In my recent posts I wrote about steps I regularly use for singers to get their heads and mouths around German, but of course these methods can be used in other languages too. Last week I used these methods to help a native German speaker to help her with English texts. Once it was all taken apart the tricky moments in the text became clearer to her and she managed to sing the text clearly.
However these methods are not only a means to clear text. It also gives the singer the freedom to express and present the text to the audience. As a secure technique enables a singer to produce a plethora of colours vocally, similarly clear text would be able to give the freedom to enhance their performance. Of course the ultimate goal would be to have effortless freedom in technique and language, which would lead to the two palettes of voice and text to interact freely.
Start at…the end
In addition to the steps discussed in previous posts here are some methods to polish certain moments in a text. As I am first and foremost a pianist and writing from the point of view of a coach there are various methods used in piano playing, which works equally well with singers. Whenever a difficult and fiddly passage occurs in piano writing, I work on it backwards. Therefore I start at the arrival point and add a beat or halfbeat beforehand until I have worked on the whole passage forwards and backwards. Similarly I ask singers to start with the final sound of a word and then adding sounds, slowly working their way towards the beginning. Thinking of Goethe’s Erlkönig I will use the following line as an example:
“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?”
The stone in the road in the line above is the verb birgst. When leaving out the verb from the line it becomes clear how evenly the text flows. Most of the time the front of the mouth is used for the consonants and the soft ng-sound and ch-sound softly allows the text to flow. With the word birgst the r suddenly needs attention in the front when flipped and then to be followed immediately by the g in the back of the mouth. The places used in the mouth when speaking the word moves back until the g (pronounced as k*), only to shoot directly to the front for the st sound. This sudden shift causes troubles, but once practised backwards a few times it proves to be much more comfortable. In coaching I would suggest to speak the sounds to the singer and then they repeat it after me:
t – st – kst* – rkst – irkst – birkst
Voiced to Unvoiced
I have found that singers often find pronouncing a voiced consonant and its unvoiced counterpart consecutively difficult. Therefore for instance an unvoiced s [s] immediately followed by a voiced s [z] or vice versa can be challenging. Similarly in the quote from Goethe’s poem the t-sound (birgst) followed by a d-sound (du) would need slow practising. Speaking these two words starting from the last sound and building it up will iron out the difficulty:
u – du – t du – st du – kst* du – rkst du – irkst du – birkst du`
This attention to detail will help the singer to taste the moments where the text needs split seconds of extra time when sung. Below the complete text of Goethe’s poem (translation) shows all the voiced-to-unvoiced or unvoiced-to-voiced moments in red. Combinations of voiced to unvoiced consonants or vice versa occur throughout German and the challenging combinations are indicated below:
Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
“Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?” –
“Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?” –
“Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.”
“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel’ ich mit dir;
Manch’ bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gülden Gewand.” –
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest du nicht,
Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht?” –
“Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind.” –
“Willst, feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehen?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein.” –
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort?” –
“Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau. –”
“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.” –
“Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!” –
Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind,
Er hält in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Müh’ und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
There are other sounds, which often occur back to back, which prove challenging to a foreign tongue singing at top speed. Next time I shall point out these other important split second moments.