Running has been an important part of my life for about twenty years now.
It helps me let off steam, clear my mind, focus on what’s next and above all is my Number One source of creativity and ideas.
Some people develop ideas while grabbing a shower, others while meditating – I have my best ideas when I’m running through the adjacent woods.
It was during one of those runs that I reflected how much running’s actually got in common with learning to sing in a new language and as soon as I was home, I noted down my discoveries. Here goes:
1. Warm up
It’s common knowledge that you shouldn’t do any exercise without warming up.
Sometimes, however, I decided I didn’t have the time to warm up and started running cold – which I regretted every time. My muscles stayed tense, and my movements didn’t become fluid. Even worse, pain rose either in my legs or knees, hips, even shoulders, leading to more tension.
In the end I not only didn’t enjoy the run, but I also had to put in a good deal more time and effort to stretch afterwards in order to prevent sore muscles. So ultimately not warming up had cost me more time in the end – without getting me any results.
Singing in an unfamiliar language without warming up can lead to an increased tension in your jaw and throat and even to vocal issues due to that tension. If you want to read up on that matter (and learn how to prevent any impact on your voice due to singing in a foreign language), you might want to switch to this article.
2. Accept that you know nothing
When I seriously started running, I often experienced pain in my hip and shoulders. It got so bad that I decided to hire a running coach to help me with that matter. When I told Helena, my coach, about my problems, she wanted to have a look at my technique. At which I stared at her and told her that I just ran by setting one foot in front of the other at an accelerated speed. (To be honest, I thought she was nuts. We all know how to run, don’t we?)
Helena insisted on watching me run and her analysis was not nice: I tended to slouch my shoulders and lean forward too much and thus didn’t run “from the core”. Other muscles had to help out which resulted in the above-mentioned difficulties.
With some extra training for different muscle groups and a new awareness for a healthy technique, the pain was soon gone.
When it comes to singing in a new language, it’s not only about making sounds that are different from your mother tongue’s but to carry them out correctly, i.e. with the right technique.
To get all the details right from the beginning, it is highly recommendable to hire a pronunciation coach. (Hint: you’ve already found one… ;-))
Just watching YouTube videos and recordings of the repertoire you want to learn is NOT a good way of preparing!
The earlier in your diction journey you are, the more recommendable is it to get trained by an accomplished native coach.
What’s more, you must eventually combine this new speaking technique with singing. At first, this can be quite a challenge, but in the end, mastering the pronunciation of a new language and not only rushing through some essentials will always pay off.
3. Slow and steady wins the race
As far as I know, nobody will ever manage to go from untrained to running a marathon within a week, not even a month. It’s physically impossible.
Why, then, do we think that it’s possible to learn all the details of a new role or even a single song or aria in a new language within a comparatively short amount of time?
Running a marathon or just your first 10 kilometers is similar to singing an opera in a new language or just your first art song: it requires meticulous and thorough planning and a long breath – in more than one sense.
When you have just started out to learn singing in German, check in with your coach regularly at frequent intervals. It’ll prevent you from establishing any errors and support you in keeping up the good work.
So please: Don’t fall into the trap of impatience and overdo your training at the beginning or rush forward without having consulted your coach first. Tempting as it may be, it could lead to vocal problems (see no. 1). Stick to the plan and watch your abilities develop and grow.
4. Vary your exercises
Several years ago, I wanted to train for a half-marathon and had chosen a training route for preparation.
ONE training route.
In the first couple of weeks, I could improve my performance but then it stagnated. I had reached a plateau and after a short time, it even felt as if my fitness level got worse instead of better. I discussed the matter with Helen and she of course had the answer: by running the same route over and over again, my body (and mind) had become accustomed to it.
To improve my strength and endurance I not only had to vary my training routes and speed, but I also had to add other exercises like HIIT and progressive resistance training. This variations in exercise catapulted my performance up in no time and I was able to run the half-marathon in a time I was content with.
When you want to sing this one song or aria in German and train only these words, you’ll soon experience the same as I did with my running preparation.
By varying your excercises you’ll train different muscles and abilities.
You could, for example switch from spoken to sung language, do tongue twisters on sounds you have difficulties with, accelerate your tempo or sing another song!
As with running, alternating exercises in the preparation for a new song are not a detour but will help you in reaching your goal faster.
5. Make it a habit
When I decided to train for my first half-marathon and finally had my training plan ready, I was determined to stick to that plan.
It went well for the first week.
In the second week, things got a bit tight, and I had a lot to do and was tired. So, I skipped some training units.
