The Shapeshifters – the Plight of Consonants

In this series of blogs dedicated to finding a systematic way of learning German repertoire by studying the text of a song, aria or recitative first before continuing to sing it I have spoken about the differences between languages and the importance of noticing what happens in the mouth when speaking as to singing the text. In a quest to getting to know and drawing the blue print of a text – having focused on vowels – I think it is high time I spoke about consonants.

Name calling and awkward relatives

Since working with singers and voice teachers I have heard consonants being called many things. Some names have included anchors, beacons or interruptions in a stream of water. Another watery example would be to imagine that the consonants were “pebbles dropped in a stream of water” or “hooks onto which to hang the washing line of vowels”. I have used a number of these descriptions myself as my coaching vocabulary developed over time. 

However something always seemed to be not quite right. Consonants seem to be viewed as the relative one feels obliged to invite over to a dinner party because surely you can’t invite Annie, Edward, Ingrid, Oscar and Ulrika over, but leave out Cousin Consonants! I would like to turn the equation on its head: at this meal the awkward relative is indeed the one that puts the spice in the evening and is actually the spirit of the party.

The other side of the story

Using again the Heine text previously used to illustrate the vowel line, I would like to point out how consonants can be informed by the vowels and vice versa.

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

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

Diction rules are usually written from the perspective of the vowels and how these vowels are affected by the consonants that follow them. So in German you have open vowels before double or more consonants (Herzen) whilst remaining closed when followed by a single consonant (Monat). The exception to this rule is that when a vowel is followed by an h and any other consonant then said vowel remains closed (Sehnen).  I suspect that this one-sided approach might be due to the fact that the international phonetic alphabet (IPA) only concentrate on the subtleties of vowels whilst consonants are only indicated as voiced or unvoiced.

The tongue and lips

Thinking again of the tongue being a magnifying glass for the mouth, indeed another magnifier exists around the mouth: the lips. They are not necessarily as active as the tongue, but their role is subtle. Sometimes the lips work together for consonants like b, p, m and at other times the upper teeth and lower lip work together for letters like v and w (pronounced as f and v in English). IPA does, however, not indicate that a consonant followed by a specific vowel compared to the same consonant followed by another vowel are subtly different. Taking the first line of Heine’s text give us a perfect example:

Im wunderschönen Monat Mai 

 The “m” in Monat is subtly different to the “m” of Mai. As the “o” in Monat is closed the “m” preceding the lips would be slightly more pointed than when pronouncing neutrally sounding m. The lips are using a thinner edge, which creates a pointed focus to the vowel. On the other hand the “m” in Mai is more relaxed due to the open space the a-vowel presents. Even though this difference is subtle, it does not go unnoticed when employed by the singer.

Other examples of different sensations to the same consonants would be for instance the difference in feeling of the tongue tip when saying Liebe and Verlangen. The sensory difference in the middle position of the tongue when comparing Sehnen and sangen is a further example. Finally the quick switching differences in the in the middle of the word aufgegangen asks for the minutest colour change.

These are but a few examples from this text. But it becomes ever clearer how many shades there are buried under the surface of a text. We all use this sort of subtlety when speaking our mother tongue. It is just not that obvious as we have grown used to it as our familiarity with it is much longer than with the foreign language singers study.

Next time…

Now that we have discussed the different building blocks of singing in German, next time I shall share some ways I have found to fix difficult consonant clusters and tricky words.

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