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A guide to the usage and enunciation of English in classical singing written by a professional singer and teacher with unique ideas.
38 backers pledged $1,765 to help bring this project to life.

Recent updates

First draft done!

Posted by Michael Sylvester (Creator)
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Yesterday I finished the first draft of my book, English Diction and Enunciation for North American Singers! Now the rewriting and proofing begins. What a relief, though, to have the first draft completed. I am so grateful to those who supported my Kickstarter project and those who offered encouragement. I am especially grateful to my wife, Michele and my daughter, Emma, for their patience this past month while I typed away, made strange sounds and often ignored them!

Thank you! Our goal is obtained!

Posted by Michael Sylvester (Creator)

Thank you so much, dear backers. Because of you we have reached and exceeded our goal. I am so excited to know that I can see this through. I have been writing and writing and moving closer to getting the first draft completed. Then comes proofreading and editing, then publishing! Thank you for your faith in me and your interest in this book.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. Each and every one.

Michael Sylvester

So Close! Nearly 90% there!

Posted by Michael Sylvester (Creator)

I need just a few more backers to "kick" this project over the goal line! I am so appreciative of the backers/supporters who have already committed their help. If you have not yet done so, I hope you will look at the Rewards and find one that fits you. Please tell others about this.

I am going to share one last chapter with everyone. This is still a draft copy, of course. Comments are always welcome. If you read it and find it worthy, please back my project so that I can get it completed, edited and published. Here is a chapter for your perusal:

The Goal of Good Diction and Enunciation

©2013, Michael Sylvester

When singing in any language the primary goal is to be understood by people who speak that language natively. This is an easy goal to state, but the reality of executing it is far from simple. All languages have dialects. English is no exception. In North America alone the differences in pronunciation between Boston, New York, Toronto, Vancouver, St. Louis, Dallas, Savannah and Seattle are significant. Then there is Great Britain, which has a plethora of dialects; Australia; India and the English-speaking Caribbean islands and African countries. How do we decide on a “standard” pronunciation?

We cannot be the arbiters of “proper” pronunciation. No one sets rules for how English should be spoken. Dictionaries do, you say? No, dictionaries reflect what is in common usage and that changes over time. Nevertheless, when in doubt, consulting a reputable dictionary is a wise course of action. Many times, though, you will still be presented with choices for pronunciation. It is an inexact science and we rely more often than anything on our experience.

At one time, voice teachers and such referred students to Standard American English. This was presumably what was spoken in the theater and in well-educated society. There was something vaguely British about it. Times have changed since then and the whole concept of Standard American English strikes me as somewhat elitist, and possibly racist. And yet, we do have to make choices about pronunciation. How do we know what is the best choice? Let us consider the generally narrow scope of pronunciation as is practiced on television newscasts. While not as even as it once was, it is still rather standardized and understood across the land.

There are certain things that we do in classical English diction that are exceptions from spoken English. These are things that either make it easier to sing or help make the language more easily understood in the singing process. We will discuss these in due course as we come to them in later chapters.

Our goal in singing is English is to sound natural and to be understood by our audience. That may mean making different choices if you are performing in Great Britain or Australia, if you want to sound native, but our concern here is the North American audience. While one could make the argument, and some do, that when singing British music one should pronounce the language in a British manner, I contend that if you want your audience to understand–and that is the prime goal–then you need to tailor your pronunciation to the audience. At the same time, in classical music we must maintain a level of pronunciation that does not have the colloquialisms of popular music.

It is also important to note that while we want our language to sound natural, we do not always pronounce it while singing in a completely natural way. Many languages have things that are changed in singing, especially in classical singing, from the spoken vernacular. Typically the reasons fall into two categories: Either they impede the aesthetic beauty of singing, or they impede the intelligibility of the language.

If you look in a dictionary you will find that the words are all neatly divided into discrete syllables. It all seems to clear and precise. Speech, however, is messy and imprecise, often relying on the listener’s brain to parse the continual flow of sound into recognizable language, using context and experience to make sense of it all. It is not always accomplished perfectly and then we misunderstand what was said. In singing we string together the flow of speech in many different ways. Sometimes the duration of a syllable or syllables is very long, at other times very short and often a combination of both. Except in song, the ear–or more accurately, the brain–is not accustomed to hearing truncated or elongated language.

As singers, it is our job to help the listener make sense of the flow of sound. We do that with two tools, diction and enunciation. So often we learn about diction and forget the importance of enunciation. Diction informs us about how the text should be rendered. Enunciation is the rigorous projection of the text–primarily the consonants–to the listeners’ ears. Enunciation requires matching the strength of the consonants to the strength of the vowels. It is assuring that the listeners will understand the difference between “ear” and “hear”, between “still” and “steal”, between “truss” and “trust”, and between “stimulate” and “simulate.”

Once we know how to make the sounds, then we must project those sounds to ears of our audience. The latter task is where many singers fail. It requires more effort and attention than most singers–particularly young or novice singers–want to believe. It is easy to feel that final “t” in your mouth and not understand that it was not heard across the room. Sometimes singers feel that clear enunciation interferes with their sound or with their legato. Properly done, enunciation will enhance the singer’s sound, legato and artistry. Beyond providing intelligibility, consonants add color and drama to the musical line. Because there are exceptions to every rule, let me point out that there are rare moments when diction and/or enunciation must be subjugated to the effect of the music. Rare moments.

To make the text and music work together. To be certain that the back row of seats can understand. To create artistry from the sounds of the words applied to the musical line. These are all parts of the single goal of good diction and enunciation: to sound natural and be understood. If you apply the guidance from this book to your singing, you can accomplish that goal.

