English: The Three-Headed Monster, Part 2

Contemporary/American (C/A)

This style deals with the modern American pronunciation of words, which is more nasal and run together than TA. The [æ] is more prevalent, the hard r [R] is used, many vowels are neutralized (ex. [i] becomes [I]), and the schwa becomes prominent. Remember, we are looking for clarity, especially in a native language, and steps need to be taken to understand what must be done to allow the text to be lyrical and still common in its declamation.

The main reason we need to deal with C/A is that this is the prevalent style of American musical theatre, which many of our students will be performing during their careers. This also covers singing standards, defined as musical theatre, classical, jazz, folk, and pop songs that have achieved enough fame and popularity on their own that they exist as stand-alone pieces, not needing to be connected to any other song and/or plot device. It is true that many of these songs require a characterization, usually achieved by an accent or affectation, but the core style will be C/A.

The text has been devised by observation and experience with these genres, and students study the use of both styles. I will occasionally have them recite or sing a modern piece using TA English as a humorous illustration of the difference between the two.

Received Pronunciation (RP)
Finally, we finish with Received Pronunciation (RP) and the topsy-turvy world of Gilbert and Sullivan. Gilbert and Sullivan is widely performed in colleges and universities, and it has been proven popular at opera houses. There are several Gilbert and Sullivan societies around the
country where many singers have found their calling. RP can be thought of as an exaggerated version of TA, but the complexities of RP, especially spoken, require a deft hand and a keen eye. When done incorrectly, it not only comes across as “off,” but it does not reinforce the rapier wit
of Gilbert.

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In RP, one can find the broad [ɑ] from TA as well as the brighter [a] and [æ] from C/A, dependent on the word. For example, trap is pronounced with an [æ], whereas bath uses [ɑ]. The [r], which is diminished in TA, can disappear in RP. The “Daniel Sitteth” rule can be overexaggerated, as in the word duty (famously used in The Pirates of Penzance). Final [y] can change to [I]. Internal syllables can disappear when found in multi-syllabic words where the open vowel is repeated, difficulty can be pronounced [‘dIf k^l tI]. Also, the amount of RP used is dependent on social class, which is a major plot point in Gilbert’s writing. So, an understanding of the characters is also important.

Online text for understanding RP is quite dense, so I have tried to simplify the rules by asking questions of singers I know who make their living in Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as of coaches who are familiar with its complexities. There are a few students who are completely stumped with this style, as there always are when dealing with diction. Most students, however, find the somewhat dated comedy quite amusing. The performance aspect of this module also includes class participation in dialogue, which has proven to be quite enjoyable.

It can be argued that dialects such as cockney, American southern, Appalachian, American west, etc. need to be taught, as well as the  gospel/spiritual style. These pieces need to be addressed individually, since diversity-related considerations are often involved. It is better for a student to talk to their teacher and/or coach as to how to correctly and effectively find the proper style for these pieces.

Teaching diction can be regarded as a burden. Believe me when I say that it is often the same opinion of the students required to take it. But it does not need to be, in either case.

Finding the best textbooks that suits your needs, being willing to divert from them when required, and supplementing your teaching with an ever-expanding array of materials available from the internet can make the experience a rewarding one. Always keep in mind that we, as educators, are giving our students a tool that will greatly assist them in their careers, whether in education or performance. My methodology here has been developed over time and is continually evolving, which is how we should always look at our teaching practices.

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/