Surviving Diction Class

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 effectively present the materials in the classroom. Students hopefully understand most of the concepts upon course completion. Many feel the class was a gruesome undertaking, however, and end up hating a language due to inadequate comprehension of the rules (hint: it’s usually French). 

This article will hopefully illustrate some of the pitfalls and inherent difficulties in learning diction and offer some practical strategies on how to succeed. A companion article in a six-part series found online at www.csmusic.net is focused on how teachers can successfully teach diction. Please remember that this is a teaching approach that I have found to work after several years of trial and error. It is also an approach that I continuously tweak as I receive feedback from students who have taken my courses. As the old car ads used to say, “Your mileage may vary.” 

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 the majority of teachers either do not have the time for the intricacies of diction (like teaching the International Phonetic Alphabet [IPA] in individual lessons) or do not have sufficient 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. 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. 

 

Why is diction so difficult
to learn? 

There are many stumbling blocks in learning diction. The following answers address several common diction questions. 

 

What do I pronounce and what don’t I pronounce? 

Rules for languages and the possible exceptions to those rules make diction confusing. For example, we tend to think that French is the hardest language to get diction-wise, but most of the rules in French have been codified. Learn and understand the rules, and it becomes easier to comprehend. Italian, on the other hand, has several rules that vary depending on both the teacher’s and the book author’s origin and training. Therefore, the rules and the exceptions to the rules vary from teacher to teacher and textbook to textbook. 

How does IPA help, and why do I need to memorize it? 

IPA was developed to find common ground in pronunciation by assigning symbols to sounds in languages studied—usually Italian, French, and German. Think of IPA as a written version of Star Trek’s universal translator, but for sounds. IPA is an accessibility tool for singers, to help with difficult words always found in art song and opera. As for memorization of IPA, a singer should grasp common practices and rules and then go to a book or online resources to find the exceptions. 


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Why doesn’t [insert artist’s name here] follow the rules even in their native language? 

Understand that the way we speak a language can be different than how we sing it. For example, sung French (français-chanté) is drastically different than spoken French (français-parlé). A native singer can use their mastery of the language for better interpretation. Also, sometimes particular vowels can sound more open or closed than expected due to pitch, rhythmic length, and word stress, among other factors. 

 

Isn’t all English the same? 

No, it’s not all the same! For example, look up the song “Reunited” by Peaches & Herb and imagine singing it the same way you would sing something out of Handel’s Messiah. I have broken down English into three distinct lyric styles based on text, time period, and historical perspective: 

Transatlantic: used in English up to the period between the two world wars

Contemporary American: found in modern art song/opera, musicals, and standards 

Received pronunciation: sung and spoken in the oeuvre of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas

They are different enough to be selectively studied for proper elocution. For more detail, see “English: The Three-Headed Monster” in my companion online article at www.csmusic.net. 

What’s syntax? 

Simply put, the sentence structure for various languages does not always follow English. For example, the verb can be at the end of a long phrase. This comes into play in memorization—you translate the piece, but the words don’t match. The rhythmic flow of the phrase, the poetic foot, suffers and it’s harder to memorize. 

 

Tips/Tricks to Help Get through Diction 

When learning a new language, the keys are immersion and repetition—the more you use and speak it, the easier it is to retain. The same goes with diction. You are hopefully applying the rules/IPA being learned to assigned music, so that should help solidify comprehension. But if you don’t use the concepts as soon as you can after they’re presented in class, you will most likely fall back into the patterns of your native language, and the newly learned concepts won’t make sense. 

There are hard-and-fast rules of diction in every language. Once you discover the patterns, they are easier to recognize. And a smart way to be more familiar with this is to do assignments as soon as possible so they are more in your head and easier to bring back. Also, you’re guaranteed that your assignment is completed. 

Remember that the exceptions to rules are just as important as the rules themselves. The three major languages we utilize in classical musical literature have evolved through the centuries, resulting in the streamlining and codifying of standard pronunciation rules for most words, but not all. The reason X does not follow the same rule as Y may not be easily explained by a teacher. And Italian, considered by many as the easiest language to sing, has regional differences that are still argued to this day: when [e] and [o] are opened or closed is the most common issue. So, depending on the education of your teacher or diction instructor, you may get differing opinions. 

In terms of syntax, ask your instructor about the sentence structure of the language. Find out specifically where the verbs are. For example, the verb cantare (to sing) in Italian can be found in its infinitive in two ways—with or without the final [e]. Verbs are action words, and the poetic flow/foot of the phrase usually moves toward the action. Knowing this can help with your memorization and interpretation. 

Think about keeping a lexicon of 10–15 words that you know the meaning and pronunciation of in each language. Find ones that are common. (I had a student use “lava” in Italian—how often does that occur?) When you’re working a new piece, those words will appear as friends you already know. Again, this will help with pronunciation, memorization, and interpretation. 

 

These are a few tricks that should help you not only survive diction but also more fully understand it. Please check out my companion article online, where I discuss how teachers can apply these concepts to help students with comprehension and where I go into more detail on English diction. Hopefully, these tools will help you appreciate the nuances of language, increase your interpretation and enjoyment of lyric musical literature, and assist in your development as a thoughtful singer. 

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/