Basic Diction principles
(Note: there's already been a compilation of "Children and Diction" responses
broadcast on Choralist, and we received the following additional response which is
being passed on to Choralist as an addendum. manager(a)choralnet.org)
The "oo" vowel is really the best place to start. The person who suggested
dropping the consonants and singing vowels only as the next step also has a
good idea, but this is difficult for children to do. When they are more
advanced, that works fine, if they know how to produce the vowels already.
I have worked with a variety of children's groups, from select to my
current Los Angeles Unified school groups. In the latter, many of the
children have no previous experience and are not primarily English
speakers. I get very good results, and very quickly, in the following
1. I ask the children to imagine what it would be like to talk with the
shape of a hard-boiled egg in their mouth. Then I demonstrate what it
sounds like when I do that. This creates the kind of space you want in the
mouth for singing, and the children think it is very funny when I talk like
that. With this feeling of shape, I have them sing on "oo". I also tell
them at the beginning that they have to be willing to make some sounds they
think are silly in order to become a good singer.
I ask them to keep that shape on everything they sing--put the inside shape
of the "oo" in the words (not the roundness of the lips). For many, this
is all it takes.
2. If they go back to the other sound, I say, "This is what that sounded
like to me", and I sing it back for them the way they did it--sometimes
exaggerated. Then I say, "This is how I want it to sound." I demonstrate
the correct way and ask them to do it again. Sometimes I have them copy
how I did it the wrong way, and then copy the right way. But often, I have
to use step 3. However, there are times all year when I need to go back to
2. "Imagine you are imitating an English person speaking." Then I go into
a discussion of how in England they speak with a different accent than we
do in America, and how they speak at a generally higher pitch, with more
pitch variation, and more precise diction. I demonstrate the idea. (I use
the space mentioned in #1, a higher speaking pitch, more precise
diction--probably not an accurate mimic of an English accent, but they get
3. Speak the words in rhythm in this sing-song, spacey, higher pitched
style--you demonstrate and have them repeat.
4. Have them sing with the same sound. Start with you singing, they copy.
(It may be a bit more difficult with a man demonstrating, but maybe not.)
Stop them if they don't give you what you want. Demonstrate again. My
kids don't get to sing if they don't do it with good tone. The kids get it
very quickly. If they complain about how silly it sounds, explain that
singing is different than talking, and this is what they must do to make
beautiful sounds and to be able to use all of their voice--high and low.
Also, that even though they think it sounds silly, the audience will
understand the words better.
This method is also the same for teaching them how to sing a foreign
language. I have not said this to them, but it occurs to me as I write
this, that learning to sing vowels and proper diction is a bit like them
learning a foreign language. Many voice teachers start their students with
Italian songs because they want them to get those vowel sounds.
You can also demonstrate to them by having a student come up to listen, how
much louder the sound is, just by making the space for the vowel sounds
inside the mouth. Have them sing some warm-up on vowels only, with the
mouth shape they use for talking. (oo works just fine for this) Then have
them make the space inside. They will hear an immediate difference in
volume without any extra energy expended.
5. When it gets to r sound at the ends of words, I tell them they have to
speak like they are from Boston, when people drop all of these r sounds. I
speak a phrase like "Park the car in Harvard Yard" ala Boston, without the
r's. I have to translate it for them, because they don't understand it.
They think it is funny. I also demonstrate how awful it sounds when r's
are sung incorrectly at the ends of the words. They do much better after
that, but this is one I have to remind about frequently.
Someone said that they don't have children imitate because they want them
to have their own sound. I beg to differ on that point. The imitation is
for the space and the vowel sounds, and the connection with the breath.
Otherwise they will not find their own sound. Sometimes one or 2 kids will
pick up on the regular vibrato I have in my voice and imitate with an
exaggerated vibrato. I stop them cold and show what my voice would sound
like if I do what they are doing. They get that right away too. I
demonstrate with my regular voice, but generally sing lightly. I hear
people all the time who demonstrate for children with the voice they think
the children should have--straight tone, thin sound, little breath
connection. The children get that right away too, and try to create that
sound in their voice. It is then that we get children who all sound the
same. There are too many children's choirs like this, IMHO.
Founding Director, Encore Children's Chorus
(Note: there's already been a compilation of "Children and Diction" responses
broadcast on Choralist, as well as an additional response. We received one further
response that belongs to the earlier complilation, so it appears below.
I'm sorry I didn't have time to respond earlier, but here are my
contributions to the thread.
When most people speak about "diction," I believe they are referring only to
the consonants, but there are two components to diction, the consonants and
the vowels. David Schildkret made some excellent comments and
suggestions, but they focus more on the vowels. I'll comment on his ideas
Even though many of the ideas will apply to church and community choirs as
well, the original scope of this thread was "children and diction," so my
first comments will focus on that.
I would talk to the children first about some of the differences between
choirs and soloists and rock, country and/or jazz bands. Pop, jazz and
country music styles don't require good diction, and in fact can hinder it.
One might play examples of choirs with excellent diction, examples of
choirs with poor diction, and examples of singers or groups in the other
styles/genres where vowels are distorted and words unintelligible. Learning
is always more powerful when people can hear and learn for themselves, so
let them hear how important energized, clear diction is. Stress the idea of
communication of the texts.
