Sibilant Rivalry: Considering Our Lyric Diction Practices
by Darryl Edwards
Reprinted with permission from The Canadian Music Educator, Dec. 1, 2009
What a catchy title! It is only a partial description of this article, which is about some of the most prominent challenges we experience with “lyric diction” – the diction used in singing. Over the years, I have become more and more convinced of the central importance of diction as characterization, diction as a spontaneous paintbrush, and diction as a standard of quality. Disproportionate attention to diction – or away from diction – can smear the meaning, distract from the meaning, or unintentionally change the meaning.
In a September retreat/workshop with the Chamber Choir of Cawthra Park Secondary School, its conductor Robert Anderson invited me to join him in refining this already excellent choir’s vocal production and music making. It was an exhilarating experience! When singing the words, “angels and archangels,” the singers needed to define their emphasis by putting a slight sting or “glottal attack” on the first /a/ of “archangels.” In its initial form, the choir was actually singing what sounded like “angels an’ dark angels!” It was reminiscent for me of a moment in Italy when a young North American soprano sang to an attentive audience of local residents an aria from Mozart’s Così fan tutte: “Una donna a quindici [ani],” sending the listeners into covered chuckles and guffaws. By omitting the second /n/ in “anni,” she had sung the words, “A woman of fifteen anuses” instead of “A woman of fifteen years!” It was an impressionable teaching moment that escaped no one.
The effective production of lyric diction is both a skill and an art form. It requires skill because the text must be accurately communicated, and in a way that may seem unmusical to some. The artistry occurs in the finessing of the context and trajectory to and from its musico-dramatic high points, and through the contours of its nuances.
As vocal music educators, it is a major challenge to infuse our singers with an attraction to and expectation of a legato line, balanced tone, and a mind/body connection to meaning and production. Is diction accuracy and character sculpting through diction-lofty goals only for those who have daily rehearsal time within the curriculum, and in situations where the repertoire is sophisticated? No. It is possible in any situation, and at any level.
In these times, as young singers are flooded with “high speed,” “high definition,” “surround sound” information, the words of Robert Frost’s poem, “Choose Something Like a Star”1 ring true: “Say something to us we can learn by heart, and when alone, repeat. Say something! …Use language we can comprehend.” Sorting through the myriad of messages to find meaning, make meaning, and share meaning is a compelling attraction in our singing.
The question is, then, what is the meaning we want to share? If we identify that, drawing it from ourselves, and from the singers who put their trust in our guidance is a challenging but worthwhile responsibility. We can give them clarity. We honour them as apprentices to our ideas, and the ideas within the music and poetry. We practice “the fine art of imitation”2 until those ideas are absorbed, copied, personalized, developed, and transformed by each of those who utter them.
It follows that there is a big step before accuracy, and it begins with us. When choosing and preparing our music, we must answer the questions “What?” and “Why?” before we establish “How?” “When?” and “With whom?” The follow-through, discernment, and expectation then become clear within us.
The rest of this article focuses on the “how.”
In the area of lyric diction, the following resources are comprehensive and excellent:
Marshall, Madeleine. (1947). The Singer’s Manual of English Diction. New York: Simon and Schuster, MacMillan.
Marshall’s manual is the go-to resource in this area. There is one caution, however, regarding formal and colloquial usages of English pronunciation. As a general guide,
North American texts written after 1950 are open to pronunciation interpretation. That is, when do we sing “duty” as [du: ti] or [dju: ti]? The poet and dramatic context are mostly the best indicators.
Wall, Joan and Caldwell, Richard et al. (1990). Diction for Singers: A Concise Reference for English, Italian, Latin, German, French, and Spanish Pronunciation. ISBN 10: 1877761516, ISBN 13: 9781877761515.
This book provides strong overviews for the main lyric languages in performances of the vocal repertoire in vocal literature. For more detailed resources, or for information on lyric diction guides in other languages, please contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
One of the most frequent issues in rehearsal and performance is our unfortunate penchant for Canadian Lyric Diction! That is, we sing with our national/regional/personal accents, instead of adhering to and training toward the international standard.3 As Canadians, we tend not to move our upper and lower lips when we speak and sing. “From” is formed as “frum,” and “of” is pronounced as “uv.” We really practice energy conservation! In doing so, we forfeit the opportunity to develop our skills, vocal integrity, and the quality of our meaning making. In lyric English, the letters /u/, /o/ and /a/ are lip-rounded vowels. Some of the most detailed resources regarding lip muscles are available online at:
The various muscle names are of negligible importance to us when compared to their functions: lifting up, pulling down and extending outward. When done appropriately, the look, sound, and meaning of our singing is effective and unified. When underdone and overdone, what sluggish and distasteful appearances we contrive! We can be grateful for the feedback of teachers, mirrors, and personal video recordings. One common occurrence is the over-extension of the lips, which raises the larynx and shrinks the main resonance area – the vocal tract. It makes us and our students look odd and sound strained.
We advance our vocal stability by using the internal lifting muscles above what we see as the lips (and not always the lips themselves), as well as the pouting muscles below and including what we know as the lips. These are efficient shapers to our quality of sound, balanced production, and meaning. We would benefit from a visual rubberizing concept of how we pronounce words (“O woooouldn’t it be rubbery?”).
I invite you to reconnect – to your knowledge and mindful experiences with your sibilants, your fricatives, your front and back vowels, and all the sounds you produce and synthesize so effectively when you sing – or do you? You could rival your previous habits, and create your own sibilant rivalry!
- Frost, Robert (1947). Available online at:
- Boyd, R. Maurice (1999). The Fine Art of Imitation. New York: Pocket
Studios. Available in MP3 format online at: http://www.pocketstudios.com/store/.
- Ladefoged, Peter; Ian Maddieson (1996). The Sounds of the World’s
Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19814-8.
TEXTS FOR HIGHLIGHTING:
As Canadians, we tend not to move our upper and lower lips when we speak and sing. “From” is formed as “frum,” and “of” is pronounced as “uv.”
We practice “the fine art of imitation” until those ideas are absorbed, copied, personalized, developed, and transformed by each of those who utter them.