How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 1

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Singers really only need to speak one language, however the reality is that they need to be able to pronounce at least a half-dozen and should learn to speak as many as possible. Even if it's just your basic greetings and vocabulary.


This is not to say, however, that singers should stress themselves out about learning multiple foreign languages. Too many singers stress themselves out about their language skills being not "good enough," as it's easy to forget how much time and practice it takes to learn a foreign language.


What we must learn is the pronunciation of multiple languages and call it diction. We call it diction as singing is basically exaggerated speech, therefore we need to exagerate the pronunciation so it makes sense to you when you hear it with the music. We take diction courses to learn to do this. Art song, opera, and choral pieces are frequently sung in English, French, German and Italian, which are the four foundational singing languages, (in additon to Latin, which we just kind of pick up as we go along). Then there is a whole host of repertoire in Russian, Czech, Spanish, and Hungarian, as well as Vietnamese, Chinese, Polish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch...and the list goes on.


Languages are living things, they change with and over time (we know this as we don't speak like Shakespeare any more). Older music frequently has different pronunciation as well as archaic words. In newer music there might be surrealist poetry with altered words or an expression that doesn't translate well. Or maybe an opera librettist may write one character's dialogue in a dialect.


So it's really like any other career, in that you get started with your base knowledge (in this case the singing diction for English, French, German, and Italian) and then you expand it to deeper levels (dialects, understanding foreign language idioms, languages with even more complex pronuncation, rare languages, etc.).


No matter what language we sing in, too, it is the singer's duty to pronounce it as accurately, as authentically as possible and to strive to portray the meaning of every single word. The pronunciation is only half the work. The other half is Part 2 of this article. Stay tuned for part 2, next Thursday!

The Pug Under the Piano Bench

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My wonderful, first voice teacher, Nancy Burman, loves animals. Every animal they have ever owned, whether cat, dog, or hamster, has enjoyed an entertaining atmospher e, copious amounts of love from Nancy's numerous voice students and their own family. The Burmans' animals live the good life!

A Pug dog.

When I was in high school the Burmans had a pug named Betsy. Betsy was one of the happiest little dogs I've ever seen. She'd wave her little tail and greet you at the door every week. She loved to sit under the piano bench during lessons and was a very well-behaved dog.


Betsy also snorted.

A lot.

Betsy left a legacy of s(n)orts on every lesson recording we made. Because when you're serious about voice, even in high school, you listen to the recording of your lesson to help you practice during the week. Nancy recorded our lessons and song accompaniments for us and we would practice with them to get ready for a competition or a recital.

Betsy was on all of them.

Picture this:  a great voice lesson with loads of progress, and you're learning a wonderful art song like Joseph Haydn's "In the Country." You sing a bit, then the piano is by itself for a couple of measures, you sing a bit, and then the piano concludes the verse.

It's a song that creates a feeling of being out in the country on a sunny day, out in nature with trees and fields, fresh breezes and loads of sunshine...


Away from care and sorrow,

I gladly greet the morrow,

When I throughout the night,

Have slept till morning light.





With freedom in my heart,

When morn dispels the night,

And sorrows all depart,

My heart is ever light.





(English translation by Frank La Forge, Copyright 1938)

Cook Up Your Resonance: Drop the chicken!

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Few people have informed my singing the way Julia Child did.




Here in the Midwest, we don't speak with much resonance. Out East, moreso. But where I come from in Wisconsin, we lock our jaws, freeze our lips, sink the sound to the back of our throats, and cut off all signs of resonance. It's a vast tundra of non-resonant speaking and lack of pronunciation.

This is not helpful when you're learning Classical singing.

It's like only having months-old frozen hamburger in your freezer when you really want a nice, fresh filet mignon. Or my favorite, the New York strip. Yes, this smacks of Alanis Morissette's "Ironic." Very much so.

My first voice teacher, Nancy, tried and tried and tried to help me understand resonance:  "the mask," the "inner smile," what it felt like, what it didn't feel like. She tried one thing, then another, then another, she stayed patient. I did not. I tried, I tried, I tried some more. It didn't grow. I felt awful. I just didn't get it.


My next teacher, Lila, looked at me and said

"Can you breathe through your mouth and keep your nose open? Let air flow in and out of both your mouth and your nose at the same time."

What, be a mouth-breather?"

"Yes," she laughed. "Be a mouth-breather for 30 minutes today. That's half of your car-ride home."

We worked on it--it felt bizarre. "Yes, that's it!" Lila said.

Then came Julia Child--in the voice lesson.

"You know Julia Child, right?"

"Of course! She's on PBS."

"OK, do you know the famous story of when she dropped the chicken on the floor, picked it up, and went on cooking?"

I was appalled. That's disgusting. The germ-freak side of me gagged.

"She simply said, 'Oh, damn, I dropped the chicken!' and kept on cooking."

I laughed! That was insane! Someone like Julia Child--with her reputation--that's all she said?! And picked it up off the dirty floor and went on cooking?!


"Try it. Imitate her saying, 'Oh damn, I dropped the chicken!' "

"OH DAMN, I DROPPED THE CHICKEN!"I said in the highest, most high-falutin' half-British, half-American I could muster.

That was it! My resonance opened up, I felt the buzz, "the mask" came alive, I smiled inside my nose (without having to raise my eyebrows).

A Job for a Singer

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Finding a day job that supports you financially with the flexibility you require for a singing career is tough. Add the basic need of quality of life (e.g. eating decent food, being able to stay out of debt, and havi reasonable health care options) and it seems almost impossible. But it's not. And you might even find a job that's fun and leaves you with enough energy in the evening to practice and enjoy your free time.

