Singer’s Diction: Course Set-Up

A Tailored Approach for Modern Times: Part 3

The University of Missouri in Columbia directs that Italian and French diction are taught in the fall semester, and German diction in the spring. For the Italian and French diction courses,I feel that each language needs to be taught separately (rather than concurrently), so they are taught in half-semesters (eight weeks each), beginning with the Italian. German diction begins the spring semester. English diction is an elective and not a required course, but many students have stayed on and registered for the course, which is taught in the second half of the spring.

The week is divided into two 50-minute classes: Tuesday focuses on IPA/transcription, Thursday on lyric readings.

Concentration on IPA/Transcription—Tuesdays
Rules for IPA are explained the day they are introduced, with students repeating the words with the specific IPA symbol. I also utilize “Board Work,” the S.T.M. classwork section utilized for each student to write out IPA transcriptions on the black/white board. If time permits, additional examples from the individual language books are given to students to transcribe. The goal is understanding the rules and concepts, not memorization.

IPA Homework Assignments—Every Tuesday (Italian/French/German)
Assignments are from the S.T.M. transcription book. Each student is given a number at the beginning of class, and homework assignments are numbered in the S.T.M. book. Students have words to transcribe. Assignments are expected to be submitted by 8:00 p.m. on the same day via email or the learning management system utilized by the university. Many students use CamScanner to easily copy their work from paper to their smartphones and then can upload legible PDF copies.

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The assignments are then graded and include explanations of the rules with which they are having difficulties, and then returned to the students that evening. Students are then able to come to Thursday’s class with a graded assignment, and they can readily ask questions. If common issues appear in multiple assignments, I go over those in a review on Thursday. This is extra work for an instructor, but I find it useful for the students to have a day available between classes to personally contact me with questions, and this has proved beneficial to their learning.

Concentration on Pronunciation/Lyric Connection—Thursdays
The most important part of any diction course is to have the student correctly and clearly pronounce the words/syllables/phonemes. The S.T.M. phonetic readings book contains word groupings, phrases, and full texts to assist in student recitation. Other phrases/texts from standard
art song repertoire can also be used for pronunciation exercises.

In keeping with the idea that we are giving a tool to students, it is not necessary for students to prove that they can transcribe IPA by memory. So, in my class, transcription sections of quizzes and exams are open book—students can use their notes and textbooks/handouts. One would think that this would guarantee perfect transcription, but that is not the case. Students tend to make the same mistakes that they have made throughout the semester.

This open book aspect helps me to evaluate how students use the materials available to them. I have used other textbooks, only to see students continually use sections with only bare-bones information, never delving into the meat of the book. The S.T.M. textbooks are well laid out. Students do not have to search to find exceptions to rules, which can cause incorrect answers or lack of understanding. Therefore, we must see how our students learn—information is only beneficial if it is delivered well and utilized.

My quizzes and exams do have a closed-book portion, though. There are several absolutes that students must know by memory, and I set five to ten questions in various answer formats (true/false, multiple answer, short essay).

Steven B. Jepson

Steven B. Jepson, baritone, is a respected international artist with expansive credits in the Americas, Europe, and Japan. His performing experience is rich and varied, from Broadway pops, cruise ship production shows, and cabaret to opera, sacred works, and symphonies. In demand as a teacher and clinician, he teaches voice and diction at the University of Missouri in Columbia.