Overcoming "Midwestern accent" - and other things
  • As our choir continues to improve, and now for the most part can sing good music in four parts with accuracy and musicality, I am continuing to try to improve the "little things."

    A couple big things that I'm looking for suggestions on:

    Rolled R's AND good diction. They won't do them. I can stop 100 times in a row until they do it - and they just won't do it. I've even addressed, almost ad nauseum, that "I know you feel silly; we don't ever speak this way. But we must SING this way." It's all to no avail. They just don't do it. I'm not sure if it's willful or what.

    Also - on the diction front - how do we over come that Midwestern accent? I struggle with the right approach - and indeed, SHOULD there be a difference in pronunciation when rendering say, Vaughan Williams' "O How Amiable" versus "Ave Verum Corpus?" Should the great British choirs be emulated, or are they simply singing with a British accent as much as we are?

    For now, I've got them singing "O how ah-miable are thy dwellings," and "my soul hahth a desire," with the vowel being the same as in "open your mouth and say ah" instead of the typical "eh" sound. Is this a good idea? Or am I just simply having them sing with a British accent, which is stupid?

    Any observations or advice from those of you with good Choral experience and credentials is much appreciated!
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,943
    "ah-miable" doesn't seem right in American English:

    a•mi•a•ble (ˈeɪ mɪ ə bəl)

    am•i•ca•ble (ˈæm ɪ kə bəl)

    Note: amiable and amicable are two different albeit nearly synonymous words.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,099
    Sometimes these things are to no avail: You can talk till you're blue in the face and nothing will change.

    The only aspect that comes to mind about American accents that bothers me is the letter R: I am in New England, and the Yankee Law of the Conservation of R's rears it ugly head frequently. While certain aspects of British English can be emulated (flipped R's, for example), the British speak British English because they are British, we are American, and so should generally use American English; 'Britishizing' an American can sound fake. I'd much rather hear someone sing properly using a natural American accent than someone using an affected British accent.
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  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I concentrate on the important syllables. AHHHmiable, besides being wrong and ugly, is too much work to put into an unaccented syllable. Also, concentrate on consonants more than vowels. I often find with my choirs that simply improving the production of one or two consonants in a phrase will do much to improve the vowels.

    I don't think American choirs should fake British accents. But that is a matter of some controversy.

    It sounds to me like you could benefit from a course in singers' diction. If there's one at your college open to you, I recommend it. I wish I had taken it in undergrad, but I was at least fortunate to have a private voice teacher who concentrated on diction in her lessons. If you have a voice teacher, maybe bring your questions to him?
  • matthewjmatthewj
    Posts: 2,678
    We are (most of us) ROMAN CATHOLICS... We should not try to emulate wonderful British choirs, but instead should strive for all of our choirs to sound like the ITALIAN CHOIRS. Loud booming tenors and generous vibrato pouring forth from our balconies like water over Niagara. Embrace our Romanity - add some angry vibrato.

    Kindly apply a healthy dollop of purple bold to the text above.
  • SalieriSalieri
    Posts: 3,099
    controversy

    Kindly place the accent on the second syllable.

    MJM: If only we could bring back the castrati - it hasn't been the same since. Oh, the good old days!
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Some of my choir has the accent of East Tennessee, while others who have been here all their lives do not. I don't get upset over the East TN accent, because it is genuinely an older and historical form of English. I mention the Rs repeatedly with varying degrees of success. I have quit worrying about it. The interesting thing is, that when they sing in Latin the accents nearly disappear. In English, they come back. When I can't win, I just play loudly. LOL.
  • Try a soft and repeated "uh d" sound to induce a flipped r.

    Between the caricature extremes of "kill em with copious breathiness" English choirs and "push down that pasta" Italian... ensembles... we have French, Dutch, German, Eastern European, etc., choral models to consider. I've heard fine work from many Japanese choirs, too. Catholicism is much bigger than England, though so many things British can be quite lovely.
  • We lack a strong accent in Southern California. However, many of us tend to make diphthongs when none are ordered (ex o>u, e>i) and our u vowel often has more than a hint of I/ee.
  • Interior Rs followed by a consonant don't exist. Just leave them out; the motion to the 2nd consonant will give you all the suggestion of R you need.

    Rolled R: Americans don't roll R; Italians do. But if you don't roll a little and get off, you'll vocalize on the R, with bad tone and rigidity. (I call this "pirate Latin" in my new group.) Latin you can roll quite a bit. My teacher has me singing scale segments to "trrra" and "drra" (switch up the vowels too); you can do the same with p and b initials as well. She claims that it helps tone too.