The week after that “forgetting” training got easier and by week four I almost cancelled the whole undertaking because I was so much behind my plan.
As giving up wasn’t an option for me, I thought about how I could integrate running into my daily life in such a way that it would soon become a habit.
We usually start our journey full of vim and vigour but eventually, the road becomes rocky and we become tired and our motivation falters. Our inner weakness takes over and will find a thousand excuses why we just can’t practice today.
Before long we haven’t done anything for a week and then a month and eventually, we’ll have to start at the very beginning. IF we ever start again.
Making practicing – or anything else – a habit, may seem daunting but there are a few steps that may make it easier:
Write down your goal and place it somewhere you can see it every day.
Specify a time when you want to practice, block it in your calender and stick to it.
Plan your steps and break them down into day-by-day chunks
Determine upfront how to overcome obstacles, for example unforeseen events.
6. The more the better? Not always…
I firmly believe that sometimes we have to go beyond our boundaries to see where they actually are.
I also firmly believe that we shouldn’t do so on a regular basis.
Training or practice that is continually overdone won’t lead you anywhere near your goal but, on the contrary, to long-term exhaustion.
Unfortunately, I know what I’m talking about. During a very hard time in my life, running had become my method for coping and I continually exhausted myself. It led to a nasty physical burnout and for months I was so weak that I couldn’t even walk 300 metres at a moderate pace without fighting for air.
I’m sure the effects when overdoing yourself in learning to sing in a new language won’t be as severe, at least physically speaking. Nevertheless, be careful and practice reasonably.
7. Learn to rest (not to quit)
This may seem contrary to what I said earlier but always plan when to rest. Your body and mind need a break from time to time to recover from the effort (and singing in a new language is a considerable effort!) and to process the things you learned.
It may be difficult sometimes to distinguish between real exhaustion (mentally and/or physically) and your weaker self kicking in, but that, too, is a learning process.
Also, when we are tired and unfocused while practicing (no matter what), chances are that we won’t get any or any good results. We could easily get frustrated and – at worst – quit the whole thing.
Listen to your body and mind and take a break from practicing when you need it.
This’ll help you reinforcing your learning experience and thus reaching your aim faster.
8. Get all-in
The best way to learn something new is to dive right into it with body, mind and soul.
Or rather with soul, mind and body.
At first, there is the goal you want to achieve. No matter if it’s a half-marathon or your first art song in German, you want to get there with all your heart, or rather: your soul.
Be passionate about your goal (and the ride towards it), no matter what others say. Unfortunately, it’s still common that passion is eyed suspiciously by many people. Just don’t listen and do it anyway.
While the soul just knows the goal, the mind figures out the way to get there. It’ll plan on getting all the necessary information, hiring a coach, breaking down the journey into doable steps and giving us the occasional kick in the butt to keep going.
Last, but certainly not least: practicing is also a physical experience. Even if we “only” learn something like a new language, our bodies are called to carry out the movements necessary for speaking or singing it.
In the best case, all three parts are involved in our efforts and that’s when we not only know why we are doing what we chose to but we also love what we’re doing.
9. Have fun
When I first started running, I didn’t enjoy it very much. In fact, I did it on my boy friend’s request. He treated running very competitively and loved proving that he was better than me.
I practiced nevertheless but I didn’t have fun and although I made some progress, I’d rather did something else. When we parted ways, I also gave up running.
Years later, I started it again, but this time for the sole purpose of getting fitter. At first, I felt awkward, but when I realized the negative mindset I had acquired years ago (“I’m not good enough”), I was able to shift it towards “I enjoy running and love to see how my body becomes stronger”.
Of course, running is strenuous and there are days when I am tired and only run a short tour but the moment I remind myself that I am allowed to enjoy it, I get the utmost benefit from it, mentally and physically.
Have fun in learning to sing in a new language. Heck, have fun in eVERYtHIng you do, no matter how strenuous or demanding it may be. Of course, you have a goal and want to achieve it fast but who says you can’t enjoy the ride?
When we learn to speak in a new language, we not only struggle with vocab and grammar but also with pronunciation. It’s not only about WHAT sounds we should make but HOW to produce them.
The more different the new language is from your mother tongue, the more probable it is that we have to use different facial muscles to pronounce the words correctly.
Our tongue, lips and jaw physically shape our pronunciation. To speak a new language, you physically need to train your muscles. Like with a new sport or an instrument, you will apply muscles that you’ve you have to train the muscles involved first.
Not practising to speak the language before diving into singing your first song or aria would be like picking up a musical instrument you’ve never played before and trying to perform in front of an expert player.
