Thoughts on the tough subject of English

I was recently in correspondence with a member of a vocal group about the pronunciation of English by singers. When I speak I don’t really give much thought to how I pronounce words in my native tongue (I don’t think I’m alone in this), but things do become a bit more complicated when I am singing. The main linguistic roots of English are Germanic, but with the significant addition of medieval French after the 11th Century Norman Conquest of Britain. As a result there are loads of anomalies in the pronunciation. Take, for example, the letters OUGH. We English speakers are not satisfied with just one pronunciation of these four letters. We have:

Ought (as in sort)
Tough (as in cuff)
Though (as in slow)
Cough (as in Prof)
Not to forget the town of Slough (as in cow)

As a result we understand that singing English is a bit complicated. To add to that complication we English speakers are not always that good at singing it ourselves.

Most British English speakers don’t roll the letter R, but listen to many English choirs and classical singers, and there are rolled Rs all over the place. This is done for good reasons. It helps the letter carry in large acoustics, such as our churches and cathedrals. However when I listen to a recording of a solo singer or choir rolling their Rs, it sounds wrong to my ear. With the microphone placed right in front of the singer, or singers, you don’t really need rolled Rs.

We also have a problem with some of our sung vowel sounds. In a piece of music, certain vowels, that might in spoken English be thrown away, are suddenly given importance by the length of time given by the composer to that syllable; for example the words “Close”. This is a great example of the awkward way English speakers pronounce our language. As a noun, adjective or adverb it has one pronunciation (ending with a soft S as in hiss), but in its verbal form it has another slightly different pronunciation (ending with a harder S, as in rose). The problem really comes when we add an S on the end of this verb. One of our favourite pieces is Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The long day closes. If you say the title, you give little emphasis to the second syllable of closes. When you sing it, you suddenly have to give it more thought (as in sort!). Sullivan ends the piece with this phrase, so we have to find a way to present the syllable in a convincing way. Should it be Zezz (as in fez) or Zizz (as in fizz)? Try it, and you will realise that neither is entirely right. Now try it with a more neutral version somewhere in the middle. That probably seems more convincing. I hope so!

However this isn’t an exact science, and I don’t want you to get too worked up about such matters. Our aim is to make our text sound as natural as possible, using the maxim “Sing it as you say it”.

There are many more possible linguistic pitfalls, such as how to sing Little, but they will have to wait for another time.

Read more KS editorials on the Ensemble Hub Dropbox.



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