    One of the things that the late William Malm stressed in his intro to the music history sequence/ "ear cleaning" course at Michigan was that there is no such thing as natural singing. Every culture thinks they are singing "naturally", and they all sound drastically different. It's no more "natural" to sound like a pop diva or a deathcore vocalist than a church chorister; it's all artifice and convention, so they need to learn and can learn the conventions proper to that acoustic, repertoire, and doubling pattern (if there's anything "unnatural", it's ensemble singing).
  • What's so bad about a "Midwestern" accent ???? As a former Michigander it sounds ok to me..... Now my Michigan family thinks I have a Pittsburgh accent. It's all in the ear of the listener.
  • TCJ
    Posts: 832
    Midwestern accent: everything gets stuck in the back of the throat.

    Chi-caaaaaaaaaaaaaah-go
  • So here's a question:

    Take a really good professional choir, and sing three pieces: A piece by Vaughan Williams, a spiritual, and a piece by Byrd or Palestrina.

    How should the three sound different? Would the choir do anything different on any of the three in terms of pronunciation, vowels, etc?

    I'm not talking about things like historical pronunciation or tuning, I'm talking in terms of basic diction etc.
  • Far be it from me to fault English diction in singing most of our church music. But, I must say that the British do not pronounce amiable as 'ah-miable'. This would be rather artificial. You need to avail yourself of a collection of the English cathedral choir CD's and emulate their unimpeachable diction. This is often difficult to achieve with American choirs. Some pick it right up and consider it quite proper and a badge of honour. Others just don't seem to take to it and require insistent repetition until one hears what one wishes to hear. There is some early American choral music, though, in which one wouldn't want to utilise anything other than a studied American accent. It sometimes takes a lot of patience and loving explanation about beautiful vowel production. Don't be discouraged. Be patient, but insist on what you want.
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  • Since you grouped Byrd with Palestrina, I'm assuming you aren't talking about his English service music, so it's apples and oranges. But you WOULD throw the spiritual in there. What IS authentic diction in that repertoire??

    I once heard a concert by a Polish male early-music choir called the Rorantists, and as encores they did some spirituals. There is little funnier than Poles trying to imitate what white people think black people sound like. "Whan de starrs bugint to shoyn..."
  • Well, take the spiritual out of the mix.

    Vaughan Williams' "O How Amiable" vs. Palestrina's "Sicut Cervus:" One English, romantic, high church, the other renaissance, Roman polyphony.

    SHOULD they sound different? Would the singers approach them differently?

    Or is good diction and technique good diction and technique - no matter the rep?
  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    If only we could bring back the castrati - it hasn't been the same since.

    What's this "bring back" hooey, I never left. Harrumph.
    The objective is always unaffected, simple and noble beauty. That is only achieved by audibly evident agreement and practice despite individual proclivities.
    Regarding the "schools" of thought and sound, I've determined that the Dale Warland Singers exhibit the ideal "American" choral ethos (sorry, cannot think of another word this early.)
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Porgy and Bess by a German opera company. "Ven is der boot leafing for New York." I kid you not.
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  • One of the things that got me thinking about this was an article by Robert Batastini of GIA that I remember reading years ago. I don't have the exact text, but I remember it well and he made a statement very similar to this:

    "The best pastoral musicians I know can do it all. They can sing an anthem and make the choir sound like the 50 voice Presbyterian choir down the street, they can sing a Palestrina motet and make the choir sound as though it were recorded at the Vatican in the 16th century, and they can take a modern praise song and make it sound as though it's coming from the radio."

    This statement, and my recollection of it, has gotten me wondering HOW one would go about achieving authentic sounds for each of those genres he mentioned.

    Thanks to all who have responded so far! There's lots of good stuff in this thread already.
  • JonLaird
    Posts: 226
    For everything in English, I attempt to follow English lyric diction as described by Madeleine Marshall and Joan Wall; where they disagree I sing it both ways myself and pick what I think is better. Sometimes I don't like either and pick another way which I believe will render the most beautiful result.

    Personally, I think that the oft-heard instruction "Sing it with a British accent" is about as unhelpful as "Sing it with an American accent." Which British accent? Everyone has a different idea of what that means. So for me, what works well is teach my choir the basics of IPA vowels (that's International Phonetic Alphabet...the other IPA shows up at our choir parties) and drill it so they know what it is supposed to sound (and more important, feel) like.

    Attacking the swallowed American "r" is also extremely important. Often I will go through an entire piece from start to finish and have the choir figure out which "r" should be flipped and which should be modified to a schwa. This alone will already fix many of the vowels.

