Maybe you have experienced the following: you sit in the audience and look forward to the opera you’re going to watch tonight. Slowly, the lights turn dark, the hustling and hemming dies away and the conductor appears. After having acknowledged his applause, he turns towards the orchestra and the show is starting. During the overture you already know that you love the musical interpretation and finally the curtain lifts and the first aria is sung. Hooray, the singers are good! The evening’s going to be marvellous.
Then the aria is over, and the singers start with their dialogues. And suddenly, you are thrown down from your sphere of bliss and joy to the hard floor of reality: because of their strong accent and sometimes wrong pronunciation you have great difficulties in understanding what the singers are saying. At first, you try to inwardly repeat their sentences in a loop, but eventually you give up and wait for the next aria or duet to come.
And although those are beautifully sung and with flawless diction you can’t enjoy the performance as you dread the next dialogue…
Before through-composed operas became popular in the 19th century, number operas where the state of the art. This term describes the opera seria or buffa, the German “Singspiel” and the early romantic operas where musical pieces (the so-called “numbers”) alternate with recitatives or spoken. The musical pieces may be arias but also ensemble pieces like duets, terzettos, choruses or instrumentals.
Let’s have a closer look and see the differences between both:
Usually in a number opera, the aria text is not very elaborate but often dwells on a statement and the connected feeling(s). Sometimes you sing several stanzas with quite a long text, sometimes you repeat one sentence multiple times on different melodies.
The advantage all arias have is that you needn’t think about the rhythm of the language. The question which syllable is stressed or how fast you should go is already answered: it’s all set by the music.
However, this is not only a blessing, but the reason singers look for help from a pronunciation coach ?: you are bound to the musical framework which can be quite challenging when it comes to flawless diction. High notes make it difficult to articulate certain vowels well (especially I and E). The tempo may at first be too fast for all the consonant clusters in the text. Can you combine two successive words or do you have to use a glottal onset?
The main goal of a sung text should always be FLAWLESSNESS, that is perfect pronunciation combined with a wonderful vocal technique.
First, we must ask, why composers used dialogue or their musical pendant, recitatives. The answer is easy: to push the story forward. Recitatives and dialogues are the motor that keep the plot moving. Every action usually takes place within a dialogue or recitative.
For that matter, the audience must understand what is said. Otherwise, they can’t follow the story.
The advantage of a dialogue is that you have the freedom to choose the tempo and rhythm by yourself. You can adapt it to your ability. But this also bears certain difficulties:
Many singers struggle with spoken dialogues in German (or any other language that’s not their native one for that matter).
The main reason usually is that they feel “naked” and “alone” without the support of music.
Dialogue preparation step by step
However, as usual, there is a proven method on how to approach dialogues (which is similar to the method of approaching art songs, by the way).
▷ Translate (or let translate) the dialogues word by word
▷ Also, get a free translation of the whole text
▷ Make sure you know how to pronounce the dialogues correctly (in most cases with the help of a diction coach)
▷ Practice them very slowly until your pronunciation is flawless, then raise the tempo.
▷ Use all means of interpretation and acting to transport the text and its meaning authentically to the audience. You are far more independent as you won’t have to peek to the conductor the whole time.
The most important thing when it comes to speaking text is FLUENCY. This doesn’t mean fastness but articulate pronunciation in a reasonable tempo that can be understood well and with ease.
If a slight (!) accent can still be perceived in the end, it’s ok. In my opinion, the audience is willing to forgive accent in a spoken text (not in the aria!). Always provided of course, that they can understand everything clearly.
Fun fact: the average German audience is not so benevolent when it comes to German singers speaking with an audible dialect. For that reason, many German singers have coaching lessons regarding the pronunciation of their native language just because they want to eliminate any dialectal hints. As at home I’m speaking in dialect myself, I know how challenging this can be. ?
So, which one IS more important?
“But Angela”, you might ask, “which one is more important: the aria or the dialogue?”
My answer is always “YES!”
Both have their purpose to fulfil in the opera and a good singer puts equal effort in learning both perfectly.
Working on an art song for the first time is a bit like having to describe a picture to a blind person. Tempting as it may be to google for an existing description of the work, this would rob you of the possibility to discover and understand the picture by yourself and thus generate the ability to describe and lastly to interpret it to your counterpart.
The same applies for new art song repertoire:
Tempting as it may seem, it is NOT advisable to approach a new art song by listening to a recording. Each recording delivers not only the work itself but also the possibility of an interpretation.
For someone who does not know the song (yet), it is almost impossible to distinguish between the mere composition and its interpretation. This bears the danger of moving towards an imitation of the recording.
Of course, as soon as you are familiar with a piece, an outstanding recording may create new impulses of interpretation, may make the singer (re)consider his or her own insights into the piece but, as I said, only when he or she has dealt with the piece in all its complexity.
The second method NOT to approach an art song is the attempt to play the singing part on the piano until you can sing it well. This may be an appropriate method to get acquainted with a song but only after intensive and detailed examination of the text.
Well, now that we have learned what not to do, how should we approach art songs in a good and rewarding way?
Analyze the text in all detail
Always, always when approaching an art song, start with the text and analyze it to the core. Start with the meaning and translate (or let translate) the poem in two ways: first word by word and then in a free version so that you get both, the knowledge about every word’s meaning and the overall message.
Find out about the basic situation of the poem. Is it a monologue, a speech to an imagined present person or thing, a speech to an imagined absent person or thing or a direct speech to the audience?
What is the poem’s overall emotion? Is it joyful, even funny or is the mood sad and depressive? What mood is the narrator in (if there is one) – is he morose, witty, hurt, furious, mesmerized….?
