Singing With Good Diction and Phonetics

Elizabeth:Now, diction, phonetics.


Charlie:Do those mean the same thing?


Elizabeth:Diction is for clarity, phonetics for correctness.You learn phonetics so you are pronouncing correctly.You learn diction so that itís clear and understandable.It all has to do with language. One of the three ideals of bel canto is to sing pure vowels.It takes some study to get each vowel pure into the voice throughout the range.Itís a technical issue.Those vowels are universal to all the languages once you learn their sounds.


Singers sometimes neglect this part of singing, thinking, that when their voice registration changes they have to modify the vowels, especially when they go high.They may not try to phonate the vowels in certain parts of their range.They may have trouble getting over a registration or a low note without changing the nature of the vowel.As the voice is unified, the vowels should remain as accurately formed as possible throughout the range.Thatís part of daily vocal exercises.


Many singers think the consonants in a language are going to get in their wayóthe percussive aspect of the language, especially the explosive, unvoiced ones, the Tís and the Pís and the Chís, or the voiced ones like Mís and Nís.Singers often wish that they didnít have to deal with phonetics and diction because they complicate their singing line.What ends up happening is the consonants arenít articulated and the vowels are modulated.You can have a singer with a rich and wonderful sound but be unable to tell what language they are singing.


The singer is the only instrument that deals with language in a spontaneous way.The singer is a poet.In the bel canto the pure vowel ideal includes clarity, understandability and beauty of the language in the singing.Getting this right is hard work.Some singers and even teachers sidestep the issue and tolerate poor diction and bad phonetics.When this is neglected, it will hold a singer back.


Charlie:Are there exercises for phonetics and diction?


Elizabeth:Yes.First, thereís book learning.I studied phonetics in the classroom.Itís up to the singer and his teacher to apply that to the singing in the studio.My phonetics teacher at New England Conservatory was John Moriarty of Boston who wrote a very useful book called ďDiction for American SingersĒ which is still available.What I like about the Moriarty book is that it uses the International Phonetic Alphabet.I think the descriptions and examples of the various vowels are the best Iíve seen.I used the book as a reference all through my career.I was lucky enough to take the course with John Moriarty and we worked the entire book through with him.We did French, German, Italian, and ecclesiastical Latin.Other books cover English.English also deserves attention because there are some dialects around.There is a right way to sing in English that might not be the same as your personal dialect.So, study English diction as though it were another foreign language.This is something good broadcasters do.


Charlie:How many semesters of diction classes did you take?


Elizabeth:I took 4 semesters, two years.It was required at the conservatory.If you listen to the 1974 Debut recital, you should notice that my diction was coming along nicely.Later in my career in Europe, I remember singing some Russian songs and a nice lady came up to me and began speaking in Russian.I had to smile and say I donít speak Russian.She was quite surprised.To this day, if Iím preparing something new I sit down with my sheet of paper and write a three-line survey.I write the original language.Below that I put a word-for-word translation, and above it an IPA rendering of the proper phonetics.If I have doubt about the rules, I can look up the various words in a dictionary that uses the IPA or I have my diction book with the pronunciation rules in it.I made worksheets for every opera role, every song, etc.If it was something I hadnít sung in a while Iíd do it again.Itís also helpful for memorizing.


Charlie:What was diction class homework?


Elizabeth:Worksheets, we turned in our work for corrections.We were also expected to recite correct diction.Now and then Mr. Moriarty would sit at the piano and we were expected to sing our assignments.He checked our translations and pronunciations.And we drilled, like boot camp privates.


Charlie: Are there phonetic markups in your music scores?


Elizabeth:Sometimes, just reminders of trouble spots.I usually did a separate sheet.I rendered all of Lucia phonetically to prepare for that role.


Charlie:Your copy of Mr. Moriartyís book is quite beat up so I imagine itís because you used it constantly for the last 30+ years.


Elizabeth: Right.


(Interview with Elizabeth Parcells 2005)