Im wUndErschOEnEn mOnAt mAI

 Speak then Sing – The Importance of Being Earnest… 

I have mentioned in previous posts the importance of being able to speak the text fluently before singing it. This would be the case in any language – be it the singer’s mother tongue or a foreign language. I find that the speaking of the text in voice lessons is irregularly addressed. This would be where the role of a coach starts for any singer, regardless of their level of training, because I suspect that voice teachers assume students to be preparing the spoken text separately prior to the first singing lesson. In turn I believe (especially with younger students) that they want to learn the notes so quickly because otherwise they are not singing – they are singers after all – and therefore might be mistaken for not working.

It is most important for singers to get into the habit of coaching the text and language, reciting it aloud and familiarising themselves with the words before learning the notes or rhythms set down by the composer. Starting with the text, ignoring the pitches and rhythms will in fact aide the learning process much more in the long run and memorisation would come much more naturally. For the purposes of this post I shall therefore assume that those who might follow the advice have already translated the text before embarking on diction.

Vowel lines – a central nervous system to any sentence.

From my earliest experience of accompanying voice lessons at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (then the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama) during my undergraduate study in Glasgow, I heard teachers telling voice students something along the lines of keeping the flow in the vowel line. This was to ensure legato, constant airflow and maintain the connection with the body.  The simplest version would be to sing a melody on a single vowel.

The vowel sequence in a sentence is similar to a conveyer belt, which is ever moving. A part of a language’s character is the choice of vowels and which vowels are used more often than others. Identifying the interplay of the vowels can assist a singer in creating a colourful palette, which would not only assist technically when it comes to diction, but also in word painting during the latter stages of preparation.

In the beginning was the word…

Why is it so important to have a clear grasp of the text and its pronunciation before singing? Because then the work can begin. Of course the meaning and emotion that is to be presented will come from the understanding of the text. However this interpretation and connection with the text is the latter bookend to the learning process of a song.  At the beginning of the learning process the linguistic knowledge is needed for a much more basic purpose: the mouth is learning how to negotiate and manoeuvre around the text. This acquaintance will lead to the text, once sung, being clear yet not obstructing the clarity of the voice.

Speaking the vowels

Looking at the opening poem from the Heine/Schumann cycle Dichterliebe. op. 48, we can discern various methods of acquainting the mouth with text. The first strophe reads:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
Da ist in meinem Herzen
Die Liebe aufgegangen. 

Illuminating the vowels only, it would look like this:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Knospen sprangen,
Da ist in meinem Herzen
Die Liebe aufgegangen
Try to speak this text only pronouncing the vowels. Make sure that the flow from one vowel to the next is as seamless as possible. When speaking these vowels out loudly it becomes clear that only the beginning of the first line is centred around the front of the mouth. The mouth opens towards the end of the first line and then the vowels hover between the a- and e-positions. The vowel sequence swerves momentarily to the front of the mouth in the middle of the final line (via the diphthong au) to quickly return to the more open a- and neutral vowel spaces.
The second strophe reads as follows:
Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Vögel sangen,
Da hab’ ich ihr gestanden 
Mein Sehnen und Verlangen.

The vowel outline here would be thus:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai,
Als alle Vögel sangen,
Da hab’ ich ihr gestanden 
Mein Sehnen und Verlangen.

In the second phrase we start again, as in the first strophe, with frontal vowels, which soon opens again as before.  Similar to the first strophe the vowels remain in the a- or e-positions with a momentary swerving to the front of the mouth for the u-vowel in the middle of the final line. When speaking this vowel outline clearly, one can feel from the start which part of the mouth is involved. Not until this vowel sequence flows comfortably would I suggest for the consonants to be included in the line. It does not only help the singer to negotiate a constant line, but it also serves as a sort of pencil sketch to the masterpiece, which is in construction.

Next time…

In the following post I shall discuss how the consonants of the same text compliment the vowels and how the vowels can amplify the consonants.



Leave a Comment