How authentically should your choir pronounce foreign text?

Have you ever listened to a recording of a choir singing in your language when it is clearly not their own language? Have you noticed, even cringed, when simple words were mispronounced? I certainly have, and it got me thinking about whether it's actually that important to faithfully pronounce text in a language that isn't your own.

I've always enjoyed singing in other languages. I'd go as far as to say that English is not my favourite language for singing. I'd probably put German at the top, followed by Latin, then Italian. I don't speak any of those languages, other than a bit of holiday vocab here and there, so when I want to sing something in a foreign language, I have to study.

The same goes for my choir. The pronunciation and enunciation of the text of our repertoire is always an important part of the rehearsal process. But how important is it that we pronounce foreign text 'autentically'? And who is the arbiter of that authenticity?

Whose pronunciation should you use?

We all know that no language is 'fixed'. They evolve over generations and across countries and continents. There are hundreds of English dialects in the UK alone, and probably tens of thousands across the English-speaking world. So if I were a non-English speaker trying to sing in English, which dialect should I use? Is there a 'correct' one? If I sing the word 'grass', should the vowel be as in 'cash' or as in 'farce'?

I'm sure that if you asked musical scholars about the issue, you'd get dozens of different opinions. In other words, pronunciation is inherently subjective and based on a person's experience. So there can't be a 'correct' pronunciation of anything.

Who cares?

The older I get, the less pedantic I am about language. I still wince a bit when people say 'less' when they mean 'fewer', but I've had to accept the fact that the English I was taught as 'correct' at school simply isn't. And there are all sorts of things that bother other people that have never bothered me (to boldly split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions is something I'm very comfortable with).

It's the same with singing. If someone listens to our choir singing in a language that isn't their own, and hears what they consider to be a mispronunciation, does it matter? Surely the answer is no. No individual is the arbiter of how we pronounce the text we sing.

Sung language is different from spoken language

Many languages contain sounds and rhythms that differ between singing and speaking. In sung French, there's often an added 'uh' sound on the ends of words to make them scan. In Italian, it's common to find several syllables squashed onto a single note. When I sing Handel in English, I roll the 'Rs' like crazy which, you won't be surprised to learn, I don't do when I'm speaking on the phone.

Even a linguistic purist would have to concede that it isn't possible, or desirable, to sing a language exactly as we would speak it.

Meaning is more important than pronunciation

When I'm working on a new piece with my choir, one of the first things we look at is the text and its meaning. The point of singing is to convey the emotion of the music to an audience, and one way to do that it through the text.

A choir can be drilled in perfect pronunciation and sing every syllable exactly as they're taught, but if there's no emotion in the singing, it won't be a satisfying performance. It's so much more important to convey the meaning of the music than to get any individual component of it 'right'.

In the end, I think the best approach is to get some help with pronouncing languages with which you're not familiar (either by listening to recordings or working with a vocal coach, depending on your budget), do your best, but ultimately focus on the emotion of the music.
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2 comments

Victoria Hopkins Staff

I absolutely agree Chris. I was going to write something about showing respect to other cultures and languages, but the post was already getting a bit long! So thank you for mentioning that. As I said in the article, I think it's very important to work hard on the text of any piece. The central point I was making, though, was that I don't think there is a 'right' way to pronounce things. Every language has a huge range of accents and dialects, so I think at the very most, we can say that there's a range of 'correct' pronunciation. I've experienced this myself where different German coaches have insisted on different pronunciations for the same piece of music (not at the same time - I'm not fancy enough to have two German coaches!). I agree with you that there's no excuse for laziness, but I would hate to think of people being put off singing in different languages because they were unsure of the pronunciation.
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Victoria Hopkins Staff

Hi Naomi. Your comment immediately makes me think about the difference between a British 'L' and a Russian 'L', which is formed in a completely different place in the mouth and throat.
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