DICTION: : Making Your Words Count

Words alone never guarantee understanding. The way we say a word is our way of personalizing sound. If singing is an expansion of speaking and is fundamentally an act of communication of thoughts and emotions, then mastery of verbal and language skills is a fundamental undertaking.

Diction classes teach us to rely on the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). They give us formulas for how to hold the mouth to obtain a certain sound. They teach the sounds of conversation and spoken language–sounds that are woefully inadequate for a grand and eloquent vocal tone. I have had students try to sing a song for me with the actual words blacked out and replaced with phonetic symbols! But diction is far more than technical formation of shapes. It is pronunciation, enunciation; it is presentation of words in such a way that the ideas they represent can be readily understood by the listener.

Vowels should always be in motion, progressing through the arch of the forward phrase line, and finding their sound from an instinctive knowing on the part of the singer, who has diligently listened and tried over and over to reproduce the sound that he has heard rather than what is on the page in the diction book. Hear it and then learn to say it.

The consonant has a hard time, because there are a lot of negative perceptions about consonants in singing. The condsonant has two very simple and important jobs: The voiced consonant forms a tonal bridge between vowels to keep the vocal line moving. The unvoiced consonant propels tone and gives momentary relief from the relentlessness of sound; and it provides rhythmic impulse and variety to the word phrase.

What do we need to know about a word in order to sing it? First of all we should know how to pronounce it correctly. We are mostly taught diction in the university by non-singers, who learn to speak a language, but who have no understanding of what Rose Bampton used to call “tasting the word.” Words have shape, texture, color. If I know what a word sounds like from having heard it, from having experienced it over and over as a living and vital entity, and if I can confidently relate to the aesthetics of its sound, then I am at liberty to speak that sound without the external formation that we are taught.

I am constantly trying to reassure my students that language is not frightening; it is not an obstacle to their work; it is not a threat that they must overcome. It is the most natural process in the world. And it is not difficult-–not even French, which everyone seems to get so worried about. The beauty and utility of any language is found in its fluency and freedom of motion. If anyone tries to get you to produce the sounds of a language by mechanical means or unnatural contortions of the mouth–run the other way. It will ruin your singing!

I was listening to a recording of the great Dutch soprano, Elly Ameling, and trying to figure out what made her performances so immediate. I was suddenly aware that when she was singing, she was not absorbed with the making of tone or with the sound of her own voice. She was speaking to me through music. She was using words and musical sounds to communicate the specific thoughts and emotions of the song. When I realized that, I began a very different journey as a performer. The song’s genesis is the poem, and everything that the music does is done to serve the poetic word and thought.Art song composers are, by far, the most literate people I know. They read constantly in a search for the poem that will inspire their music. They labor over how to serve this text properly. How then could I be so brash as to sing these masterpieces of ideas and aesthetic choice and arrangement of words with only a thought of the tone that I was producing? There is nothing so boring as a recital by a singer who is not informed by or inspired by the poem. And there is nothing so compelling as the sounds that come out of the singer who gives over to the grand and rapturous ideas of the poetic concept of communication.

The step from poetry to music is hardly a move at all. Poetry is music. The beauty and extravagance of words and sounds found in poetry are the same as in music. Music is just a step farther, more extreme, even more magical. If the singer can find the place where the two aspects, poem and music converge, then he will have understood the entity of the songs. If a singer cannot understand the words he is singing, and if he cannot pronounce and perform the words through an innate understanding of their sounds, then he will always be one of those singers who make tone, but who has nothing to say.

Glenda Maurice places great emphasis on helping younger singers find their unique artistic instincts. At the University of Minnesota, where she is a Professor of Voice, she teaches a course called “Text and Language, a Singer’s Tools for Interpretation.” Ms. Maurice is co-founder and director of The Institute for Art Song Recital Performance.

Cynthia Vaughn

Contributing Editor Cynthia Vaughn has had successful private voice studios in Newark, California; Hanover Park, Illinois; Middletown, New York; Arvada, Colorado; and Springboro, Ohio. She is currently a doctoral candidate and Teaching Assistant at the University of Northern Colorado.