I recently wrote about my experience of coaching singers at the University of Pretoria. A couple of weeks I coached at the Day of Song hosted by Leeds Lieder+. Since 2008 I have coached singers (mostly American) at AIMS in Graz, Austria and in London I regularly coach young singers in various repertoire. Spending so much time explaining rules on diction, listening to the singers speak through the text, my repeating it back with corrections and also using the international phonetic alphabetic [IPA] characters to represent certain sounds, I constantly notice various themes recur in sessions. Over time I have worked out a few methods, which I use constantly and which seem to be helpful in not only making the diction clearer, but it also enables the singer to apply across the repertoire they study. Over a course of a few blog posts I aim to discuss the various challenges I have come across, my suggestions of how to overcome it and therefore aim to clarify certain aspects of singing in German.
Chocolate mousse or Rocky Road
German as a language is known for its consonant clusters and stop-start nature, seemingly creating a language without flow. However, if the language had no flow, how is it that there are so many Lieder and that the language flows perfectly in dialogue? As is the case with other less obviously lyrical languages where the vowel legato is not as prominent as it is in for instance French and Italian, one needs to search for the vowel line. Noticing the differences in smoothness of the one language to the clustery character in another is similar to trying chocolate mousse and biting a piece of rocky road with its thick chocolate base, accentuated with biscuit and marshmallow. One of the challenges in German then are to negotiate the consonants around and within the vowel line, find the natural inflection of the language and then put the song text back into its musical setting.
Throughout these blog posts it is assumed that by the time the singer is working in such detail on pronunciation that the text has been translated already and that the meaning of each word is understood.
Taste the text – why speak the text?
The tongue is the magnifying glass of the mouth and what might feel like a large area inside the mouth when touched with for instance the tongue tip would in fact be minute in real life. All slight manipulations in the mouth feel much larger than they actually are and so the minutest adjustment can have a substantial effect on the sound produced. This hyper sensitive mechanism we call the mouth therefore affords a great benefit to the singer.
Spoken diction and lyric diction differs in certain aspects as the elongation of the vowels (melody) distorts the text and it is the singer’s task to make it clearer, understandable and be capable of conveying a message. This is then why speaking a text first is paramount because the singers get an undistorted view of the text. The basis is laid out for the mouth, which will enable to be fine tuned and altered for singing.
As a pianist would work out the fingering of an intricate passage, similarly the singer needs to learn to negotiate various muscles in the mouth to create certain sounds, which eventually accumulate in language, but in return does not compromise the instrument which has to sing. Therefore making an acquaintance with where exactly in the mouth for example the tip of the tongue should be in order to focus certain consonants or how it moves to lead from one consonant to another is essential for clear diction in any language.
The style in which the mouth muscles are used differs from language to language. Dancers have to alter their style from the Viennese waltz to the Two Step. A pianist plays a Scarlatti sonata differently to that of a Rachmaninoff Etude. Similarly singers need to practise the mouth muscles differently depending on the language in which they sing. Of course there will be overlapping uses of the mouth, but at the same time also very contrasting ones. By knowing how to use the mouth economically in each language in order to serve vocal freedom as well as clear text the singer hones their skill over a long period of time and it requires as much – if not more – patience and attention as a singer would pay to breathing and other technical work. Economic use would avoid “chewing” the text and therefore creating unnecessary tension elsewhere in the instrument. The freedom to sing is then much more attainable.
In the next post I will talk about how I find vowels to influence the consonants and vice versa.