Enunciation in choral singing

“Over-pronunciate your continents!”

I’m sure that’s a phrase that many a church or cathedral chorister has heard from many a well-meaning choirmaster. The reasoning seems to be that absolute clarity of the text is paramount. That may or may not be a good thing, but my main issue with this approach, and also the problems that I have encountered teaching students who have had this background, is that it doesn’t generally lead to improved articulation. The reasons for this are twofold. Words are made up of consonants and vowels. Vowels are generally what we think of as the singing sound – it is what we extend to hold a pitch, or to hold over a melisma. Consonant, as a word, means “with sound”. This suggests that the consonant is linked to the vowel – many singers and vocal coaches say that the consonants “launch” the vowels. When the consonants are artificially and over pronounced, they tend to separate from the vowels. Many is the time you hear a choir singing Lotti’s Crucifux with a heavily asipirated “Kkhuh-rucifixus”, and the effect is that you lose the first “u” vowel. Similarly with the heavily accent “K” when singing any one of the many Kyrie Eleisons from the mass. On a subjective note, I prefer a more legato line in this style of music – the Lotti is a beautifully melismatic piece, and in breaking up the words much of this beauty is lost for me. I realise that this is subjective, and that many may prefer the more accented consonants. Of more concern to me as a teacher is that it leads to tension. Invariably, due to the excessive aspiration, the vowel is “grabbed” – often with the jaw – and you get a wide range of “singing faces”, many of which look more than a little unnatural. The reason for this tension brings me to the second point. Over-pronouncing consonants in this way is not what we do in spontaneous communication – ie speech. In everyday communication we vary our speech – rising and falling in intonation, varying the rhythm, and most importantly in this aspect, stressing certain syllables and words. We tend to stress the strong syllables of nouns, or important verbs – especially when they are commands , eg “Will you reMember to put the bin out!” When we stress these syllables, we don’t over pronounce or aspirate consonants. Moreoever, we eMphasise them, or stRess them, or Lean on them. Each of these examples is a consonant that can be extended and drawn out, but the principle is the same if you were to say “Don’t forGet to put the bin out!” When we do this, we tend to feel that we are talking from our core, possibly from our “hearts” or from the “gut”. When our speech is spontaneous in this aspect, there is a connection between our breath and the consonant – not a stretched over working of the mouth and the articulators. If we are to sing with clear words and a sense of conveying the emotion of song, rather than just the clear information, then this same approach must be there. Consonants must be part of the voice-body connection, on the breath and not separate from the vowel that follows. If we intend to sing as if we mean what we’re singing about, then we may find that the approach of over-pronouncing is leading us to over-pronounce the wrong syllable. Lets go back to my example of the Lotti “Crucifixus”. I’m sure even the non-Latin speakers among us realise that this word means “crucified”. If one were to suggest that I may be crucified for writing this article – and I may be – then I’m sure you’ll say “cRRucified” and not “Kkrucified”. The over aspirated K is not what you would do when spontaneously and genuinely stressing this word, but it is very common in singing of this particular piece. If singing is to be meaningful, then the words shouldn’t just be clear, but should be genuinely meaningful too.