Standardizing terminology

Posted: August 17, 2010 in Music Therapy

I was observing an early intervention group today, and it was…well, let’s say it was mass chaos.  It was the MT’s last session before she went on permanent maternity leave, which is too bad because you hate to go out on a bad note.  The group has been doing well – last week was really quite good.  Just today, there was a weird vibe in the air.  One kid had a bad case of the gigglies, another was obsessed with her My Little Ponies, and the other was a bit sulky because he didn’t get to play the clatterpillar.  And through it all, the staff was there, prompting and prompting and distracting from the music.  I’m planning to do a training sometime soon about group etiquette for staff.

It was during an activity with handbells that something struck me.  It must be pretty confusing for kids who already have issues with focus to hear several different instructions in several different wordings.  “Play the bell” vs. “ring the bell” vs. “shake the bell” vs. whatever else people might say.  Let’s look at those three terms:

  • Play the bell – What does that mean?  We use the word “play” to describe lots of things.  Play the drum.  Play the piano.  Play the guitar.  Play baseball.  So how do you play the bell?  Hit it with a stick?  Press the clapper?  Strum it?  Pitch it to a friend and hope they don’t knock it out of the park?
  • Ring the bell – What does that mean?  While more descriptive than play, it doesn’t tell you anything about the action.  Telephones ring…am I supposed to call it?  My parents wear a ring…am I supposed to wear it on my finger?
  • Shake the bell – Now we have a term that is very descriptive.  Shake the bell.  I can do that.  Wave it around in the air and listen to the sounds.  The problem with using this term with handbells is that shaking a bell is different than, say, shaking a maraca.  Shaking is not necessarily the motion we want with handbells, but if it’s what we need to use to get the child to play, we’ll do it.

I thought about the problem of terminology again as a drum was being passed around.  Again, there were a couple of prompts – play the drum and hit the drum.  I’ve already talked about “play”, but what about “hit”?  Everyone seems to understand that, and will usually strike the drum when asked.  But to me, it seems that it might be confusing to tell someone in music to “hit the drum”, and then to tell them “no hitting” in relation to physical aggression.  English is SUCH a weird language.

So, I want to try to standardize terminology in my own personal practice.  “Shake” is good for maracas, eggs, and other shaker-y instruments, but I don’t think I want to use it for bells.  I want to use the term “ring”.  If that means that I have to teach what I want before I can get a meaningful activity out of it, then so be it.  For drums, I want to use the word “beat”.  “Well, won’t that conjure up images of beating people up?” you may ask in a sarcastic tone of voice that I really don’t care for.  To that I say that we don’t often hear people say to this age group, “No beating people up.”  We hear “No hitting.”  Hitting is the simple term, and if they grow up thinking that beating refers to the drum and not to violence, isn’t that a good thing?

It’s a work in process, this standardization of terminology.  The most difficult thing will be putting it into practice.  It’s like “good job.”  It drives me crazy to hear people say that, because they can never seem to think of any other praise.  And then I find myself saying it as well.

Maybe I’m overthinking it.  Maybe not.  Let me know what you think.  Thanks for reading!


  1. Peggy Hickle says:

    Very interesting. I hear myself doing similar things from time to time. It is amazing what you can learn when you can watch. You learn things you want to do as well as things you want to avoid. It is a great learning experience and something I should certainly spend more time doing!

  2. JoelK says:

    I agree with your choice of the word ‘beat’. In my training in Britain, it was always ‘beat’, and a mallet/stick was a ‘beater’.
    Thanks for starting a blog! It’s been good reading already. And it’s made me nostalgic for client groups other than the 80% geriatric work I’m currently doing (that’s 80% of my time, not 80% geriatric-ness).
    Now, I’m off to go shop for a theramin…

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