    Another consistent problem is the "l" at the back of the throat. We practice putting right behind the front teeth with the tip of the tongue. Again, like with the "r", this will open up the sound and fix other problems.

    Melo says:
    The objective is always unaffected, simple and noble beauty. That is only achieved by audibly evident agreement and practice despite individual proclivities.

    I recall a quote from Leo Nestor during a class discussion of diction, and he stated that the most important goal to consider above all else in this aspect of choral music was "euphony."
  • How much of our time goes into correcting singers vs. explaining why diction matters?
    For example, I run across many volunteer singers who will not even attempt a flip or rolled r. I have noticed that I don't get very far if I simply correct and demonstrate, and break down the motions. That's important, but first I need to plug into why they should care. Is it just Mrs. Wilson being fussy? Or does spring on diction really make for more beautiful gift to God?

    I do model ugly and confusing diction to drive points home. Everyone gets a chuckle and experiences how otherwise nice singing can be marred y crummy diction.

    But at a certain point, singers need to personally buy into why they should pronounce things a certain way. This is perhaps more pronounced in a society where most people only speak one language.
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  • Richard MixRichard Mix
    Posts: 2,536
    ...a Polish male early-music choir called the Rorantists

    What a great name! I'm imagining lots of spit from a high loft...
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,605
    solution: be reborn in Boston. Only problem is that you talk like the Magliozzi brothers of Car Talk infamy.
  • Paragraph 5 of this discusses the origins of the name.
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  • melofluentmelofluent
    Posts: 4,160
    I recall a quote from Leo Nestor during a class discussion of diction, and he stated that the most important goal to consider above all else in this aspect of choral music was "euphony."

    That scamp Leo's been ripping my lines off since we were undergrads at CSU Armpit together!
    KLS, ah to be bawn in B(w)awstun widda tempuhmunt of Tawm Magliaw-tsee. Pew-uh joy!
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  • ronkrisman
    Posts: 1,367
    Tawm Magliaw-tsee. Pew-uh joy!

    Indeed. R.I.P.
    Thanked by 1CHGiffen
  • PGA,

    One shouldn't sing with an affected accent.

    That said,

    if any of your choir are even remotely familiar with theatre, these people know about exaggerated consonants.
    if you have been using microphones, scrap their use immediately.
    I have had success explaining the flipped and rolled "r" in terms of pussy cat purring.
    Vowels can be remedied by addressing the question of tone: to move an "E" back from the teeth to a wider chamber is to make a less grating sound, for example
  • BruceL
    Posts: 1,067
    PGA, hate to bump an old one, but would you be opposed to recording an example, excerpting a passage, and posting it? "Midwestern" is very general. There are some Midwestern-isms that seem perfectly fine to me, while there are others that absolutely grate on me. There were MANY guttural vowel sounds/blends in St. Louis that drove me nuts.

    I find the British/American thing overwrought. We just want to be sure we minimize the influence of the dipthong's second vowel sound, in most cases.
  • Is there any rational reason for insulting people's way of speech by insisting that they sing unnaturally to imitate the sound of an English choir?

    Are we not imposing upon them what we find beautiful in our judgement? Is their own pronunciation not beautiful to them?

    If it is a matter of producing an improved singing tone, it makes sense. Otherwise, it's like affecting a foreign accent and false.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,921
    Noel, we should "insult" everyone's way of speech in that manner. If we want people to pronounce their vowels consistently so that they avoid inappropriate vocal tension and so that they can sound as one pitch, then people have to give up the individual pronunciations they use in speech.

    When someone urges singers to adopt an "English" sound, it's shorthand for "sing in the manner of well-trained English choirs". It's more diplomatic than saying, "sing as though you were well-trained".
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  • Noel, we should "insult" everyone's way of speech in that manner. If we want people to pronounce their vowels consistently so that they avoid inappropriate vocal tension and so that they can sound as one pitch, then people have to give up the individual pronunciations they use in speech.


    "If it is a matter of producing an improved singing tone, it makes sense. Otherwise, it's like affecting a foreign accent and false."
  • One might argue that it doesn't quite matter how false it is as long as the tone sounds clear, projects well, and words are not slurred over. If it takes adapting Received Pronunciation, or at least the form of hybridised Mid-Atlantic English used by foreigners singing in English, then so be it.
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  • As someone who has proudly taught standard American English for many long years, I will just add my voice to those saying, "What's wrong with sounding American?" This is a great country, and where else would you get a mass movement for improved music in Church? Tocqueville commented on it: Americans will form a voluntary association for anything.

    That said, the English, French, and German r's are impossible to sing and sound good. My voice teacher heard one famous French art song singer in a master class say, "If zay wont to seeng zee French aire, zay might as well wear zehr blooo cheens."