Ignoring the strain on your facial muscles and starting to sing in a new language too early may lead to tensed muscles, jaw tightness and eventually to throat tension – and we all know that this is lethal for a singer!
What’s more, we have already developed unconscious speech habits when we learned our mother language. These speech habits make pronunciation in a new language so difficult.
That said, the answer to this post’s titel is: Yeah. Singing in German – or any language you are not familiar with – may indeed have a negative effect on your voice.
The good news is that there’s a cure.
By observing a few simple steps, we can avoid any negative impact a new language may have on your voice:
What can you do?
Every athlete has to warm up and it’s no difference to us singers.
Since pronunciation is part of speaking (or singing for that matter), it’s also physical. To pronounce a new language, we need to (re-)train the muscles we use to speak. As a singer you are already familiar with vocal warm-ups. To speak a foreign language, you must also warm up your facial muscles. Here you’ll find some exercises.
Listen to recordings
Listen to good (!) recordings of the spoken (!) text. At best, you have two versions at hand: one with the text spoken very slow so that you can get a good idea on correct pronunciation. The second version should give you the text in a natural speech rhythm.
This is such an important part, and yet many singers want to skip it and start to sing immediately in a new language. To achieve flawless and perfect diction in singing, however, you must make yourself familiar not only with the technicalities of producing the right sounds but also with the speech pattern of your new language. Knowing about rhythm, syllable stress and intonation in spoken language will help you tremendously in singing.
Also, pay close attention if you feel any tension in your face or throat while speaking. If so, speak slower, pronouncing every syllable clearly. Make sure the start and end of each word are crisp. Repeat phrases until your muscles loosen, speed up the speaking tempo and slow down again when you feel tension.
Record yourself speaking
If you are lucky enough to have a professional recording of your texts, you can compare that with your recording. That’s definitely a good start and the more familiar you become with the language the faster you develop “an ear” for its sound. Alas, the most serious pronunciation issues are the ones we are not aware of.
For example, people who speak Spanish already make sounds that resemble the German [b] and [v]. In Spanish, however, those sounds are allophones, that is variants of the same sound. Spanish hearers may not notice the difference, because hearing a language – like speaking it – is a habit we form early on. If a difference is not significant in our mother tongue, we may not notice it in the new language.
Watch yourself speaking
Practice speaking and singing in the new language in front of a mirror or even record yourself on video. That way you can see very quickly if you tend to tighten any muscles in your face or throat or make any involuntary movements with your head that may lead to tension.
Work with a coach
Although this may not be the cheapest method, it’s the safest (and fastest) way to achieve correct and eventually flawless diction. In a 1:1 tuition you get immediate feedback on your pronunciation, thus erasing mistakes before they can manifest in your muscle memory. Further, you can watch how a native speaker produces certain sounds which, by the way, is how we learn our mother tongue: not by imitating the sounds but the facial movements of the people surrounding us.
You see: there’s no reason to fear that singing in a foreign language may have a negative effect on your singing. Do your warm-ups, listen attentively to good spoken (!) recordings and practice speaking (thus strengthening your face muscles). Hire a good coach; that way making sure that your pronunciation is correct from the start.
And don’t forget to have fun! That and the joy in learning something new are priceless for achieving your desired results.
I love my job! Really, I do. It’s taken me quite some time (and some detours) to find a way of combining my passions and create a fulfilling profession for myself. Yet, ungrateful as it may sound, there are some things I don’t quite like about my job as a pronunciation coach:
Tech Kung Fu
Coaching singers and choirs on German pronunciation and diction is what I love and do best. Thank God I’ve found that perfect combination and can make a living from it. 😊
However, it’s not only doing some preparation and then going online on Zoom or Skype. In fact, that’s the easy part – but unfortunately not the only one in my profession as an internationally working pronunciation coach.
What I’m often struggling with are technical issues in the “backend” of my business: setting up my homepage, for example, installing cryptic plugins and what the Mephisto are landing pages?
Up to now, I’ve always found a way to do what I had intended -either by myself or by figuring out who to ask. In the end, I’m always relieved and proud but sometimes I wished it wouldn’t take me so long.
Honestly folks, I’m weary of explaining that although there are very good recordings out there in the vast land of digital music, you simply can’t take a YouTube video as a basis for learning diction!
Maybe there are nuances in pronunciation you don’t hear (yet), maybe the singer isn’t a native German and sings with a slight accent. It may also be that the recording is from decades back and as singing styles are changing so is language and its diction – especially in singing. An early Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recording may be beautifully sung (in fact it is!) but it can hardly serve as a yardstick for up-to-date pronunciation.
