Make Diction Understandable—and Entertaining!

Singer’s Diction: A Tailored Approach for Modern Times – Part 4

Use of Multimedia for Illustration/Humor
Diction is usually considered a dull subject, usually focusing on the correct understanding of rules, rather than the practical application of those rules to improve understanding and interpretation. There are a lot of wrong way/right way examples from YouTube and other video platforms which I utilize, but I always stress that these are not meant to shame, but rather to illustrate that correct pronunciation is key. Some examples include:

 The Mari Lyn video of “Una voce poco fa” with subtitles (
 The “German Language Compared to other Languages” videos
 The “Ken Lee Turkish Idol” video (
 “My name is John Daker” with subtitles (
 “Rhabarberbarbara”—great for German compound words (
 “For Scent-imental Reasons,” a Looney Tunes Pepé Le Pew cartoon with made-up French. Through this, my students learn the other definition of avec!

Again, these examples are chosen to entertain and to illustrate common issues we deal with when approaching various languages for the first time. Of course, I will always use tried and true examples of quality singers (Fischer-Dieskau, Quasthoff, Pavarotti, Freni, Flagstad, Bernac, Souzay, etc.), with a discussion on what the student hears (and occasionally sees) a singer doing. I also throw in some occasional wild card considerations:

 Is a singer native or non-native? What does the student perceive to make that choice? What reasons can they give?
 Native singers breaking the rules (ex. Pavarotti with open/closed [e/ɛ]).
 Variants of accepted diction (Français soit/Français coeur, Weinerisch, etc.).

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Basic Understanding of Common Grammar in Each Language/Common Words

There is a major difference between understanding and properly pronouncing a language, and fluency in that language. As singers, it is obviously beneficial to take language courses. In some schools, voice majors are required take at least a year of each of the three major languages (Italian, French, and German). Fluency is not achieved after only a year, although a student can gravitate to one language over the others for further study.

There is, however, no reason why basic grammar cannot be taught within a diction class. Due to the internet, it is possible for a singer to have a career without ever opening a foreign language dictionary or needing to look through the Nico Castel books for a translation. Again, acknowledging that we are working with a tool for current and future use, it is important that we give students as many tools as possible for their success.

I believe it is important to teach basic grammar in diction for the student to:

 Locate the verb in a sentence and know whether it is in a form (as compared to the infinitive).
 Understand how accent markings change the meaning of a small word.
 Recognize common forms to signify between singular and plural.
 Understand common sentence structure in each language to help with interpretation and diction variances.
 Understand the poetic flow of each language, and when it does not apply.

In my class, each student has a goal to develop a lexicon of 10-15 words commonly found in classical art song in each language. They must understand the meaning of each word and be able to pronounce it correctly. The words are their choice, and I check at the end of the course to see if they are correct in meaning and IPA.

Presentations in Each Language
Toward the end of the course, students are required to sing/recite in each language in class. After each piece is performed, any pronunciation issues are discussed and students are encouraged to comment but must keep their comments positive and to the point. This is also helpful for education majors—the ability to give criticism in a positive and helpful manner will be important in their careers.

This can, however, also be a tricky situation, especially if you are also a voice teacher on the faculty and a student is following a different pronunciation structure given to them by their teacher. It is important before teaching these courses to ensure that the other members of the
voice area are aware of your teaching style to avoid confusion. The students’ teachers are always welcome to view the class presentations.

My preference for students is that they write the IPA into their music. It’s not required to transcribe the entire piece, but trouble words can benefit from some transcription. I have found that the most common error is not adhering to the rules for specific sounds or words throughout a
piece. Remember, you are concentrating on the diction, not the musicianship. It is preferable that the piece be well-polished, but we are working on one aspect of the whole, and focus should be on that element.

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.