    Similarly with other sounds in other languages. It is not a FAULT of the language. All those sounds are naturally occurring. As a result, as someone said above, no one sings naturally. I was carefully studying how Fischer-Diskau handled the "ch" in one Schubert lied, and he used the Hochdeutsch, his native Berliner, and English---in the space of six beats and two words.

    Fortunately, English naturally employs the liaison (which we have in common with French, though who gave it to whom or whether we gave it to each other, linguists will have to argue about.) That is, the last consonant sound is pushed over to the next word. (You can hear it clearly in Churchill's Blood, Sweat, Toil. and Tears speech, or whatever you want to call it, and it's pretty common from that kind of pronunciation on through Australia.)

    My voice teacher insists on using it--she is a native Spanish speaker, and does art song herself--but I have had choir leaders insist choirs are clearer when they don't use it. In fact, they often seem to think someone taught their singers badly, when (a) it is native to English, and (b) it's often taught in classical singing. But I don't know choral practice. But if that's the sound you like, it is native to English and so exploit it.

    One musician/priest many people know on this list likes to point out it can lead to problems, like "lead us not" sounds like "lead-a-snot."

    So use your judgment.

    Kenneth
  • CHGiffenCHGiffen
    Posts: 4,943
    "liaison"? ... Don't you mean "elision"? ... the eliding of the end of one word into the beginning of the next?

    Beware those "Dangerous Elisions"!!!

    And don't forget that people often hear things differently from what they are supposed to be in other contexts, e.g. "Good King Sauerkraut looked out, on his feets uneven" and "O Come Ollie Face full", to name two.
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,428
    "liaison"? ... Don't you mean "elision"? ... the eliding of the end of one word into the beginning of the next?


    So, I totally thought elision was the right word for that as well, until at some point in the last year I was corrected, and told that elision is only used if a sound goes missing.

    All the dictionaries I've consulted seem to agree with this, but I'm glad someone of your erudition also uses it the way I did. Perhaps it is fairly widespread.
  • irishtenoririshtenor
    Posts: 1,241
    http://www.cliffsnotes.com/foreign-languages/french/french-i/french-i-pronunciation/liaison-and-elision

    Liaison refers to the linking of the final consonant of one word with the beginning vowel (a, e, i, o, u) or vowel sound (generally, h and y) to the following word, as in the following example: vous imitez (voo zee‐mee‐tay).

    Note how pronunciation of the final “s” of vous takes on the sound of “z” and combines with the pronunciation of the beginning “i” of imitez.

    Elision usually occurs when two vowel sounds are pronounced: one at the end of a word and the other at the beginning of the next word. Drop the final vowel of the first word and replace it with an apostrophe. The two words then simply slide together: je + imite = j'imite (zhee‐meet).

    Note how the final “e” (uh) sound of je (zhuh) is dropped.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,605
    Musicians tend to be loyal to the diction/pronunciation lessons they have learned. At times, too loyal. I'm a pragmatist: employ the pronunciation/diction solutions that enhance comprehension by the audience and reduce pitch problems - in the specific space and with the specific choir you are blessed/burdened with. The best solutions may vary accordingly.
    Thanked by 3Gavin CharlesW CHGiffen
  • Is there any rational reason for insulting people's way of speech by insisting that they sing unnaturally to imitate the sound of an English choir?