Final paragraph of the chapter on Consonants

Posted by Michael Sylvester (Creator)
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Here is the final paragraph summing up the Introduction to Consonants:

"Consonants add color and clarity to an English text. They deserve every singer’s respect and attention. There is a symbiotic relationship between vowels and consonants. Well-sung vowels make the sound beautiful; well-sung consonants make that beauty meaningful." (© 2013 Michael Sylvester)

So close to the goal line!

Posted by Michael Sylvester (Creator)
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Thank you, backers and supporters all, for putting me within reach of my goal with 13 days left! I am overwhelmed by your generosity and support. I am working hard to get this done and just completed the first draft of a section titled How to work through the diction in an English text. The goal was to identify a plan or an approach to looking at an English text and finding the diction details within. I am posting it below for your inspection. Constructive comments are always welcome!

How to work through the diction in an English text

by Michael Sylvester (©) 2013

Anytime we approach a task it is useful to have a plan. As a singer, most of us have methods concerning how we practice, how we learn music, how we memorize, etc. As a native speaker of English and a singer, you probably have a formalized way that you approach new pieces in foreign languages. You need to do this with English texts as well.

Familiarity–even with a foreign language–can lead to sloppiness. When we feel comfortable with a subject we can too easily overlook things that we might not if we were more attentive. As English speakers we are so familiar with our native language that we do not often think about it and even when we do, we tend to not inspect it closely.

When you first begin working on music in English you must consider the text a foreign language. Inspect the text closely. Consider each word. Do you know what the word means? Many texts have older, currently unused and archaic words. There may be currently used words that you do not know. The English language has upwards of 175,000 words, but the average person may know fewer than 40,000 and consistently use only a few thousand. When you don’t know the meaning of a word, look it up! Texts sometimes contain references to historic events or literary characters, frequently Greek and Roman mythology. If you don’t know the reference, look it up! Find out about the author of the text. Understanding the time period when the piece was written can help you understand the meaning and context. Knowing about the author’s writing will yield insight into the text. Often texts are lifted out of context and set to music. Finding the original context–which can include not only the original text, but also the historical context–will lead to better understanding. A singer with better understanding of the text is far more capable of conveying meaning to an audience.

Below is a method for approaching a new piece in English from a diction standpoint. You will need to incorporate this into your more comprehensive method of learning new music. This is not the only way to do this, but these steps are all necessary and here they are organized into a logical system:

1. Inspect the text as if it were in a foreign language. Look at it word by word. If there are words you do not know, look them up. If there are proper names of people, places or things that you do not know, find out about them.

2. Now that you understand all of the words and references, read the sentences. Do they all make sense? Poetry can sometimes require some reflection to understand the meaning. You might want to discuss this with others to get their take on the text if the underlying meaning is not clear to you. That nice song you learned might have a deeper meaning and understanding that meaning will better equip you to project the piece to your audience.

3. The first diction-specific task is to identify all of the diphthongs and triphthongs. Write in the IPA for them and be sure you know which vowels you will sustain and which are the vanishing vowels. This is very important. English contains many words with diphthongs and triphthongs and knowing which vowel you will sing is vital to good vocalism and good enunciation. (See Diphthongs and Triphthongs.)

4. Next go through the text and find problem words. There is no definitive list, but look for those common words that are often mispronounced in speech. Words that typically fit this list are words with vowels [i], [ɪ] and [ɛ] that are mixed up, such as “many”, “when”, “pin”, “pen”, “get”, “been”, and words like “your”, “you’re”, “our”, “hour”, “pour”, “poor” and “sure”, “dew”, “new”, “duty”, “evil” and “beautiful” and others. You may have your own list of words that are troublesome for you. (See Words Requiring Different Pronunciation In Singing.)

5. Find all the occurrences of “the” and determine which of the three pronunciations applies. (See The, the and the.)

6. Locate words with final “r” and those with r-flavored vowels. Be sure you know how you will handle these words. (See R as a vowel.)

7. Now the delicate task of looking at all of the remaining single vowels and vowel combinations and identifying the exact vowel sound of each. If you are not sure about a word, look up its pronunciation. If you find more than one, you will have to choose. Don’t assume the pronunciation to choose is how you say it. Think about how you hear the word spoken by others, especially those trained to speak publicly. Also, which pronunciation would be easier to understand?

8. Next come the consonants. Identify the voiced and unvoiced consonants, paying attention to the cognates. Be sure you know which are voiced and which are unvoiced. Note where you might be “enticed” to create an unwanted shadow vowel, such as after certain voiced consonants that are followed by another consonant or a vowel. Unvoiced consonants never have shadow vowels. Then find those places where shadow vowels are needed after final voiced consonants.

9. Locate consonants combinations that require special care, including consonant pairs within a word and final/initial consonant combinations. (See Consonant Pairings)

10. Finally, look through the piece and consider the musical and emotional contexts. Are there places to break the rules? Are there perhaps declamatory lines where the consonants need more enunciation that normal? Are there lines that require intense legato and may need less enunciation for effect? Are there specific words that need to be emphasized? Perhaps there are places calling for humorous effects. Maybe there are words that need to be overly dramatic. Whatever the need of the music and/or the text, be certain that your approach is appropriate.

Creating art is your job and there are no rules for how to do that. Your ultimate responsibility is to communicate to your listeners. How you do that may require breaking the rules on occasion. The rules put forth in this book are designed to make your English diction consistent and comprehensible, but they are not rigid. They are tools for your use, but if in the service of creating an artistic statement you bend or break them, that is your discretion. But do so purposefully and after careful consideration. And infrequently!