The Secrets to Making English Your Favorite Language to Sing in and Be Understood!

Several singers have asked me recently if I had any helpful suggestions for singing in English and being understood. It seems to be a universal conundrum, because, though using the English language is how we communicate in this country all day long, when it comes to singing, we try to do it in some very different way. I think it is because we have to extend and elongate the vowel sounds, and believe it is necessary to be very crisp and clipped with each consonant when singing the English language, which is definitely not what we do when we speak. We start overusing our lips, which tends to close and tighten the jaw and strangle breath support, which all tends to drive the sound of the voice too far forward.

Singing in English can be an exciting and tremendously satisfying experience. When it is unsatisfying and difficult it is usually because of two things. First, if the piece has been poorly translated into English, it becomes a daunting challenge for the singer to be musical and be understood. Often the translator has not made the same effort (or at least, had the same degree of success) in matching the words to the contours of the musical phrase as the composer did in the original, making it difficult for the singer to accurately convey the musical intentions of the composer in coloring the meaning of the words. Second (and this applies not only to works in English), if composers and librettists don’t possess an understanding of the human voice, its strengths and limitations, they may place consonants, vowels, or elisions of words in parts of the vocal range where it is difficult or even impossible to sing.

By the way, did you know that many composers, among others, the likes of Rossini, Verdi, Wagner and Poulenc, insisted that when one of their operas was performed in a foreign land, that it be sung in the language of that country. Though it was common practice to sing in English in America throughout most of the 19th century, in time became disapproved of and unaccepted. It is a shame; had the practice continued, it is possible that opera would have enjoyed an even stronger popularity than it does today.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”
~ attributed to Benjamin Franklin

My mentor, conductor Herb Grossman, was an enthusiastic proponent of this concept of performing opera in the vernacular of the audience, and spent many of his early years working on operatic projects in English. While preparing “Madame Butterfly” for the 1955 NBC Television Opera production, he went to visit the maestro Arturo Toscanini, to discuss the score with the man who had actually conducted the opera’s premiere fifty years before. Herb remembers being astonished at just how curious the old man was about the English translation and how he insisted on trying different phrases to see how they rolled off the tongue. At one point, as they were examining the Pinkerton/Butterfly duet at the end of the first act, Toscanini, who was a firm believer in having opera sung in the language of the country where it was being performed (he always referred to “I Maestri Cantori”, not “Die Meistersinger”) the phrase “Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia” came up. He insisted on knowing exactly what the English words were to be at this important emotional moment. “Darling, my darling, lovely little flower” he was told. He commenced to sing, actually to taste the phrase over and over again; rolling it over his tongue, first in Italian, then in English. Finally, “Bene,” he said. He loved that the contour of the phrase was similar in both languages. The musical line was undisturbed; the rubato so necessary to the emotion of the moment was in place. The sound and intent were realized in both languages.

I was lucky enough to have had the experience of working with Herb Grossman many years ago in the Western Opera Theater, a touring company of the San Francisco Opera. It was clear that Maestro Grossman understood the human voice and knew how to convey a method of singing American English that was not only easy and uncomplicated, but could be projected to the last row in the house. I would like to help you understand the concept of this technique and will try my best to convey how it is done. In person, it is fairly simple to demonstrate (I now pass on to the singers in my studio this same effective technique); as a written expression, I hope I am able to impart with clarity how one employs this method.

What we have to work with in any language are the consonants and the vowels. This has nothing to do with the IPA system. It is a completely new concept, so give it a try before you say no, it’s not for you.

“The quantity of consonants in the English language is constant. If omitted in one place, they turn up in another. When a Bostonian ‘pahks’ his ‘cah,’ the lost r’s migrate southwest, causing a Texan to ‘warsh’ his car and invest in ‘erl wells.”
~ Author Unknown

For this new way of looking at singing in English, know that nearly always the consonant at the end of a word is put together with the first consonant of the following word. (“not taken” becomes “nah-ttaken”) This leaves the most time for voicing the vowel, which is really how we define a language. When speaking in American English, we don’t voice each consonant, we elide them together. When we try to separate them and make each distinct and voiced, our ear has to stop and figure out what is being said. And by then, the next spoken or sung phrase has come and gone so we just give up and read the sub-titles, as if the singers are performing in a foreign language (and in fact they are).

