Coaching singers

Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to do French language coaching work with pro and amateur singers (including Sophie Bevan, David Webb and James Bingham). It’s made me think more about the kind of training singers get for performing in other languages. Many complain of insufficient language coaching at music colleges – either because the sessions are too short & infrequent, or because they just focus on the sounds and rarely on how pronunciation decisions affect interpretation.

Increasingly, as I work with singers now, I focus just as much on possible ways of reading the poem as I do on techniques of pronouncing French when sung. Key issues include:

1) what to do with a mute ‘e’ (how much weight to give it, voiced or unvoiced). Different composers have different ways if notating mute ‘e’s in French, and some deliberately vary notation depending on how much they want it to be sounded (Michel Gribenski’s exhaustive research into each of Debussy’s different modes of notating the mute ‘e’, as published in Cahiers Debussy, shows quite how much thought needs to go into this). Working recently on Britten’s Illuminations settings of Rimbaud has been interesting here too, observing what a non-native French speaker opts to do with the mute ‘e’ & the challenges this throws up, especially in the context of prose poetry. Should it be “Ce sont des vill-es”, with equally weighted syllables for “vill-” and “-es”, or should the mute ‘e’ be tucked in with the ‘l’ consonant? Interestingly, Britten notates it differently on different appearances of the word… I’ve been advising singers to exploit the context of the word to help them make their decision, as well as suggesting they think about how it will sound in performance – a lack of clear ‘l’, without a strong mute ‘e’ would turn it into a different word “vie” vs. “ville”, eg. It’s an interpretative and technical decision.

2) what to do with ‘s’ at end of a word (whether to elide or not, whether it is silent or not, what this might do to a rhyme). This is not just a right/wrong technical issue, although some words confusingly require an ‘s’ where others don’t (“lys” vs. “lis”, eg). Sometimes the decision comes down to a technical decision on phrasing- do you need the ‘s’ to help you launch into the next word / phrase, or do you need to take a breath? Each time I work with singers, we try out different options to see what works best in performance.

3) what to do with words that start with ‘h’ (whether or not to elide). Unless you are a native French speaker, this is one of the trickiest ones to get right- “un hiboux” is aspirated (not elided) whereas “une haleine” is. The issue in sung performance is that the aspirated ‘h’ creates a hiatus which stops the sound, and can make it difficult for singers to get the words out technically. This issue is far less of an interpretative decision than the mute ‘e’ or final ‘s’ but I still spend time with singers looking at this so that they are aware of what to look out for.

4) distinguishing vowel sounds, particularly nasal sounds. This is one if the hardest issues for non-native speakers, and is even more marked in sung performance. I often work with singers to get them to understand the clear difference between ‘e’, ‘è’, and ‘é’ in particular, but one of the areas I spend the most time working in is the changing brightness between ‘-an’, ‘-en’, and ‘-on’, such as in words like “dans”, “enfant”, “mensonge”, “mon”. Typically I ask singers to over-exaggerate the distinction on rehearsal to work on the clarity when it is worked up into full performance, making sure that words don’t inadvertently change their meaning via an imprecise vowel sound. Lots of singers I’ve worked with use IPA to help them here; I prefer to pick out common French words that they frequently come across in singing and to focus on getting these clear. One of my techniques for not losing a vowel sound is often to suggest “missing out” the pronunciation of an ‘n’ or ‘m’ which signal a more nasal sound, especially in a singer’s higher register, as the consonant can often distort the vowel sound (I often use the first line of Verlaine’s “C’est l’extase langoureuse” to illustrate this to singers).

What I’ve been discovering the more I work with singers on these issues is how spending time discussing the character of a piece can transform the way a singer will need to / choose to pronounce a particular word. If we start thinking of Britten’s Rimbaud settings in Illuminations as depicting clowns, pantomime kings & queens, drag artists, or circus ringmasters it changes our attitude to the text – singers tend to be less reverential, and can take more (justified, considered) liberties in pronunciation. This fits with the nature if Britten’s music in this instance, but it isn’t, of course, the only way of reading or performing those texts or settings (informing my reading of Rimbaud’s Illuminations via research into pictorial translations by Clive Scott has helped me advise singers too).

One of the things I love about coaching singers is that I can help them free up their performances by building confidence with their interpretations of the poetic texts, often providing them with other examples of poems by the same poet which have not been set to music (& so something singers are less likely to know), or offering different translations to read (more creative, less word-for-word translations) in order to help them legitimise their approach. I always so look forward to coaching different singers as I, too, learn so much about the poems and the music as we go along (especially if we’re able to work with an accompanist too).

And something that helps me with this French language coaching work is when I work the songs up myself to sing. I don’t always manage to do this, but I find it makes a huge difference (& watch this space for an exciting open masterclass with me & Sophie Bevan working on Les Nuits d’été later in the year…). I also benefit from being on the receiving end of language coaching when I find myself being asked to perform in a language that is not one of the ones I speak (most recently being coached by my colleague Ludek Knittl on Czech for a performance of Janacek’s Diary of one who disappeared with Stewart Campbell and Jonathan Gooing on 28 June as part of the A Boy Was Born Britten festival). It helps me to consider how at a loss some singers can feel when dealing with a text that is so foreign – not just because of its language, but also because of its context and how this can colour different possible meanings and interpretations.

I’d love to hear thoughts, reactions, experiences from others about experiences of language coaching for singers, either in the comments section or via Twitter @HelenAbbott1 #languagecoaching

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4 responses to “Coaching singers

  1. Nicholas Armour

    I shall try and ensure that my Emily sees this, as she sings in both French and Czech. I do hope that you are finding Christopher Underwood (Royal Scottish Academy) a useful ally on all this. He is heavily into listening to the poetry before singing it.

    • Thanks Nicholas- I wonder if Emily has ever done the Janacek I’m doing in a fortnight- fabulous piece. And yes, have exchanged emails with Christopher Underwood. I actually don’t often ask singers to read the whole poem out loud before singing it, but do it in snippets which we then work on. I guess it’s more of a micro-view in the coaching stages, and then as it approaches performance, and singers are engaged with their interpretation, it’s worth reading the poem separately (as I have also done / seen done in performance too- notably the soprano Magali Arnault Stanczak in a recital of Debussy song). Of course knowing a poem set to a particular (rhythmical) interpretation can make it hard to read any other way! Interesting thoughts, thanks!

  2. Helen – I have a French diction for singers question. Our school choir will be singing a French song this holiday season. Is the “ent” at the end of a 3rd person plural verb pronounced? I, the French teacher, say no the “ent” is not pronounced except for in a liaison. The Choir teacher says yes it pronounced when singing in a classical way. What is your take on it? Thanks

    • Yes, in sung French most mute e sounds are pronounced as a separate syllable – including 3rd person plural verb endings such as “-ent”. There is a difference between normal spoken French (mute e maintained as silent), spoken French verse poetry (mute e silent when followed by a vowel, but pronounced when followed by consonant, but always silent at the end of a verse line), and sung French -both popular and classical song – (mute e pronounced when followed by consonant and at end of a line/verse). The reasons why these differences in pronunciation styles exist is not clear but it has a long history and relates usually to clarity of diction for the purposes of conveying clear text to the listener. I hope that helps!

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