lifting the cheeks and soft palate – but this would get to be a long list of instructions that would start to get confusing. There are only so many different tasks you can think about at once. The metaphor, however, encapsulates all these elements into a single task, so singers can do this and still have some brain left over with which to sing.

Douglas Adams makes a similar point about Feng Shui in this speech from 1998. (Scroll down – it’s near the bottom. Actually, don’t scroll down, read through it all, as it’s very entertaining – but when you get to the Feng Shui bit, remember to notice why you were reading it in the first place.) Dragons may not actually exist, but it can still be useful to design your house as if they did.

The second thing that metaphors do is that they invite the performers in an ensemble to use their own imaginations. Benjamin Zander interprets the hostile literalism of many professional musicians as a defence mechanism against the inevitable musical disappointment that comes from being conducted by yet another oaf. And it is certainly one of the ironies of the music profession that in order to get a place in an orchestra you have to be trained to a level where you have your own well-developed musical identity and artistic vision, which may then be significantly under-used in your eventual day-job. But that’s all the more reason to give performers the opportunity to bring their own hearts and brains into the process.

Of course, you need to pick your metaphor to suit the ensemble. A professional orchestra is going to be patronised by the kind of metaphor you’d use for a children’s choir – and the children won’t understand the metaphors needed to engage highly trained musicians. And this is the third thing that metaphors can do: they can speak to people’s identities. When people recognise metaphors that resonate with their own experience in a direct and immediate way, they make the music their own.

A memorable experience for me was the way a choir of college-age women exactly grasped the expressive purpose of a passage I described as ‘sounding like period pain’. (Their male director was a little taken aback it has to be said, but was happy enough to let them get on with it since they so clearly made effective use of the metaphor.) But the number one reason everyone gives for participating in musical performance is that they want to express themselves, and a well-chosen metaphor can help them make the music that someone else has chosen for them do just that.

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