The best and shortest ways to flawless (German) diction, is by listening to the spoken (!) text first, repeating it until you can’t get it wrong and then singing it – best of all with the help of a good diction coach (which you may contact here 😊).
I don’t do mediocre.
In fact, I always make sure to give everything for my clients. I’m always fully prepared for lessons, I strive to teach German pronunciation understandably. In case we come across something I don’t know, I’ll look it up and tell you all about it as soon as possible. I take my work very seriously and commit fully to help you reaching your full potential in singing German.
AND: I expect clients to also commit fully to their goal – with all that’s necessary to achieve it.
If you are content with a level of German pronunciation that’s just “OK”, I probably won’t be the right coach for you.
If, however, you are committed to your best possible results and if you’re willing and prepared to work as much as it takes to achieve whatever goal you have in diction, then let’s get together! I’m looking forward to working with you!
During the last years I was able to help many singers to level up their German diction.
In this article I want to share with you the success story of Wladimir who was willing to invest in himself to achieve a special goal. Wladimir is not his real name, and he knows he (like everybody who works with me) can rely upon my discretion. I share this story with Wladimir’s explicit agreement as a source of inspiration.
“German diction confused me profoundly!”
When Wladimir first contacted me, he was desperate: he studied singing at a Russian music conservatory and had asked a famous Russian bass singer to accept him as private student. The singer wanted Wladimir to audition for him with various arias and songs, including (of course) some German ones.
Now, Wladimir did have German lessons at the conservatory but he was confused about pronunciation: his (non-native) German teacher taught him one way of pronunciation; his vocal teacher who had sung German repertoire himself, told him to do it differently; and the accompanist he worked with to prepare for his audition suggested a third version!
Wladimir realized that if he wanted to nail the audition he not only had to work on his vocal technique but also level up his German diction. He decided to invest in himself and work with a pronunciation coach who was not only a native German but also an expert in this field. I’m happy to say that he chose me.
“I had no idea how to pronounce German and didn’t know what to work on.”
We exchanged some emails where Wladimir told me about the repertoire he wanted to sing (Mozart, Schubert and Schumann). As he was so confused about the whole of German, however, he could not tell me what his problems were. We agreed to a one-hour coaching lesson to assess his challenges and see if we wanted to work with each other. In my opinion, having a respectful coach-student relationship plays a very important but unfortunately often underestimated role on the path to success! Being on friendly terms with each other helps me to teach you and you to adopt my advice.
It turned out that we got along very well. Wladimir was eager to learn and motivated to throw in all the hard work, for hard it would be!
“I was so relieved when you named my major difficulties. Finally, I knew what to work on.”
After listening to him singing the German repertoire he had chosen, I could soon point out several main issues we had to work on:
-Correct vowel colouring: vowels often turned out to be too dark and open
When I told Wladimir what I saw as main challenges, I could see the relief in his eyes. He was so happy to finally know what to start with that he booked a bundle of multiple coaching lessons.
“It was hard at first to distinguish the sounds but soon I was making progress”
Wladimir worked hard on the repertoire he had chosen – and believe me: the pieces weren’t easy!
I sent him audio files with the spoken text (this is a bonus if you take four or more hours) and in every lesson I could see his improvement. He was so eager to achieve his goal that he soaked everything I told him up like a sponge!
After a while, he had mastered his main problems and we could focus on ironing out the minor flaws in his diction.
“I not only got accepted but was also congratulated upon my good German diction!”
When Wladimir went for his audition, I was probably as nervous as he was.
In the evening he sent me a message, telling me that he was accepted as a private student.
I can’t tell you how proud I was of him!
And how I blushed when he added “I was especially congratulated upon my good German diction”.
When I was starting in this profession, I sometimes said “I don’t have a method” (which cost me some clients ;-)).
It wasn’t true, of course. But the word “method” to me means a concept by an outer authority (some sort of an ominous genius-expert) and it has the ring of rigidity and inflexibility.
Moreover, the first thing coming into my mind are strict rules that have to be followed in a certain order to achieve certain results (hello German educational system).
This is not how I want to work!
My deepest conviction is that we learn best in a focused, yet motivational and joyful way.
However, I don’t deny the advantages of having a certain system of approaching work. It’s certainly useful to have a framework guiding oneself through the sometimes confusing world of aria or song preparation.
In attempting to describe how I work, I realized that I do have certain steps that I preferably use. I’ll call them “convictions”.
Let me explain them to you:
Speaking the text is a basic pre-requisite for flawless diction in singing.