Let’s talk about consonants.

As I said before, when we speak American English, we elide most consonants within a sentence. The young Robert Shaw, while training the chorus for Fred Waring, actually invented a method of notation (some of you may have sung from these arrangements) that exemplifies this method of singing. These musical scores provide an excellent introduction for figuring this out for yourself. The techniques, it goes without saying, can be applied to the solo voice as well.

Consonants can be voiced or unvoiced, gentle or released with passion without allowing the sound to proceed. You sort of get stuck on the consonant and then let the breath move you to the vowel. We actually do this in all languages. That’s what helps us as singers to be expressive with the emotion of the words. (Maestro Grossman used to make this point by having us hold the consonant until, with a loving whack on the back of the head, he would signal us to move into the vowel. He would say that the point of holding unvoiced or, for that matter, voiced consonants, was to give the ear of the listener time to focus on the coming sound. When that sound appeared, finally, it was thrust on the hearer and, when properly executed, it melted into the vowel sound that followed.)

Try this with the word MAKE. Allow yourself to get stuck on the voiced sound of the M and then let the breath move either gently or explosively (depending on the meaning of the phrase) into the vowel ending with another short consonant. It should look and sound something like this.


Here’s another example using an angry connotation when speaking the phrase Oh Brother!
Get caught on preparing the B sound in Brother, count to 3 and explode it into the rest of the word. You will notice that instead of two syllables there are now three. We do this all the time when speaking with emotion, so why not do it when we sing?

Oh         Brother!!!

When working with American English, vowels are often not what they seem. It’s necessary to determine whether the sound of the vowel is pure, a diphthong or a schwa (the unstressed central vowel sound of most unstressed syllables in English). Let’s look at the word avoid. It starts with a vowel, moves to an unvoiced consonant moves to another vowel and again to a consonant. To help you practice the new technique I have added a more explosive, passionate unvoiced consonant V sound, so let it get caught in the unvoiced lip position and let it explode into the vowel sound. What emotion goes with a word expressed like this?

A       vo   i  d

Diphthongs in American English usually stress the first part of the vowel making it longer and more open than the last part, which is usually a more closed position.
Try this.

oowhyyyy ee

This is how we speak. Start paying attention to how you put sentences together and notice how you use these principals we have been working with to express the emotion you want to convey in conversation. We even do it when we talk to ourselves in our heads. So start listening to yourself, to your friends and everyone around you. Notice that you will learn to listen differently when observing yourself and others expressing themselves when speaking American English. Try applying this to all of the languages you sing in.

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”
~ Robert Frost

Singing a whole phrase like this is a trip. Let’s start by using a couple of examples from an opera written in English. We will use the aria “Steal me” from “The Old Maid and the Thief” by Menotti. The capital letters are to indicate the “getting stuck” position prior to the exploded vowel:

What         a          curse for a woman          is a          timid man!
OOWWWWuh -tah KKKKKKKur – ssfora – oowuh-ma-nizza- TTTTTi-mi-dman!

This getting stuck on preparing the W of what, the K of curse and the T of timid before allowing it to explode with passion into the vowel will give you a good idea of the possibilities of drama and emotion available by using this method of singing in English.

Steal          me,oh steal me sweet thief,
SSSSSSSSSStee lme, osssstea lme swee tthief,
for times flight         is stealing
faw rti mzzzflyyyie- tissseali ng

my          youth.

The S at the beginning of the phrase is started as a long, soft, stretched-out, hissed “s” before the “t” is made and the actual vocalization of the vowel “e.” It’s much like a skater thinking about skating before stepping out onto the ice into a long, noiseless glide forward.

