Tag Archives: intermediate level

Getting Started with Languages

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Image by lusi at freeimages.com

Learning your first song in a language other than your native tongue can be a daunting task. But, fear not! Here are some simple ideas to help you get started singing in foreign languages.

Listen and Repeat

When you’re working on a song in a foreign language, it is a really good idea to listen to it being sung. If you can find a native speaker singing it, so much the better. YouTube and Spotify are both great sources for finding a range of recordings. As you listen, make sure you have the words in front of you so you can follow them. Read and listen to the song a few times, and on the last time through, grab a pencil and make a note of any pronunciations that jump out at you as particularly noticeable. For example, in German, a “w” is pronounced as a “v”.

 

Understand Pronunciation

Pronunciation is a tricky beast. It can be very difficult to find a clear guide to how to pronounce any foreign language without learning how to use the International Phonetic Alphabet. However, you can use different tools to help you. Try using an online text-to-speech generator to get a general sense of the words. Enter the song line by line to hear it read out. It’s imperfect, but should give you a good sense of the basic sound and shape.

I have also found that language learning software can be a great support for good pronunciation. If you have a smartphone or tablet, I cannot recommend Duolingo highly enough. This fabulous app has listening, speaking, reading and writing activities which help you learn all the key singing languages. This will also help you to begin to understand the structure and nature of the language you are singing in which will mean you will be able to communicate the meaning more clearly.

If you are keen to learn more about Pronunciation, A Handbook of Diction for Singers by David Adams is a comprehensive resource for Italian, French and German. This book uses IPA to explain the rules of pronunciation in all three languages.

 

The ‘Allo ‘Allo Rule

The best tip I was ever given by a singing teacher for learning a song in a foreign language was “sing it like you’re in ‘Allo ‘Allo”. For those of you not familiar with this reference, ‘Allo ‘Allo is an old British comedy show set in Nazi-occupied France. It was known for the particularly theatrical accents which often bordered on mockery.

Of course, my teacher was not advising me to mock the language I was singing in. Instead, by aiming for the over-the-top accent when singing, I would end up hitting a quite convincing sound. Thus, if you’re struggling, try to over-exaggerate the linguistic features. Make the German extra guttural and harsh, make the French really pouty, or the Italian very rounded.

 

Find the Meaning

Once you have a grasp on how to make the sounds, it is also important to begin to understand the song in translation. There are some excellent sites around which have translations of art song texts such as Rec Music. Choose one or two you like, and read them over a few times to begin to understand the words. Consider how the meaning of the lyrics fits with the music.

You might also want to try putting the lyrics through Google Translate. This won’t give you a poetic translation, but it will be quite literal. This can help you to identify key words in the text. I often write the translation of a few of the most important words, and the words at key points in the music, so I can see the meaning as I practice the song.

 

I hope these tips will help you to begin to tackle your first foreign language songs and help you have the confidence to explore the whole world of music.

Do you have any favourite methods for learning foreign language songs? Leave them in the comments below.

Reaching High Notes – When the Voice is a String Instrument

The voice is fundamentally a wind instrument. We use air to make sound, rather than vibrating strings or hitting objects. However, when we’re trying to reach the high notes in our voice, it’s more helpful to think about a violin than a flute.

elkhart-100fl-fluteWhen you want to make a high note on a wind instrument, we shorten the sound waves by either making the tube smaller. A piccolo has a shorter and narrower than a flute. If you’re tuning a flute or a recorder, you push the head and body together more to sharpen the pitch, and pull it out to flatten it.

Many people try to sing high notes like a flute – they try to make the tube smaller. We tense up in the back of our throats and neck, raise our tongues and generally make all our airways small. This can really succeed in making a high note, but it often sounds pinched or squeezed and not very pleasant at all! It also stops being effective after a certain point. The bone and cartilage makes it impossible to keep making our throats smaller.

ViolinSo what about a stringed instrument? To make the pitch higher on a violin, we fit thinner and thinner strings, and we stretch them tighter. On a violin, all the strings are the same length, but the tension on each will be different. To make any string sound higher, we pull the string tighter – we make it “longer”.

When you want to reach the high notes in your voice as a singer, it’s much better to imagine this process of making your vocal folds longer like a violin string. To make a higher pitch, your vocal folds need to vibrate faster, so we need to increase the tension by lengthening them. Think of it like plucking a rubber band guitar. If you stretch the band more, the pitch gets higher.

Me singingAs you start to sing higher, imagine your vocal folds getting longer. Think about getting taller and longer as you go higher, and open up your throat vertically. At first, this might feel strange, and it might even sound strange because your muscles aren’t used to it. However, you’ll start to find you get a much more pleasing noise on the higher notes, and the range of your voice will increase because you can lengthen and thin your vocal folds much more than you can tighten and constrict your throat.

As you experiment with this, try to keep your tongue low and your mouth quite open as this will mean the sound has plenty of space to resonate in.

To practice singing higher notes and extending your range, try exercises like arpeggios which go from a low, easy to sing pitch, to a high pitch in a single breath. Aim to keep your throat and mouth as open and relaxed on the high notes as on the low ones.

With any luck, starting to sing like a violin will soon help to make those high notes easier to hit and much more pleasant to listen to!

How do you think about your voice when you sing high notes? What exercises help you to extend your range and sound good in your upper register?