This might not be popular with some singers, but I have made the experience that diction – no matter in what language – is best trained in speaking. In doing so you become aware of the right sounds and all the details that in connection with music sometimes get a bit lost. And – a further advantage – it’ll help you prepare for (current or future) dialogues.
Some of my offers include an audio file with the spoken text that I send to you in advance so that you can listen to the sound, speaking rhythm, emphasis etc. It has proven to be a very effective tool for preparation.
You needn’t fear, however, that we linger on speaking for too long. But neither will we head over to singing yet. The next step is:
Analyze the text until it’s “yours”
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to understand not only the overall sense of the aria or song you’re working on, but every word of the text as well. It shows you where to put your emphasis, what syllable to linger on and which one to treat as secondary (though articulately).
Usually, my clients buy a package of several hours or more to work with me, which includes a word-by-word as well as a literal translation of the text that I’ll send you in advance for your preparation.
Additionally, we’ll briefly adress the role of the aria in the plot, the character’s mental setting and intentions (for both, aria and song) and/or historical information on the piece(s).
That way, you make the text “yours”, that is you become the character you’re impersonating.
That part of background work done, we (or rather you) will next be
Singing is more than just singing text
Finally, we’re singing!
Depending on the piece, we’ll start slower than the original tempo and work on the text line by line.
⫸ For that, I love the principle of “Masticare le Parole” that is “chewing the words”.
Tito Gobbi, the famous Italian baritone, used this method for achieving his incredibly articulate pronunciation: he “chewed” every word as long as it took until every syllable came out totally naturally in its musical structure and crystally clear in its relation between vowel and consonant. He even went as far as practicing his texts without music but instead with a wine cork between his teeth until he mastered the pronunciation perfectly.
I don’t go as far as demanding that you do the wine cork thing during my lessons, but it won’t hurt to give it a try when practicing at home.
⫸ Another precious method is “Due Parole”
I also learned that from Tito Gobbi (not personally, of course, but by reading about him and his way of approaching singing).
“Due parole” means finding the two most important words in a line or sentence that the audience MUST understand in order to get the meaning of this text part. These two words must reach even the last row in the audience, yet not through loudness but first and foremost through flawless diction.
To find out what these words are, we must take into consideration not only the text meaning but also the setting of the music. Especially in art songs, the composer sometimes stresses far different words than one would expect when only reading the poem.
Additionally, we might talk about any contextual and historical background that might throw further light on this topic.
In my opinion, “due parole” not only helps you with diction but is also invaluable for your interpretation.
From good singer to oustanding singer
I’m constantly striving to improve my work method and am always willing to try out new things. The above-mentioned steps have proved to be helpful in more than one way. I know that some singers just want to jump right into singing their pieces, working on vowel colouring and consonant clusters.
And that’s totally ok if you want to be a good singer.
However, I don’t do mediocre. Neither do you, I hope.
When your goal is to give an outstanding performance with confidence and ease, the foundation is research (translation, historical background), learning (pronunciation coaching) and practicing (“masticare le parole”).
Embrace the work and dive right in! I’ll help you become your best version of an outstanding singer.
Whenever you speak or sing in a language that is foreign to you, your facial and upper body muscles are strained in an unusual way. This is not the case with our native tongue or languages that – although not our native ones – have become familiar to you.
Of course, our muscles always undergo a certain measure of strain when speaking (or singing) in any language but our body is used to “our” language(s) which means that we don’t feel the muscular stress.
I once heard a guy talking about the most important thing when approaching a new language: he said that the most important thing is to speak in the new language until “your facial muscles get sore from it”.
So, usually before working on German diction (or any other diction that’s foreign to you), I recommend stretching your facial muscles.
I’ve put together my three favourite warm-up excercises:
Three simple warm-up excercises for your facial muscles
#1: Relaxing the jaw
Put forefinger, middle finger and ring finger at your jaw point, approximately at the height of your earlobe. Open the mouth carefully but not too wide and then gently push the lower jaw 10 times to the right and 10 times to the left side.
#2: The OO-EE-method
Open your mouth widely, round the lips and say an O. You should feel a stretch in the upper and lower jaw/lips. Then switch to an EE-sound by pulling back the lips into a “smile” and showing your teeth. You should fell the stretching now at the mouth sides.
#3: Tongue relaxation
Close your mouth, open the teeth and glide with your tongue between lips and teeth. Carry this exercise out first in demi-circles, going from the lower right teeth to the lower left teeth, then doing the same at your upper teeth. Afterwards, let the tongue do a whole circle, first clockwise then counter-clockwise.
I love these excercises and do them every morning to relax my usually tight jaw.
Try them and tell me how it worked for you.