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Singing in English, or The Impossible Dream

August, 2002

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?" lamented Henry Higgins. My question is why too many vocal coaches cannot teach their students how to pronounce the lyrics of what they sing.

For example, the expression "I'll love you for eternity" which I have almost always heard sung as "I love you for eternity. "Is there no way," I asked myself, "to pause between the last L's of 'I'll' and the first L of 'love'?" The replies I got from singers were either, "It would break up the vocal line" (there would have to be a pause between the last "l" of "I'll and the first "l" of "love"), or "What difference does it make?" The latter irritated me greatly, because the purpose of a song is to express words with music. Of course, the music is important, but never – repeat, never – at the expense of the words.

Truth to tell, during actual productions, most of what the cast is singing cannot be understood in any language, let alone the "I love/I'll love" distinction. Shall we call this the Joan Sutherland Syndrome? A total lack of concern with the lyrics based on the supposition that music is all important?

Things get bad during a program (say) of jazz arrangements of popular standards, as we try to follow a trail of dropped or misplaced final consonants left by the singer. It is difficult indeed to make sense of lines like "Dohn geh taroun much anym're" and "Gra bya ha tan gra bya coh, lee vya worrie zon the doorsteh" and so on. Most of the consonants are there, but attached to the wrong words.

Even worse is the Case of the Missing Consonants. This seems more of a problem with female vocalists some of whom possess a marvelous voice but let forth a gorgeous stream of vowels in which (and I am not using a writer's privilege of exaggeration) not one single consonant can be heard all through the performance. In the case of amateurs, not one single loving parent, friend, audience member, wants to mention this lack to their daughters, neighbor's daughters, bosses nieces, all of whom – spurred on by all the bravas they received – will continue to think that singing a text has nothing to do with the words therein.

So the question boils down to what should a singer do? Or better still, what should an audience demand of its singers to make them do what a singer should do? First of all, we have to be honest when relatives, friends, and other locals get up to entertain. What happens is that the Director has all the words already and in mind and THINKS he or she is hearing them. (This is what probably happens at the opera performances I attend.) So does every one else involved in the production.

I would suggest that some disinterested party, or at least someone who does not know the lyrics, should be invited to a rehearsal not too near opening night and comment on what is heard or not heard, what is understood and not understood. And a tape recording to back up those comments would not be a bad idea.

Either alone or with the musical director, each singer should talk the lyrics, deliberately exaggerating all consonants until they are perfectly audible when sung. So "I coulD haVe danceD aLL nighT" does not come out as "I codv dans (t)all nigh," as I actually heard it done in a local production of "My Fair Lady."

When it comes to pop and country singing, the results are even more unintelligible, thanks to the singers' tendency to make love to the microphone and mumble into it. The mike, blast it, only amplifies; it does not clarify. The very first Edison recording of "Mary had a little lamb" will sound just as bad on the most advanced state of the art reproduction system.

Nowhere is the problem of enunciation more acute than in patter songs like those in Gilbert & Sullivan or an English "Barber of Seville." Since they are made up mostly of polysyllabic words, hitting off each consonant and separating each word is absolutely essential to communicating with the audience. Of course, many popular songs have very little of semantic value to communicate at all; but Broadway shows and opera in English are designed to say something – shallow or deep as the case may – and the audience deserves to hear what that is.

So perhaps if this little essay is read by some directors and does a little good, I would very much appreciate knowing about it.

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