I grew up in a home with Reader’s Digest, the monthly, pocket-sized magazine celebrating its centennial in 2022. The founders’ publishing goal was to provide readers with a collection of “the best stories from a vast array of publications.”1 All the stories were in condensed form, to aid the busy consumer, and sprinkled between them were general-interest columns. One I remember always looking for was, “It Pays to Increase Your Word Power,” a vocabulary builder.
This past week I was helping a student with a series of exercises related to a particular structure of the voice. When we were done I told him we were building his “vocal vocabulary.“ It was an in-the-moment statement that sounded good and seemed correct, but I’ve been mentally massaging it ever since. What did I mean by “vocal vocabulary?”
Simply speaking, a vocabulary is a means of human expression and communication. Related to a particular language, it is a body of words a person uses. Vocabularies are fluid things. New words get added as life evolves. Some words are retired because they are deemed no longer fashionable or proper. Vocabularies can become stagnate or even erode. Maintaining a robust vocabulary in part promises having the right word in the right place at the right time2, which yields success as a communicator via the spoken or written word.
I would argue that singers need to develop a vocal vocabulary for the same reason: To have the right VOICE in the right place at the right time. Here, the use of the modifier, “right,” in relation to the voice is not about stylistic preference or aesthetic bias. Rather, I am arguing for “the right VOCAL VOCABULARY in the right place at the right time.” This vocabulary is formed as a singer acquires a proficiency of the structures of the voice, ex., onset/offset, body-cover, laryngeal positioning, velum control. Just like having the right word on the tip of your tongue or your pen, every singer should have a robust vocal vocabulary at his/her/their disposal.
If you would like to build your vocal vocabulary, please contact me.
Lastly, as a sidebar, during my mental meanderings I was fascinated to discover the etymology of the word vocabulary and its rootedness to the voice.
vocabulary (n.) — 1530s, “list of words with explanations,” from Medieval Latin vocabularium “a list of words,” from Latin vocabulum “word, name, noun,” from vocare “to name, call,” which is related to vox (genitive vocis) “voice” (from PIE root *wekw– “to speak”).3
2 an homage to William Safire’s book, The Right Word in the Right Place at the Right Time.