Often, in trying to get better diction from children, directors will say
"sing louder." This is bad, as it can lead to the children pushing, forcing
and/or straining their voices, and using chest, rather than head voice.
It's much better to say sing with more energy and crisper consonants and
purer vowels. Then the laws of acoustics take over and carry the sound. A
pushed or forced sound doesn't carry anyway.
Tell the children that pure vowels sound better, carry farther, and get a
better blend. Develop and train their head voices as part of this work.
Pure vowels will help in this effort.
Have them speak the vowels correctly, then have them sing the vowels
correctly. Point out the differences between regional accents and the ideal
vowel sounds you're going for. Have them speak it normally (perhaps even
slightly exaggerated) and then correctly, and BOTH listen to the difference
and feel the difference in their mouths and throats. Make liberal use of a
tape recorder. Play examples of children's choirs singing with good, pure
Children are less inhibited than most adults, and will try many things and
won't think of them as being weird or silly, or feel embarassed about doing
them as adults will. In fact, unless you tell them that something is hard
or "different" they won't think it is. Stress from the very beginning how
important it is to energize their consonants and to articulate clearly.
Games, word play, and tongue twisters are the best (and most fun!) ways to
develop good diction habits. Posters can be helpful reminders of this. One
of my voice teachers and I developed a set of drills for various consonants
(the lion's share of the credit goes to her) that one can use to help train
the articulators and develop better diction. When done correctly, many of
these also help free tensions in the jaw and tongue and engage the support
muscles correctly. If anyone is interested in receiving one of these lists,
please contact me, and I'll be happy to send it to you.
As the children begin to master these, one can mix in vocalises with
consonants as well as vowels. Remember that voiced consonants like "l,"
"m," "n," "v," "z," and rolled "r" have pitch and help keep the voice
forward and brighter. Consonants such as "b," "ch," "d," "j," "k," "p,"
"s," "sh," "t," "th," "v", "z," "zh" help engage the abdomen and breath
support musculature when done correctly.
Now on to David's comments.
>2. there was only one vowel to deal with.
This is one of the most important things about using vocalises...that is,
they allow the singers to focus on only one concept or idea at a time. When
singers are working on a song, there's rhythm, intervals, vowels and
consonants, tempi, dynanics, text and phrase stresses to deal with. That
can be overwhelming and can be simply too much thrown at them at one time.
Using vocalises simplifies things and allows them to focus on only one
thing at a time.
>1. Sing the piece on the VOWELS only, omitting the consonants and
>connecting the vowels. You might go from loo to the vowels of the text,
>insisting on good, consistently-held vowels (I often ask singers to REPEAT
>the vowel). Commonly, singers don't use a well-formed vowel and/or they
>allow the vowel to drift away. This exercise will help that.
After concentrated work on vocalises and obtaining the pure vowels one is
after, this is an excellent way to start incorporating vowels into the
literature you're working on. One can also write one's own vocalises based
on literature one is singing or taking phrases from the literature itself.
The last sentence in the above paragraph is especially vital. Many singers
lose focus or get lazy and vowel sounds don't stay consistent as they are
sustained or repeated. Again, vocalises are perhaps the best way to teach
this, but it can also be done through literature. Phrases from polychoral
works or from Handel choruses or solos where one vowel is sung over many
notes is an excellent way to teach this. It is a "process" of training
their ears, of developing a certain kind or level of listening skill, of
training their muscle memory, and developing the discipline and good vocal
habits necessary. Vocalises can be done both legato and staccato, scalewise
or arpeggiated to keep things varied and interesting. The keys are keeping
the placement high, forward, and identical from vowel to vowel. Many people
work on vowels, and some work on placement, but this is often done
independently. To get the best tone and diction, vowels need to be matched
to each other while maintaining the same placement.
>2. Chant the text in rhythm on a single pitch. [snip] Consonants are
dropped into >the continuous flow of the vowels,they do not disrupt this
flow (in other words,
>the sound shouldn't stop and start).
This is an excellent idea, but some consonants WILL stop the flow. It is
unavoidable, so it will depend if one is focusing primarily on pure vowels
or crisp consonants as to the effectiveness of this method.
Proper text stress is important in good diction as well. One of the things
I learned from Dr. Richard Westenberg of Musica Sacra is that text can be
obscured by choirs singing every beat with the same stress and every
syllable with the same stress or accenting unaccented syllables. A great
rule of thumb that I picked up last year at a music conference from Dr.
Roger (?) Vick of Furman (sorry, I've suddenly gone blank on his first name)
is to teach one's choirs that "no two notes get the same stress." In some
pieces, there should be a regular stress on the downbeat, but in others,
there may be a key word in the musical phrase that should be aimed for, with
the rest building up to or falling away from that stress. Thus, one is also
teaching one's children to sing musically and make phrases, and have a
firmer feel or understanding of rhythm and phrasing.
>Oren Brown, in Discover Your Voice, rightly points out that choral
>conductors frequently expect to hear the final result too soon, before
>everything about a piece is properly established in the voice. Careful,
>deliberate teaching will help prevent problems later. Breathiness may be
>partly due to uncertainty.
I think this is correct. There's no real mystery to developing good
diction, pure vowels, or good tone. It just takes repeated work,
consistency, focused drilling, and demanding nothing short of their best.
I hope this helps.
Craig D. Collins
Director of Music Ministry
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church
19600 Zion Street
Cornelius, NC 28031