How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 2

on . Posted in Singing

In Part 1 you discovered just how skilled at foreign languages singers need to become. It takes a lot of work and it takes a lot of time to pronounce a foreign language accurately or to learn to speak it. One element is vitally important:

the meaning.

The meaning of the words and their expression is of utmost importantce in any performance, whether it's a concert with thousands in the audience or a nighttime lullaby for one little child.

This is a vastly different performance philosophy than the park-and-bark methodology of previous generations of singers (which still has a lot of influence today). The focus was on the costumes and the sound, but not necessarily on the meaning of the words and the emotional communication between the performers and the audience.

Here's a bad example:

The European Football League is an American football league (not soccer but real, American football). At one of their games in Frankfurt several years ago a vocal quartet sang the National Anthem just like we do here in the States. It's a meaningful anthem for Americans and it takes on a whole new dimension when you live in a foreign country. So while I was living abroad, every time I heard our national anthem I'd cry.

Except this time.

This quartet took it upon themselves to create a new arrangement in which the actual melody could no longer be distinguished and the harmonies were so crazy, no one could sing along. And trust me, Americans know their anthem well and they sing along no matter where they are in the world. The Germans in the stadium could forget seeing how much they could understand because there was nothing to understand. The beautiful meaning of our national anthem was gone. It wasn't there for the Americans in the stadium and it most certainly wasn't there for the Germans.

In fact, it was so bad that the native German woman standing next to me turned to me and said, "This doesn't sound right."

Here's a good example:

Listen to this, the "Song to the Moon" from the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvořák, as sung by Leontyne Price. When you're done, scroll down.


Did you catch the passion? the longing? Incredible, isn't it?

Read a bit of the background of this piece and read the translation to the text here.

Yeah, that's what I'm talkin' about.

How Many Languages Do Singers Need to Speak? Part 1

on . Posted in Singing

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!

Free and Low-Cost Concerts You're Missing Out On

on . Posted in Inspiration

In addition to the fantastic, professional organizations that we have here in the Twin Cities (and around the country!), there are loads of interesting free and low-cost concerts you may be missing out on. The programming is different, the presentation can be more relaxed. Add variety and some new music genres to your concert season.

Colleges and universities everywhere have music departments brimming with students, majors and non-majors alike, who are studying with the best teachers in the US. These students are often already experienced performers, providing an excellent musical experience.

Music majors are frequently required to write program notes for their recitals and choir concerts will have them anyway, so attending is educational and entertaining.

In college we had chamber music recitals at 5 p.m. on Mondays. They were no longer than 1 hour, which left students plenty of time to get to the dining hall for dinner. They were also open to the public and there was one man there who attended almost every single recital. He wasn't a student, no one knew who he was, and he always left just as soon as the concert was over.
English: The Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn

English: The Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We finally met a few years ago at another Augsburg Music Department function and I told him, "I remember you--you were at so many recitals and concerts here!" He told me Augsburg was on his daily walk to and from work and since he loves music so much, he would just pick up the concert announcements on his way home from work and attend a concert whenever he had time.
This man has probably seen hundreds if not thousands of hours of quality music for free, simply because he walked in the door of the music building and picked up a piece of paper. He's heard everything from Brahms to Leo Brouwerand Philip Glassto Felix Mendelssohn. He has applauded hundreds of students and supported his community.

Faculty also give recitals and concerts; frequently it is required of them by their university. These are seasoned professionals who have high standards of performance and presentation. A faculty recital is often brimming with their students, which makes for a fun, sometimes awe-filled atmosphere.

Check the websites of all the churches and other religious institutions in your neighborhood. Watch the local paper listings for community choir concert advertisements and special summer music series. From a one-night coffee house to a regular, Wednesday-night-music-in-the-park, there are countless concerts all over your area.

You probably already know someone who sings in a choir or other ensemble (especially if you're reading this blog). The next time they tell you about a concert their choir is having, buy two tickets. Try it. I bet you'll like it!

Here are some more ideas:

  1. When you see a concert flyer, pick it up. (Just taking the flyer doesn't commit you to going. Just being open to the possibility.)
  2. Make a donation to a college music department. You will surely get on their mailing list then!
  3. Sign up for the music series mailing list at the nearest religious organization. Email is a convenient way to stay in the loop.
  4. Subscribe to your local paper, whether it's a hard copy or an online version.
  5. Ask at the barista your local coffee shop where he or she likes to catch concerts and performances. You might even have just met your next favorite concert-going-buddy!
What other ways have you enjoyed great concerts in your community? Or do you only ever attend concerts at a professional orchestra/choir? Comment below and spread the word!

When (Not) to Clap at a Concert

on . Posted in Inspiration

For classical music newbies and those who've been put off of classical music by classical music snobs, the convention of clapping at a classical music concert is a bit of a mystery. However it's easier than you think! Here are a few rules of thumb for when to clap. And when not to clap.

1. When it's a welcome:  clap when the featured musicians come on stage. (If you're not sure who they are, don't clap.)

If you're at an orchestra concert, the orchestra is usually already on stage when the concert begins. Thus the conductor will be the featured musican and almost everyone will start clapping. Go ahead and join in!

If it's a concert with featured soloists, like the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, the clarinettist and the conductor will come in together; go ahead and clap for them! If it's Beethoven's 9th, the vocal soloists and the conductor will enter together. Welcome them with clapping. Everyone has been practicing and rehearsing pretty hard, so your welcome is a boost for them.

2. In between pieces of a set or movements of a larger piece:  do not clap. I repeat:  do not clap. Look for the conductor to keep holding one or both hands suspended in the air--that's a sign that it's not time to clap. It may be tempting, it may be so utterly moving, it may be so awesome, but it's the musicians' gift to you and there's plenty of time to clap when it's all done.

To give you a better idea, here is something you might see in your program:

Old American Songs Vol. I Aaron Copland (1900 - 1990)
  1. The Boatmen’s Dance
  2. The Dodger
  3. Long Time Ago
  4. Simple Gifts
  5. I Bought Me A Cat

Clap when "I Bought Me a Cat" is over.


It's better for your experience as an audience member to hear the whole set as one "chunk" of music, the singer and pianist can concentrate better, and it lends a certain flow to the performance of that set. So sit back, relax, and take it all in. It's there for you.

3. When the set is over or when the performance is over:  Go for it! Clap 'till your hands fall off. Let the performers know how much you enjoyed it, how much you appreciate their work and their creativity. Unless of course, you didn't like it, then don't clap.

4. At certain concerts, such as memorials and remembrance concerts:  it's considered inappropriate to clap, as there is a certain kind of respect and reverence at such events. You will feel the weight of the meaning settle upon you, and that is the entire purpose of the event. Let it rest with you.

5. When in doubt:  don't clap. If you're unsure if it's actually the final movement of a symphony, you can't see the conductor's hands or whatever it is--if you're unsure, don't clap. Wait until a fair amount of people have begun clapping and it feels like a trend; this is one case in which it's totally acceptable to be a follower. ;)

Make in Me a Clean Heart - Mache Dich mein Herze rein

on . Posted in Inspiration

Johann Sebastian Bach wrote several of the greatest pieces in Oratorio literature, one of them being the Matthaeus-Passion, the St. Matthew Passion. And from this, the wonderful aria "Mache dich mein Herze rein," in English "Make in me a clean heart."

You don't need to speak German to understand this one.