Diction for Today’s Singer

Part 1 in a Diction Series of 6

Every collegiate voice major in the United States sooner or later will have to take diction—the class that teaches how to sing effectively in other languages besides English (although occasionally that is taught as well), using strange symbols and following rules that can be confusing and contradictory. There are some wonderful textbooks and programs available to help teachers and students alike learn diction, but no one really talks about how to present the materials in the classroom. This article (presented in six parts) will hopefully illustrate some of the pitfalls and inherent difficulties in teaching diction and offer some practical strategies on how to succeed in teaching and learning diction.

Please remember that this is an approach that I have found to work, after several years of trial and error. As the old car ads used to say, “Your mileage may vary.” It is also an approach that I continuously tweak as I receive feedback from students who have taken my courses.

Voice instructors are required to teach diction in individual and class lessons in order to assist students with clarity of text and development of their interpretative skills. Yet most teachers either do not have the time to teach the intricacies of diction, or do not have enough knowledge in all the languages, thus the need for diction as a course in college/university settings. This course is usually taught at the freshman/sophomore level and is required for performance majors. At the University of Missouri in Columbia, where I teach, the prerequisite is sophomore standing. It is also required for music education majors (choral-specific), since these future educators will be working with diction in choral and individual lesson capacities.

Part I: So Why Is Diction So Hard to Understand and Teach?
Diction can be confusing. Not only are you being required to make sounds that are foreign to you, but it is also a lyric endeavor. Sounds are held out for long periods of time (aka rhythmic meter), which makes them sound silly or bombastic if spoken in that way (think of Jon Lovitz’s Master Thespian character on Saturday Night Live as an example).

Making diction even more confusing are the rules—and the possible exceptions to those rules. For example, we tend to think that French is the hardest language to get diction-wise, but most of the rules have been codified. Learn and understand the rules, and it becomes easier to understand. Italian, on the other hand, has several rules that change depending on which region the teacher/author is from, or where they studied. Therefore, the rules (and the exceptions to the rules), vary from teacher to teacher (and textbook to textbook).

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Diction is usually explained by individual instructors as particular sounds to make while learning art songs, yet detailed instruction using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) can cause even the most talented singers to suffer.

Some instruction methods require the students to be able to use IPA by memory, but in the real world, singers and instructors acknowledge that IPA is an accessibility tool. Since the repertoire changes, there will always be the need to use diction books as references.

In teaching IPA, some textbooks concentrate on the basic rules. Any exceptions to those rules are explained in the text and are glossed over by most students. During open book exams, I have watched students only refer to the glossary of basic rules in the book, while continuing to
overlook the exceptions.

The social media lifestyle of today’s students (YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) is not embraced by most diction courses. Some do have connections to websites, but the examples are sometimes confusing and fail to catch the attention of the students.

In many academic settings, English (in the three major styles that I will discuss later) is not covered in diction courses. The general opinion is that if you can speak it, you can sing it, which is often proven to be incorrect. Most diction courses concentrate on IPA and pronunciation only, and do not delve into basic grammatical rules (syntax, gender, singular/plural, conjugation, infinitives, common words, etc.). A simple understanding of these rules helps immensely with the understanding of text, makes translation (and pronunciation) easier, and is extremely beneficial in interpretation.

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. http://www.stevenbjepsonbaritone.com/