Diction is the one element that will make or break a “good choral sound”.
Singing in English is a minefield for the American choral director. The way we speak American English is not, in most ways, the way we sing in English. The primary reason is that for the performance of “standard choral literature”, the gold standard for the choral tone is the raised soft palate which produces a free and beautiful sound. Over 70% of spoken American English contains the sound of the schwa(for IPA symbol please refer to the downloadable version of this document), the “uh” sound. Most often it is found alone in words like of, the, a, was, what, from, one, sun, love, and many more. Sometimes it occurs in diphthongs, which are particularly troublesome for the choral director as singers often move too soon to the closed/unaccented sound. The goal of great choral singing in any language is long, open vowels followed by quick, crisp consonants. The use of the unaccented schwa(see downloadable document for symbol)is a sound that is used in singing, but only at the conclusion of sound.
The sound of the schwa as an accented sound tends to lower the soft palate for a most unpleasant sound. This one change in choral singing is an accepted practice in pop, jazz, country, contemporary musical theatre,some church choral music and studio choral music. Over the past few years this sound has found its way into choral singing because of the way our language has changed and how we speak in our country. Students will let this sound migrate into the choral sound if it is not dealt with consistently. Discuss with your choir the kind of choral tone expected by LGPE judges, and strive for that sound when singing classic choral music.
How do you keep the soft palate high when singing the “uh” sounds? You must search the problem vowels out first. Then start with “ah”. If “ah” is too open for your tastes, then change/modify the vowel slightly, but not so much that eh singer cannot maintain the raised soft palate. Vowel modification will change depending on the voice and range.
Using the raised soft palate on the “uh” sounds will transform you choral sound. When you take your choir to festival or a performance evaluation, more than likely, your judges will make their critique based on the traditional sound of bel canto(Beautiful tone/sound/voice.
Singing in the tradition of Western Europe is our primary heritage of most of the literature that we sing in the U.S. and is the starting point in teaching good choral sound. With this as a foundation, there will be not limit to your young singer’s ability to adjust and react to new sounds and stylistic changes in the voice. There have been many new styles that have emerged from other corners of our world and from the pop side of choral music over the past 100 or so years. One must give special attention when attempting to teach students to sing music produced vocally differently from that of the western tradition. In doing so, one must teach our singers how and why the sound is produced and, why it may or may not be different from the sound we normally ask from our singers. Care must be taken, as well, with the vocal health of our singers, as many may be wading in dangerous waters. Do no harm to these young voices.
Special attention to the use of consonants is just as important as vowel usage. The consonant is critical for understanding in all languages, but especially important for rhythmic, melodic and syllabic intensity and vitality. Energy in the musical line has a great deal to do with consonant use. The consonant helps in developing the ebb and flow of the rhythm, the melody, the harmony and the dynamic line. We in the South are especially lazy with our consonant production.
What is the value in teaching other languages in choral singing? It is important for us in America that we teach foreign languages(especially Latin and Italian) for developing good vocal technique. As students understand the physical posture and feeling of the open vowel in singing, they can more easily transfer the sound to other languages, including English, especially English. How many times have you found that a piece in Latin has been easier to bring to full bloom than a corresponding one in English?
There are other problems that arise in choral singing that contradict all this talk about the raised soft palate. Stylistic changes in music may require diction mutations that may or may not produce “good choral sound”. How do we deal with them? One may need to mutate the vowel to the point of lowering the soft palate and/or spreading the vowel to its widest position in performing some historical pieces, some ethnic pieces, or some contemporary pieces.
The best advice might be to stay clear of the choral music that requires a harsh, abrasive, bright sound made by lowering
the soft palate and/or spreading the vowel. The performance of these pieces might be best achieved by high school and
younger students using the basic vocal techniques of the traditional sound of bel canto.
Many of the things that we have introduce in this chapter are becoming more and more controversial. Let us hear from you on how you approach this subject as you teach in your choral classroom. What do you think?