Movement for Non-Actors: Part 1- Why Move?

If you’re preparing for an LCM Musical Theatre Performance exam, you might have noticed this rather ominous line in the syllabus:

dance and movement are encouraged and expected, and credit will be given for appropriate dance and other movement which is in context and is integral to, and enhances the performance of, the pieces… (p14, section 2.5.2, emphasis added)

To the first study singer, this kind of instruction can strike fear in the heart of even the most confident. So, how do you start to bring movement and dance into your performances? In this post, I’ll talk about movement, and then in a future post I’ll discuss dance.

Why Do I Need to Move?

Eponine

Standing still in the middle of the stage makes a statement. It’s very intense, and it’s very direct to the audience. Some songs are definitely those kinds of songs, but most of them aren’t. Think about it. How many times have you seen someone be completely static in a musical? Have a look at this example from Ghost. Although most of the song is static, there’s still a point at which Molly moves (at 3:35). Note how the choice to move conveys a change of mood as the song breaks from the sad and depressing verse to an angry bridge.

Movement is just as important as the music in helping the audience to understand the meaning of a song. Just as you map your song vocally, you’ll need to map your song out physically. Here are some questions to help you start figuring out how to build in movement:

  • Who am I talking to? Am I singing to the audience or another character on stage, or who has just left the stage? e.g. There’s a Fine, Fine, Line (Avenue Q) is directed at the audience, but Daddy’s Girl (Grey Gardens) is sung to Jack, and Bring Him Home (Les Miserables) is directed at God.
  • Is there a particular point where the mood changes? e.g. With You (Ghost) or Still Hurting (The Last Five Years)
  • Do the lyrics describe what I’m doing? e.g. in On My Own, Eponine talks about walking through the streets.
  • Are there instrumental sections where you aren’t singing?

Grab a copy of your music, or the lyrics, and in pencil write the person to whom you’re talking to on the top. Then mark in the other points in the music. Once you have these key aspects you can begin to map out where and how you’re going to move.

Kate Monster

Move with Intention

One of the most important rules in theatrical movement is always move with intention. You don’t, in real life, wonder around aimlessly. You always move for a reason, even if it’s unconcious. Sometimes we move closer or further away from someone to show our feelings about them. We might pace the room to help us think. We move to pick something up or put something down.

The same is true for your character. For every movment you make, you need to make an active and considered choice about why you are moving. As you map out you movement, write in the reasons why you’re moving in pencil next to the action.

Starting Point

Before the beginning of any number, something has already happened to your character. Even if it’s the opening number of the show, the character hasn’t popped into existance at that very moment. In Les Miserables, Jean Valjean is already in prison. He’s had a whole life before that point which has landed him there in the first place. In the immediate moments before he sings his first solo number, What Have I Done? he has been speaking to the Policemen and the Bishop. This means he will already be on stage, and in a particular location.

In your song, you need to know what has happened before. Write this at the top of your music too. Is it that you have just finished talking to someone? Have you just come on stage? Where are you entering from, or where did the conversation take place? There’s no requirement for anyone to start a solo number in centre stage. Look again at With You from Ghost. Molly sings the whole song downstage left, which adds to the atmosphere of weakness, pain and fear.

Making Choices

From there on, you can make choices that work for you. Perhaps your character gets frustrated and starts to pace? Or they’re happy and they want to dance around? Do they give up by the end and need to collapse on the floor? I sang one performance where I began lying on the floor and slowly stood up towards the end. At each of the change points you’ve marked, make some decisions about whether or not to move and where to go. Look at some videos on YouTube of actual performances and see what aspects you like. A friend of mine has been preparing Steps to the Palace from Into the Woods, and she found it very frustrating that for someone who was supposed to be stuck to the spot according to the lyrics, an awful lot of Cinderellas kept moving around! I, on the other hand, borrowed most of the movement from the original show for The Wizard and I from Wicked.

In Part Two

On Thursday, you can pick up on part two of this post, where I’ll talk about how you can use space, levels, eyes, gesture and props to help bring movement to your performance.

What do you do to help bring more movement into your performances for Musical Theatre? Add your tips in the comments below!

Understanding Repertoire (Free Printable)

Sheet music 2One of the aspects of teaching I really enjoy is when I get to use my degree (which isn’t in music) to help students understand the songs they are singing. I studied Social Anthropology and Social History, and so I love discussing historical context, composers and meaning.

When preparing repertoire with students, I often make use of my Understanding Repertoire printables. These short forms give prompts to help students start thinking about the emotional content of their songs, as well as covering musical features like key and structure. These sheets also make a good additional written aspect to practice for students if they are likely to have trouble doing regular practice one week. I also use them regularly for exam song to help students start to go beyond just singing the song accurately and really start to engage with the motives of the singer.

The sheet isn’t really suitable for very young singers, but from around age 9 or 10, students should be able to engage with this. You may need to explain the terms “baroque” and “romantic” etc if you’ve not covered basic history of music with them (and stay tuned to the blog for more information on my History of Music for Singers programme in the future).

You can download the pdf by clicking this link: [purchase_link id=”1318″ style=”button” color=”dark-gray” text=”Purchase”]

Please don’t modify this sheet before you give it to students, or sell it to anyone. You are, of course, welcome to print copies for students or use it as inspiration for producing your own activities to help students get to know their repertoire.