1. Calculate: Find out how much you will be paid, figure out what it will cost you to work there (gas, parking, oil changes, lunch, clothing, etc.) and see if you really can afford to have that job. (See What Your Teacher Never Told Youfor more on being an entrepreneur and making it work.)

2. Location, Location, Location: Keep the job as close to your home as possible. Time commuting/sitting in traffic is wasted time.

3. Specificity: Artists tend to have crazy schedules and any kind of routine can sometimes get lost--because we simply don't have it (sometimes). Try to land a decent job with specific hours and specific duties. Let the job keep you grounded in routine and it will help shape the rest of your week. If you know you have rehearsal every Tuesday and you teach every Thursday night, knowing that your Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule is 8-5 and done, you're more likely to be able to balance out stressful times and stay on top of your practicing and marketing.

Specific duties can also help--musicians tend to juggle more balls than most and a job with enough routine activities to keep you grounded and stable at work (but not too much to be deathly boring) can help focus you.

4. Trial & Error: If you start a job and discover it's draining or you have toxic colleagues or the commute is indeed too long or the hours are constantly changing or it just doesn't suit you or whatever--dump it. You are worthy a day job that supports you and brings you a few steps forward, but not one that drains you or brings toxicity or chaos into your life. (Been there, done that, didn't even get a t-shirt.)

5. Spin It: You've gotta do what you've gotta do, so have fun and treat it as your "cover." Whenever anybody at one of my other jobs hears my music and asks, "What are you doing here?" I respond, "This is my cover."  *wink*

"Sing something for me--RIGHT NOW!"

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People really do say this to singers. It's SO ODD! It's like saying "You're an accountant? Do my taxes. NOW!" Or saying to a landscape architect, "Landscape my property. NOW!" Who likes to be put on the spot like that?

Who puts people on the spot like that, anyway?

Here are a few answers I've heard, ranging from downright sassy to politely diplomatic. Because I honestly don't know what the most appropriate response is, but maybe different demands can be answered with different responses.

The Sassy Response

One of the best responses to this was from my friend Susannah in Grad school at the Manhattan School of Music. She was working in an office and many people demanded she sings something right there--on the spot. She responded smiling with, "I charge by the note." They stopped demanding.

Another friend from college, Joe, responds with some variation of "I'm sorry, the monkey only dances if you put money in the cup." (Ouch!)

The Commercial Response

"If you would like to hear me sing, just put my name in at iTunes and you can download any of 3 songs I have there." Unfortunately, that didn't stop the pushy people from pleading, so I gave them a free download card. (What happened next is a WHOLE other blog article...) They finally left me alone because someone else distracted them. By playing the song previews on iTunes. Go figure.

Give 'em What They Want

Amazingly, a couple of my friends actually break into song, like "O sole mio" or whatever they have in their head at that moment. Amazing.

The Diplomatic Response

David, a friend of mine whose skill ranges from enchanting 60s folk medley to lovely early English song, will frequently respond with "I'm not warmed up and I don't want to damage my voice." Very fact-based, very diplomatic. Like Marta, who simply says, "Sorry, I'm off-duty." (That's my favorite so far.)

The Audience-Building Response

From fellow mezzo MajaLisa:  "I can't sing for you now, but you are welcome to come hear me at my upcoming performance of ________. If you want to give me your email address, I can add you to my newsletter." NICE, MajaLisa, very nice! We can learn from this woman!

A Parent's Response

Leave it to a parent-singer-conductor to give the most entertaing response:  "When people demand that I sing for them, I break into a lively rendition of "The Wheels on the Bus (Go 'Round and 'Round)" and insist they do the actions with me."


"My high school choir director told me I couldn’t sing, but my kids love it when I sing to them. Should I take voice lessons?"

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I can barely express HOW OFTEN I have heard this from adult voice students. People have come to lessons fearful and practically trembling because they so badly want to sing and someone once told them they couldn’t or they shouldn’t. For these students, it’s a particularly meaningful journey as we explore their voice and their musical creativity together.

As a music teacher, as a voice teacher, as an advocate for the arts, it’s baffling to me that so many people have this experience in their school music program. Thank goodness this isn’t true for a lot of the high school teachers I know today! HOWEVER, this has been a very common obstacle to a lot of people who love to sing. So what do you do?

1. SING. If you like to sing, then SING. Sing in the shower, sing in the car, sing when you’re home alone, sing out on a walk through the forest, sing with your kids, sing in your place of worship, join the choir, join a community choir, join a community theater troupe, sing with the music at the grocery store, sing as you craft, sing as you file papers.

2. Remember that your voice in high school was different than it was now. Everybody’s voice changes with time, our physical health, and our physical development (remember, our voices don’t fully develop until we are 30-45 years old).

3. Find a voice teacher you can get to know, you like well from the beginning, and you can come to trust. Use the voice teacher search at the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) site, search on the internet, ask your choir director for a recommendation, ask a musician friend, and set up first one month of lessons.

Over the course of 4 lessons, you should be able to get a good feeling for this voice instructor and how well you’ll work together over time. If you do like this first teacher, stay. Enjoy the beautiful music you will make together. If you aren’t sure or definitely don’t care for this teacher, go ahead and set up another month’s worth of lessons with a different teacher and re-evaluate after those 4 lessons.

4. The real work is up to you. No voice teacher can make you sing perfectly or make your voice anything in particular (in fact, the NATS code of ethicsprohibits voice teachers from making any such promises (Section II Nr 6))—the work is up to you. This is why it is so important to find a teacher you trust so you can break through the barriers created when that one person said XYZ so long ago. Find a great voice instructor FOR YOU, sing sing sing, and enjoy the journey!