Singing in English

This post comes as something of a second part to my earlier post, How to Sing an “Ah” Vowel in Choir, in which I try to explain the different sounds of English that often get lumped into one or two vowels. This post is more about the bigger picture of pronouncing the English language when singing.

From hearing several choirs in my YouTube and Spotify shuffles, I notice that when choirs from just about anywhere sing any language but English, they pay some respect to the phonetic inventories of the language. When we sing in German, we make a big deal, for instance, about differentiating [u] from [ʊ], making sure to pronounce the word und as /ʊnt/ and not /unt/.

Not so in English.

For some reason, singers in choirs are taught to whittle down the English vowel inventory to fewer and fewer possible vowels. Usually, it means that the director is asking for “taller” vowels, which I suppose really means migrating toward the sound of /ɑ/, also called “script a” or “single-story a.” What this kind of vagueness is doing is not only modifying the sound of English into an alien tongue when singing, but, through inconsistent application, is also causing serious vowel disharmony and bad tuning.

Here’s what’s happening: When singing in General American English, singers are being taught to sing

“eye” as [ɑɪ] instead of [aɪ],
“ow” as [ɑʊ] instead of [aʊ],
“ah” as [ɑ],
“uh” as [ɑ] instead of [ə],
“o” (“God”) as [ɒ] instead of [ɑ],
“ash” as [a] or [ɑ] instead of [æ],
“er” as [ɜ] instead of [ɚ],
“air” as [ɛ] instead of [ɛɹ],
“or” as [ɔ] instead of [ɔɹ], and
“ar” as [ɑ] instead of [ɑɹ].

Here is that last sentence read aloud, to hear the IPA vowels I’m talking about:

What this means is that for every replacement here, many choirs are singing both or several variants at the same time. Some of these replacements are coming from trying to make General American English sound more like Received Pronunciation. Some of this is coming from a distaste of the sounds of GA.

Here’s what that sounds like. Taking as a random example Eleanor Daley’s “In Remembrance,” from her Requiem, I grabbed two recordings, one from a professional choir in Canada, the other from a collegiate choir in the Southeast. Here is what the professional choir sounds like, with the words and a broad IPA transcription:

Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow.

du nɑt stænd æt maɪ ɡrev ænd wip aɪ æm nɑt ðɛɹ aɪ du nɑt slip aɪ æm ə θaʊzənd wɪndz ðæt bloʊ

Here is a collegiate choir who is using a few more variants on these vowels, which I’ve separated with a backslash, which is non-standard IPA (but when does IPA ever have to transcribe simultaneous speakers?):

du nɑ\ɒt stæ\and æ\at ma\ɑɪ ɡre\ɛv æ\and wip a\ɑɪ æ\am nɑ\ɒt ðɛɹ a\ɑɪ du nɑ\ɒt slip ɑ\aɪ æ\am ə\ɑ θa\ɑʊzənd wɪndz ðæ\at bloʊ

Perhaps I’ve exaggerated a bit on how many vowels have variants in that recording, but my ears do sense those variants when singing in choirs. Were I singing this passage, though, I would prefer the vowels from the first transcription.

Can we as U.S. choirs agree to embrace General American English when singing American music? We have about fourteen or so vowels in our language, which we keep trying to modify to eight or so. Every vowel can tune if everyone is doing it together, even American r’s. If singers treat them as diphthongs (that is, waiting until the last moment to switch to the second sound), they sound just fine and quite understandable. As for the lone “er” sound as in “turn,” that sound can sound fine if people don’t tighten it too much.

My best advice for performing a work in GA English is to look up every word in the dictionary and not to stray from those vowels (I recommend the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary or even Wiktionary). High singers should modify for their instruments in their extreme registers, but other than that, variant vowels makes for bad music and wrong vowels make for nonsense. 

There is no reason to be ashamed of our language.

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