≡ Menu

Teaching the Choir to Sing in Other Languages

Getting your choir to sing songs in foreign languages can be challenging especially when your choir mostly consists of hobbyists. Your choir came to sing, not to speak Latin. Yet singing a repertoire of only English songs is limiting and if you’re directing an early music group, even English pronunciation won’t necessarily be straightforward. Old English is very different from Middle English which is also quite different from Modern English. So, how do you spend most of rehearsal singing yet still get your choir to sing a French “que” instead of “kay”?

The short answer is to make learning pronunciations as easy as possible. Below are a few ways to do that.

Record Pronunciations

If your group has a website and you’re comfortable with voice recording software (e.g. GarageBand (MAC)), recording the spoken foreign lyrics is the best way to do it. People first learn to speak by listening to and imitating the people around them so listening to someone say the lyrics is the most natural way for people to learn. Also by recording the lyrics you don’t have to explain how a word is supposed to sound using inexact terms, your choir members can to listen to a track over and over again without having to worry about bothering the expert at rehearsal and taking precious rehearsal time, and there’s an official record of what the current pronunciation is. In my group some of our songs have had several different pronunciations over the years and many of members who’ve been in the group a while don’t remember which one we’re using at the moment. Having recordings alleviates that issue.

The one potential problem with recordings, aside from the person recording the pronunciations being able to pronounce the lyrics correctly, is technology. If you don’t have a recording device (be it a tape recorder or a microphone and software) making recordings is practically impossible. And even if you can make the recordings, making them available to your choir can still be difficult if you don’t have the right equipment or are that comfortable with your computer.

In the Collegium, we handle pronunciations by getting our resident expert on a certain language to record pronunciations for songs in that language and then put mp3s of the recordings on our website. Choir members can download and listen to the mp3s at their leisure, and I also take a few minutes to go over the pronunciation at rehearsal too so that it’s fresh in their minds before singing. What’s nice is that I can update the website whenever I want to, everyone has access to the latest and greatest instantly, and I don’t have to worry about wastingCDs. If one of the choir members didn’t have internet access I’d probably give him/her either a CD of the pronunciations or update a USB drive at practice. Luckily that hasn’t been a problem. Although, I think I’d still try to have pronunciation recordings made even if it wasn’t feasible to give a copy of the pronunciations to the choir members because the other benefits–being able to play them during rehearsal and having a static record of what our current pronunciation is–are very useful.

Learn and Teach the IPA

If you’re allergic to making recordings or need something to augment the recordings then it wouldn’t be a bad idea to study the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) and teach the necessary symbols and sounds to your choir. The IPA is a standard notation for writing out words phonetically. By teaching your choir what the symbols mean and how to make the sounds you can eventually send them the foreign language lyrics with a translation into IPA and theoretically they should be able to sound out the right pronunciation. The IPA translation can then be used as a pronunciation record in addition to or instead of the recording. Although, I think the real benefit of IPA is that knowing it enables you to write accurate notes to self in the music. Many times I haven’t been able to tell what my pronunciation notes mean, but when I’ve used IPA I usually remember.

A good way to teach the phonetic alphabet is to give an example word for each sound. This works well because it gives context to the sounds and symbols making it easier to remember which symbols correspond to which sound. Using example words is also useful for identifying the sounds that need to be worked on because the native language doesn’t have those sounds. Your choir still needs to learn how to sing those sounds, so using an interactive website that explains both how to produce the sound and has audio examples a good way to handle it. Here are a couple websites that do just that. Of course in order to type up IPA versions of songs you’ll need to have an IPA font.

The major drawback of this method is that it’s time consuming both for the director and for the choir-member, especially at the beginning. With practice it will get easier, but it’ll still probably take more time to make and comprehend than to make and listen to recordings. So if you have the time and the interest it’s not a bad idea, but try to make recordings first if you can. For my own use I’m planning to use IPA to augment recordings by explaining how to pronounce and notate certain sounds that do not have an English analogue.

Make up your own phonetic alphabet

The basic idea of this method is to make a translation of foreign language lyrics into your native language’s pronunciation. If you’re going this route, I highly suggest making a key up at the top with examples of words that already contain the sound. It will help for the times when two sounds are nearly the same or the same letter has different ways of being pronounced. (Ex: “a”: “hat”, “hate”, “what”) The good part about this method is there’s no real studying involved aside from figuring out the right pronunciation, you don’t need any equipment, and chances are your choir will be able to more easily consume it. (Those who take the time to anyway.) There are some major pitfalls, though. As mentioned, certain letters or combinations of letters can be pronounced differently. I already gave the example of the vowel “a”, but what about “eh”. Is it like the “a” in “hate”? Or is it like the “e” in “wet”? And then there are the instances where your native tongue simply doesn’t have that sound. Easy example is the rolled r, which doesn’t exist in English. Another reason to stick with IPA is that there’s a chance someone in your choir is already familiar with the IPA and would much rather have it in that form, where just about all pronunciations are accounted for, than try to decipher your cryptic code. So, if you can avoid making your own phonetic alphabet, do.

To conclude, the best way to get your choir to pronounce foreign language lyrics correctly is to have them listen to recordings of the lyrics. It’s easiest for you–the director–and for the choir. An excellent way to supplement recordings is to learn and use the IPA to show your choir both how to make the sounds they aren’t used to making and a way to notate those sounds in the music. Making up your own phonetic alphabet is not as effective, though, because deciphering will still have to take place and you can’t guarantee that you’ll be able to approximate the sounds using only your native language.

Mind you, this assumes that you actually know how to pronounce foreign language lyrics. Later I’ll write more on this topic.

{ 2 comments… add one }

Leave a Comment