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Conference Morsel: Diction

(An excerpt from the interest session “ Teaching Your Singers to Fish: How Diction Frees Us to Sing around the World,” presented by Stephen Sieck during the 2014 ACDA North Central Division Conference)
When we try to teach our singers how to pronounce songs in a foreign language, we often make several assumptions:
  1. We know how to pronounce the language accurately,
  2. They know how to imitate us accurately, and
  3. We know how to assess their imitation accurately
I don’t know about you, but I don’t speak as many foreign languages as I would like to my choir to sing!  And I certainly don’t know enough Mandarin or Bulgarian to have a discerning ear for whether my students are saying/singing the sounds correctly.
So let’s take it back to Step 1 for all singers everywhere, which is making a beautiful vowel. 
I recommend we teach our singers the four basics of a beautiful “ah” vowel, and then label that sound with the International Phonetic Symbol: [ɑ]
  1. Lift your soft palate
    1. You can see this when you yawn in front of a mirror; the soft palate rises in the back, and now you can see your lower molars, your tonsils, and your uvula.
  2. Relax your tongue, let the tip touch your lower teeth
    1. This will produce a relatively flat, calm tongue.  You should be able to see your teeth (all of them) this way, for reference.
  3. Relaxed, released jaw
    1. Again, like you’re yawning!  The old adage used to be “fit two fingers in your mouth”, but you can do that with tension or with relaxation.  We’re going for relaxation.  You should also feel your jaw rock and release by your ears (at the “sideburn” area).
  4. Mask placement
    1. Sing up and forward, like you’re shooting a free-throw with your voice. 
Once your singers make this open, high, resonant [ɑ] vowel, they’re ready for anything. 
Getting from [ɑ] to [ɔ] to [o] to [ʊ] to [u]
Simply round your lips.  Fully rounded makes [u] as in “ubi caritas”, and barely rounded makes [ɔ], as in “God”.
Getting from [ɑ] to [æ] to [ɛ] to [e] to [ɪ] to [i]
Simply raise the center of your tongue.  The highest position makes [i] as in “seen”, and a barely lifted tongue-center makes [æ] as in “sat.” 
When you approach foreign vowels, now you can simply ask yourself – which tongue position? which lip position?  So, in German, for example,
                        [y] = [i] tongue plus [u] lips, as in “über”
                        [ʏ] = [ɪ] tongue plus [ʊ] lips, as in “fünf”