Language learning is a must for the classical singer. Being believable in multiple languages can be the deciding factor in an audition. Giving your students a real advantage in the world of classical singing can truly come down to your ability to unlock these types of learning capabilities. As a teacher, you do not have to be fluent in every language (though it helps) but you must be fluent in giving your students the resources they need to excel.
Not every one of your students will be able to jet off to Middlebury for a summer immersion experience. What can we do to provide our students with language learning essentials to help them with their repertoire? Let’s revolutionize our studio with a language bootcamp!
Teach Your Students to Sing in Multiple Languages
Learning languages for singing is more about a deep understanding of the pronunciation and sounds of the language. As your students progress, you will encourage them to develop a better understanding of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. However, for studio purposes we start with diction. This is great. Every language hacker recommends starting with immersing yourself in the sounds of the language before going on to things like learning colors and verb conjugations. It is also important to note that our primary singing languages for the voice studio are Italian, French, German, English, and Spanish (although Spanish is not always considered in the traditional list.) This is simply a starting place. Clearly, there is a wealth of repertoire in languages other than those already listed. We would be remiss to not assign that repertoire to our students as well.
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Getting Used to the Sound of the Language
Aural skills for singers is not relegated only to identifying intervals and cadential patterns. Aural skills can also be applied to picking up sounds of different languages. During your language bootcamp, it is advisable to brainstorm as many ways to listen to the language as possible. Here are a few to get you started:
- Encourage your students to find recordings of their repertoire and to take notes on the pronunciation specifically. If your students are younger or just getting started, they may not know about the resources that you know about. It is okay to suggest different platforms, beyond iTunes, wherein they can find recordings of classical music.
- Listening to radio stations from around the world can help language bootcampers become more accustomed to the sound of different languages and different accents. There are plenty of internet radio apps that provide access like TuneIn.com. Isn’t the internet great?
- After a long day of IPA worksheets, kick back and watch a feel-good movie or television show in another language without the subtitles. Attune your ears to the cadence and inflection of the sentences.
Language Learning CDs
- My go-to crash course in listening to another language has always been the inestimable Pimsleur audiobooks/cds. Buy your own or borrow them from your local library.
International Phonetic Alphabet – IPA
International Phonetic Alphabet (or IPA) is the saving grace of classical singers learning how to sing in a foreign language. A healthy and robust understanding of IPA can cut down on time spent teaching, learning, and re-teaching/re-learning pronunciation in the studio because it offers clear guidance on how to produce different sounds.
When working on a short lesson schedule, it can be difficult to squeeze in teaching the introduction to IPA. I highly recommend finding a resource that you like and assigning your students to watch/absorb it outside of lesson time during their regular practice schedule. Here’s a very basic video series that I find helpful:
Most of us also have multiple diction textbooks from our undergraduate and graduate school experiences. Keeping them handy and assigning worksheets from those textbooks can be very valuable. Obviously, English diction worksheets are just as important to classical singing as the worksheets in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. Some of the texts that I prefer are:
- Lyric Diction Workbooks by Cheri Montgomery
- These are available in French, German, Italian, English, and more.
- Singing in French by Thomas Grubb
- Diction Italian, Latin, French, German…the Sounds and 81 Exercises for Singing Them by John Moriarty
- Singing and Communicating in English: A Singer’s Guide to English Diction
Take Your Language Learning to the Next Level
To really bootcamp the bejeezus out of your languages, you will want to move beyond training your ear to hear the sounds of the words. You, and your students, will want to learn basic vocabulary words and into an understanding of the grammar. When I explain why it is important to understand grammar and sentence structure to classical singers, I remind them that we don’t react to a joke unless we’ve reached the punchline. Do not be the one singer on stage who doesn’t get the joke.
There are so many resources when it comes to language learning, it rather surprises me that we’re not completed surrounded by polyglots. We can continue to use textbooks and workbooks from our classroom days. But, we can also use apps and websites with built-in gaming functions to turbocharge our relationships with languages. Here are some you should investigate:
- Duolingo is language learning backed by the power of gamification. Listening, reading, speaking, and learning. It’s all here — for free.
- BBC Languages
- Whatever your learning style, you can find something in BBC Languages that will help you with your language learning. BBC Language resources are available in over 30 languages for learners of all levels, and BBC News is also provided in multiple languages.
- Their tagline is “Learning, made joyful. We make learning languages and vocab so full of joy and life, you’ll laugh out loud.” How can you turn that down?
- Beginners’ lessons use flash cards for learning new words and phrases, but advanced lessons involve writing and answering questions that will be reviewed by native speakers on the site.
- Open Culture
- This is goldmine of resources for language learning. Check it out. You will not be disappointed.
The DIY Language Learner
The power of flashcards compel you. There are so many resources out there and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface. However, the best resource for language learning is the one that is the most compelling to you and/or your students. This can be as simple as writing out the text of your repertoire, the English translation, and the IPA onto a flashcard. It doesn’t have to be flashy graphics and gamification unless you want that. When making a bootcamp schedule for yourself or your students, pick the things that will move the needle the most.
One more thing…
I wanted to share this Art of Charm Podcast episode with you. Featuring Gabriel Wyner, the Art of Charm guys cover some great language bootcamp stories and hacks in this episode. It is well worth a listen.
Structuring the Bootcamp
I love a good bootcamp. How would you structure your ideal language bootcamp? For you? For your students? Tell me all about it in the comments below. Plus, feel free to add any resources that you find particularly useful that didn’t make it into this post. I am always curious! Love short and sweet answers? Tweet me your thoughts @mezzoihnen.
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