    Some of the sounds of midwestern English provide neither beautiful nor ample sound, and create vocal tensions leading to other problems.
    Singing isn't natural.
  • If singing isn't natural, when was it invented?
  • Who knows? Why don't goats sing?
    Even if we grant that "making pitched sounds with the voice" is natural, there's not a culturally-neutral "natural" style of singing; it varies with the culture.
  • And... many cultures cultivate quite varying vocal or choral aestheses. When we sing music of our European heritage, it is well to cultivate the choral aesthesis of the most highly regarded choral institutions of our era (unless one is presenting an 'historically informed performance'). If one were singing (and this is not pejorative!) hill-billy music one might be pleased as punch to cultivate hill-billy vocal styles; otherwise one should erase regional dialectical habits in favour of those of our finest choirs, whether English or American. It is interesting that the Japanese and the Chinese cultivate a vocal singing aesthetic which even they set aside for Beethoven and Bach, but which they prize in their own culturally classical music. Were they to sing in their native fashion in English, we would undoubtedly consider it hill-billyish, while in Peking opera or Noh drama it is aesthetically powerful and, artistically, highly refined.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Actually, if you sang earlier English music with a hillbilly accent, you would be much closer to the way the English, Irish, and Scottish sang at the time.
  • Not really- Renaissance English probably sounded likely a lot more like a West Country accent mixed with a Welsh and Yorkshire brogue. You want to know what earlier English music sounded like? Go to rural Cornwall, not rural Kentucky, because by the time English-speaking people actually settled there, you'd already had at least two hundred years of dialect change away from the British isles. I say this because there some Theatre instructors teach their students OP, or Original Pronunciation in Shakespeare's time. From what I've heard, it sounds nothing like Appalachian English.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    Maybe, but there were strong elements of Irish, Scottish, and Northern English speech preserved in those isolated Appalachian areas. I remember from my youth hearing words and expressions that had been obsolete for a couple of hundred years in standard English. I suspect that Appalachian speech was closer to 17th and 18th century English in those northern English areas from where the immigrants came. Of course, the Anglicans will deny that with the same ferocity they deny the truths of Catholicism. LOL. We don't call them the good taste people for nothing.
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  • Anglicans, and Catholics who grew up in England, like myself. I had enough of my youth trying to understand old farmers with heavy Essex, Sussex and Kentish accents, much less those from the West Country or the North. And that's not even getting into the dialects WITH the accents. The only word I could never figure out what it meant was "Allecumfee" or something.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    I know. I still can't understand some contemporary English dialects from the U.S. and England. Language is not a constant and continually changes. That is why I am a bit suspicious of "correct" historical language performances.
  • The only real reason, musically, I can think of to use either Received Pronunciation or some kind of improvised Mid-Atlantic is: one, sharper, more pronounced consonants; and two, no Rs getting in the way in between vowels and consonants.
  • CharlesW
    Posts: 11,674
    That makes sense. My area has a problem with blurring consonants so words tend to sound like they are running together. I frequently have to turn to the choir in rehearsal and say, "Let's try that again. I didn't understand a word."
  • Even English choirs, depending on the area, the problems can be:
    A. Drawling everything out, as Norfolk and Suffolk people tend to do.
    B. Glottalising the t too much.
    C. In some cases, trying too hard and going into nasally aristocratic tones instead of simply more neutral variation. (They're not pretending to be an Eton Boys chorus, but a normal church choir. ;p)
    D. Singing exactly how they remembered the piece on some BBC programme, and forgetting they're supposed to be in four-part harmony, not unison.
  • And... many cultures cultivate quite varying vocal or choral aestheses. When we sing music of our European heritage, it is well to cultivate the choral aesthesis of the most highly regarded choral institutions of our era (unless one is presenting an 'historically informed performance'). If one were singing (and this is not pejorative!) hill-billy music one might be pleased as punch to cultivate hill-billy vocal styles; otherwise one should erase regional dialectical habits in favour of those of our finest choirs, whether English or American. It is interesting that the Japanese and the Chinese cultivate a vocal singing aesthetic which even they set aside for Beethoven and Bach, but which they prize in their own culturally classical music. Were they to sing in their native fashion in English, we would undoubtedly consider it hill-billyish, while in Peking opera or Noh drama it is aesthetically powerful and, artistically, highly refined.


    This is one of the best posts here so far, which really gets to the heart of my question. I do have to ask, though, if one is presenting an historically informed performance, why would one not "cultivate the choral aesthesis of the most highly regarded choral institutions of our era?" In what ways are they not historically informed, other than perhaps using period pronunciations?

    But this post begins to get to the heart of my earlier post:

    One of the things that got me thinking about this was an article by Robert Batastini of GIA that I remember reading years ago. I don't have the exact text, but I remember it well and he made a statement very similar to this:

    "The best pastoral musicians I know can do it all. They can sing an anthem and make the choir sound like the 50 voice Presbyterian choir down the street, they can sing a Palestrina motet and make the choir sound as though it were recorded at the Vatican in the 16th century, and they can take a modern praise song and make it sound as though it's coming from the radio."

    This statement, and my recollection of it, has gotten me wondering HOW one would go about achieving authentic sounds for each of those genres he mentioned.


    So in what ways do we differently approach an anthem, vs. a Palestrina motet, vs. a praise song?
  • TL
    Posts: 13
    This may be a little outside the box...

    Aren't most choirs like a cover band? Somebody, sometime, somewhere performed the song first. They are the original artists. Everyone after that is a cover band on that tune. Thus, like any band covering another artist's song, you have to make a choice. Do you attempt to imitate/emulate the original artist's performance or do you alter it intentionally to make it your own? Some of those altered covers become bigger and more popular than the original. Then, the next band is trying to emulate a cover of an original work. So, for each director of a choir approaching a new piece of music - which are you going to pursue - a cover or an original interpretation?
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