“How much has to be explored and discarded before reaching the naked flesh of feeling.”
~ Claude Debussy

For me, these two examples from “The Old Maid and The Thief” show the wonderful transition from the passionate, angry, frustrated woman in the recitative to the desperately in-love woman in the aria itself. Using this type of diction inaugurates the emotional response of the mind-body connection. It sets the feelings of the character in motion. It helps motivate you to expose, mold, and establish the character, any and every character, simply by using the words through this type of diction. Notice how this permits the character you are portraying, the words, and the emotional content of the music to become one entity. Because of the mind-body connection, the body assumes the posture and movement of the emotion you are feeling. All of these elements flow together to make a believable, 3 dimensional character come to life.

Here is an example of a great translation from Italian to English. It permits the contour of the sentence to be the same in both languages. Let’s use the first few phrases from Musetta’s Waltz from “La Boheme” by Puccini as the example. Notice how the English allows one to use the composer’s musical instructions exactly the same as in the Italian:

Quando me’n vo’,
Smiling and gay,
SSSMMMiii – li-nga- nga-ee,

quan-do me’n vo’ so-letta la via, La
I stroll a long the avenue alone, the
IeeSSSturo- llah-lo-ngthe-yavuhnewa-lllooon, Thuh –

Gente so- sta e mi – ra.
Gentlemen admire me so.
geh-ntullmeh-nad- MMMiii-urme – soow.

Now that you have the idea of the concept, give it a try in any language. Sing a phrase, aria, or song with this new technique and ask someone whose ears you trust if they can easily understand your diction and if the emotional intent of the character was clear. You might then try using your old technique for singing in English and ask again if they understood the words. You can also record both methods to help you figure out which one is better understood. It might even help you to sing better.

“It’s so hard when I have to, and so easy when I want to.”
~ Annie Gottlier

I know I am going against the established method of singing in English. I am moving out of the box with a new way to think about expressing the words of the character you are portraying. As I said before, in the beginning this can be a difficult concept because it requires a different way of thinking, but I know from my own experience that it works. It makes singing in English such a joy and so tremendously satisfying because you know everyone in the audience is getting it; both the words and the emotional intention of the character! It’s really easy to make them laugh or cry. It’s so fulfilling to feel the energy of the audience moving with you, as you take them on an amazing journey to another time and place. And they are hungry for this kind of experience!

Let me close by including an excerpt from an incident from Herb Grossman’s early years in the business, that took him a step closer to a whole new theory of how, when creating English translation, to increase its effectiveness: by dissecting, then imitating, the characteristic sounds and practices that often make other languages so attractive. Enjoy.

And keep your observations, comments, and suggestions for my future newsletters coming.

Till then, Carol

“Memory is the mother of all wisdom.”
~ Aeschylus

To celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of Mozart’s birth, NBC created, in 1956, a spanking new version of ‘The Magic Flute’ for television. W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman were commissioned by Samuel Chotzinoff to do a new translation in English for the production, whose all-star cast would feature the very young Leontyne Price as Pamina; Kirk Browning directed for TV, Lincoln Kirstein was production consultant, Peter Herman Adler conducted-all directed by a guy named George Balanchine

In the early stages of preparation, it fell to my lot to go over the great poet’s work with him as he brought in bits and pieces, and to discuss with him any anomalies that might occur in the matter of phrasing and prosody. It was clear from the beginning that his unexpected musical knowledge was going to make most of my job easy, yet before we were far into the first act we came upon a problem that resulted in considerable fireworks. It happened in one of the most famous pieces of music ever written, the duet between our heroine, Pamina, and the “bird man,” Papageno. The whys and wherefores of the text are of little importance here, but the shape of the text and Auden’s (very) strong feelings about how it should be set in the English language caused such a monumental collision between us that it threatened to upset the whole applecart. The first verse (all that we need bother with here) of the number in question reads as follows:

Pamina – Bei Maennern, welche Liebe fuehlen,
Fehlt auch ein gutes Herze nicht.

Papageno – Die Suessen Triebe mitzufuehlen
Ist dann der Weiber erste Pflicht.

