Well, that was an interesting day.

Today I found myself unexpectedly coaching in French with an emergency singer. Sorry, that came out wrong – he is a singer wanting a coaching session immediately, not a singer who only bursts into song during crises…

Standard problems singing in French (or German)

He was singing a contemporary rock musical translated into French and was having trouble with some of the sounds required. I find it fascinating working with people in different languages. It’s surprising how many singing problems are caused by vowels that don’t work for that particular singer/voice, or consonants that aren’t in the right place or are worked too hard. Many singers don’t understand the difference between voiced and unvoiced consonants, and while most voiced consonants can be pitched, some are difficult to pitch easily (b/d/g I’m looking at you).

A few months ago Gillyanne and I coached an entire cast for Annie The Musical in German. We used our knowledge of languages and phonetics, together with our expertise in vocal function, to help the singers make the sung language work. Any language has voiced and unvoiced consonants, but if you’re singing in a language that isn’t your mother tongue, or you’re singing a translation from the original, you may be bringing over your habitual consonant use in a way that isn’t appropriate for the new version.

Singing consonants on high notes

For my client today, most of the translation into French works well but there are, as always, some awkward or unusual words on high notes. I did study French A Level about 95 years ago so had an idea of the shapes and consonant usage, but I’m an extremely rusty speaker (meaning I lack practice, rather than having random orange bits drop off me…). So I’m relying on my client to pronounce the words accurately. Much of the writing for his character’s songs sits around E4-G4 – a slightly tricky area for a baritone to stay in. He sings very good clear French, but because of the height of the pitches in certain phrases, there’s one sound we need to modify.

The word “Tout” (“all”) appears on several Es and Fs, and his classic pronunciation had so much lip rounding and such a narrow vowel shape inside that there was almost no sound coming out. And of course it felt incredibly tight to sing and disturbed his vocal line. So we worked to keep the essence of the “ou” vowel but with a vowel closer to a schwa inside the mouth and keeping the extended lip pout but with a slightly bigger opening between the lips.

We still have enough “ou” in the vowel for listeners to understand it (and to stop them thinking his pronunciation was bad) but the different resonating space and wider exit made the passaggio notes much easier to sing and sustain.

Client is happy and I get to work in a different language.


PS If you want to find out more about potential problems and fixes for singing words, check out our two Training events – the Singing Teacher Training Intensive in Leeds (October) and the Advanced Practice Retreat in Presteigne (November).