By Judy Pringle
You and your choir have worked tirelessly on uniform vowel formation, well-tuned singing, focusing the tone, singing correct notes, beautiful phrase lines. You’re feeling good. But step back and give a listen and you’ll often find there isn’t a consonant to be heard. It is our task as singers to articulate so the listeners can share in the delicious words and message.
We want clear, well-defined consonants in our singing and it’s a challenge to achieve. When our listeners know the text as in a well-known hymn or carol, we are understood because the context is known. This is far from the case when the text is unknown.
The topic of consonants is far-reaching, but here are a few tips I use in rehearsing in the English language with my volunteer choir.
Firstly, I emphasize diction right from the “get-go.” I do not let it slide…. ever! I spend rehearsal time on the texts of the repertoire I am currently preparing.
In the anthem, “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” from Divine Hymns or Spiritual Songs, compiled by Joshua Smith, New Hampshire, 1784, I begin by having the choristers recite the words, projecting as if speaking to an audience. I find reciting the text aloud employs thought for expressiveness and compels the choir to enunciate
The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.
After the choir has accomplished reciting the stanza with good articulation, I change the exercise to reciting the words in a variety of groupings. I develop my own groupings from the text and ensure the consonants are clear in every grouping:
The tree of life/my soul hath seen/life my soul/The tree hath seen/The tree my soul/The tree my soul hath seen/my soul hath seen the tree of life
Laden with fruit/and always green/Laden always green/with fruit laden green
The trees of nature/the trees fruitless be/nature fruitless be/fruitless be compared/compared with Christ/Christ the apple tree/compared Christ tree/with Christ compared
Once the choir is speaking the consonants with clarity, I add the rhythm of the music to the words and recite once more. Try speaking the opening solo/semi chorus of the example that follows. Notice that adding the rhythm and practising the phrases within their rhythmic context creates yet another level of attention to consonant detail.
(Used by permission Hinshaw Music Publishing)
At this point we sing the opening stanza with the words. I choose a chorister to sit some distance from the choir and comment on the articulation or lack thereof. (It’s helpful to receive feedback from a chorister rather than always from the director.)
Next, I have the choir sing the piece without the consonants on only the vowels of the words. When I add the consonants thereafter, the vitality of the words is most satisfactory. (Warning! Your choir will not like this exercise at first. But stick with it. Everyone will be pleasantly rewarded.)
When I am happy with the production of the consonants, I work on singing the pieces softly. Pianissimo singing will lessen the consonants. This is an excellent exercise and will serve you well when in fact the anthem does demand piano dynamics.
These techniques work beautifully with my choristers. I invite you to test them when you resume your rehearsals in September, and please keep at it, until the production of clear, well-articulated consonants is second nature to your choristers. Words separate singers from instrumentalists. Let’s make the most of them!
Judy Pringle is the Director of Choral Marketing for Sheet Music Plus and the President of Canadian Choral Centre Inc.