Auden writes, quite correctly, that the lyric itself is written in iambic rhythm (i.e. in 4/4 time) but that Mozart saw fit to set the piece in 6/8 time so that certain syllables have to be spread over two notes, linked by a slur. This, incidentally, in common parlance, is called a “melisma.” [Note: ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ for example, begins with such-‘O, say can you see’ requires that the first word ‘O’ be sung over two notes, slurred.] Thus the above verse would look something like this (each dash representing an extra note-upper case indicates stressed syllable):

Pamina – Bei MAEN – nern, WEL – che LIE – be FUEHlen,
Fehlt AUCH – ein GU – tes HER -ze NICHT.

Papageno – Die SUES – sen TRIE – be MIT – zuFUEHlen
Ist DANN der WEI — ber ER — ste PFLICHT.

When, in our dingy little work room, we came to this spot, Auden said that he and Kallman felt strongly, ‘In translating this, we found that the English language cried out for an anapestic rhythm (in poetry, a foot consisting of three syllables, the first two short, or unaccented, the last long, or accented, as in the word ‘intervene’), similar to that of the notes. In this and several other places throughout, we are taking the liberty of writing more syllables than exist in the original when our ears so advised. The English language has fewer syllables than the German which sound well when spread over more than one note. If it be asked: ‘Is the effect the same?’ the answer, of course, is ‘No. The English sounds more staccato than the German.’ We believe, however, that ‘The Magic Flute’ should sound more staccato than ‘Die Zauberfloete.’

Thus they had assigned an active syllable to every one of the six notes per measure, resulting in the following English adaptation:

Pamina-When love in his bosom desire has implanted,
The heart of the hero grows gentle and tame;

Papageno – And soon from his passion enkindled, enchanted,
The nymph receives the impetuous flame.

“Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.”
-Henry J. Kaiser

At this point, the 29-year-old Grossman, he with the acid tongue and fearless disposition, said to the great poet,’ No! No! No! That’s not an option. The melismas are an intrinsic part of the structure.’ And so the battle raged and, as I mentioned earlier, things got a bit dicey. Finally, he agreed they’d give it another shot and left the room in considerable dudgeon. Though I was mighty uncomfortable with the idea of telling ‘God’ what he could and couldn’t do, I was determined to stand my ground. In a couple of days, back he came with a different version in tow:

Pamina – When LOVE – his DART – has DEEP – imPLANTed,
The HE – ro’s HEART – grows KIND – and TAME:

Papageno – And BY – his PAS – sion SOON – enCHANTed,
The NYMPH reCEIVES – the im -PE tuous FLAME.

[Notice that the fourth line text is identical in both versions but – and this is a large “but” – in the second version’s final line he elides “the im” and “tuous” in the manner of diphthongs (like “cooperate”), not only opening up the whole passage but, without any of us realizing it at that moment, opening up as well for me in the future, a whole theory of how to make use of eliding vowel sounds in English translation to imitate the characteristic silken sounds of the Italian language set to music.]

I was, of course, ecstatic-NOT that I had won the day, but rather that he had come up with a solution without, to my mind at least, sacrificing one iota of the quality of language that I found unique. After this hassle, we had no further problems (he knew that I was not going to go away), and he finished the opera with one of the most distinguished contributions in this form that I have ever known.

And so for the remainder of the work effort the great, W. H. Auden and the young and not so great, Herbert Grossman, got along famously.

Yet, honesty compels me to share with you the fact that when, shortly thereafter, the translation was published by Faber and Faber, London, Auden added a “Notes” section in the back of the book devoted to the episode of the famous duet, in which he couldn’t resist concluding with a bit of a dig at me. I quote:

‘If the original relations of syllables to notes is not an accident of the German prosody but a profound musical idea, then, of course, we are wrong, so he [ed. note Herbert Grossman] who is pedantic, let him be pedantic still and sing (the second version).’

~ Herbert Grossman

“There’s a difference between activity and accomplishment.”
~ Travis Duncan

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