Is the poem a pure description, meaning your part is that of a narrator only or do you have to represent multiple parts (e.g. narrator, father, son etc.)?
You will see there is a whole world to read out of a poem!
Read the poem aloud
When approaching an art song, read the poem aloud several times. In fact, do it as long as it takes to become absolutely familiar with the pronunciation. How will you know you reached that level? Well, when you cannot get it wrong any more. ?
Then, declaim the text and start to interpret it in your way. In speaking, you will discover the use of stylistic devices, the poem’s tonality and its tension curve. What words are stressed? Where would you make a (dramatic) pause? What kind of atmosphere is created by the use of language?
Did the poet use words that linguistically imitate sounds (onomatopoeia), for example “thunder, whisper, murmur, roar” etc. you can use to your advantage?
Now that you understand the text in all detail, it is time to
Look at the song’s musical form
Is it a strophic song, a through-composed song or a mixture of both? Let’s have a closer look:
Thestrophic song has the same melody for each strophe.
The through-composed type changes the melody depending on the content of the text and
The mixture will mainly keep the melody but with some variations.
This variety of musical formulations is no accident but it shows if the composer wanted the music to dominate (strophic song) or the text (through-composed song).
The focus of today’s audience lies more on the text whereas a composer of the mid-nineteenth century certainly preferred his music to play the main role (apart from Franz Schubert, who in my eyes, has reached a wonderfully natural synthesis of music and poetry).
Text and song type are clear now. Let’s see, what we can find out about the song’s musical background:
Similar to some Italian tempo markings (allegro, giocoso, capriccioso), German ones also often indicate the basic mood of a song (schwermütig [melancholic], humorvoll [humorous]).
Pay close attention to these small hints!
A song’s metre also depends directly or indirectly on the text.
Indirectly through the poem’s content: gehen (walking), marschieren (marching), tanzen (dancing) and directly when the poem’s metre determines the musical metre because the composer chose a motoric or at least periodically organized style for the song.
For that reason, you will find metric connections between poetry and composition rather in the classic era and with Schubert than with later composers.
The choice of a song’s key, may, of course, have pragmatic reasons and not all people experience keys in the same way.
Nevertheless, keys contribute a great deal to a song’s atmosphere, draw its colours so to speak and stimulate emotions.
There is no need to dive into key psychology; you will, however, admit that sharp keys are lighter than flat keys and that there is a connection between the basic atmosphere of a song and its key.
Bring it all together
Finally, it is time to tackle your melody and combine words and music!
Become acquainted with the singing part and see how the composer used the music to express his insight of the poem.
Add your interpretation to it. You are not only allowed but invited to weave in your personal experience and understanding.
Show us what you feel, how you see the poet’s and the composer’s work through your eyes while at the same time holding your personality back and letting the song speak for itself through your voice.
There are some recordings on my CD shelves that have accompanied me for decades. Sometimes, I do not listen to them for years and they slumber away, almost forgotten. But from time to time, I will get them out, listen to them and let myself get back to the memories and feelings I connect with these treasures.
With some of those CDs, however, I have a love-hate relationship. They are all recordings with world-class singers, the crème de la crème of the opera world, wonderful orchestras, genius conductors … and yet…. I barely listen to them.
Now, you might think that the reason is that I simply have listened to them too often and that I am fed up with them.
This is not the case here.
No, the main reason I do not like listening to them is – the pronunciation is wrong!
One recording for example is of Gounod’s “Faust” in French, its original language.
As I said, the singers are of world-class reputation. In fact, the cast was one of the reasons I bought the CD.
What I did not expect was to hear strong Spanish, English and Russian accents and words simply pronounced wrong.
At first, the mistakes were just irritating, but in the course of time they destroyed my pleasure of listening.
Another example is a recording of Johann Strauß’ “Die Fledermaus”. Additional to the arias, there are long spoken parts that do not make the performance easier for non-native singers.
However, when I buy a recording, I expect that I at least understand the dialogues. This was not the case here and after listening again and again to one and the same (spoken) sentence, I frustratedly hauled out the libretto to look up Orlofsky’s words.
I love voices and I love listening to as many different interpretations as I can. They give me pleasure and help me understand a role.
Yet, when something is wrong, either that the singer does not sing in tune or that the pronunciation is not correct, this recording goes on my “bad list”.
Recordings are forever
Look, it is bad enough to give a bad performance (for whatever reason). But this is only a one-time event and will be forgotten quite soon.
But recordings are different because:
Recordings are forever. They will exist long after the singer has gone, and future generations will either love them and use it as a reference or laugh at them and reject it as pathetic.
Keep that in mind when you do a recording of yourself, either by filming yourself and uploading it on YouTube or by going into a studio and making a professional recording.
Even if you think you know how to pronounce everything correctly, let a professional coach listen to it. (Read here why it is not advisable to listen to other recordings in order to learn good pronunciation).
You can only win!
Either your pronunciation coach confirms that you were right. In that case you gained the certainty that you do everything correctly which will boost your performance confidence.
Or your coach discovers several mistakes and helps you correct them which will make the investment worth a thousand times.
You are a singer and consider hiring a pronunciation coach but you are not sure if you really need one or if this isn’t just an other fancy way of killing time? After all, there are lots of recordings on YouTube you could learn of, couldn’t you? (This is a rhethorical question and the answer is always NO! You might want to read this article about it).
So, when do you need a pronunciation coach?
Well, there are several situations indicating that working with a pronunciation coach will definitely make sense for you:
You are losing time in your singing lessons because the teacher has to go over pronunciation
Imagine you are a perfect illiterate when it comes to the kitchen and you want to learn how to bake a cake. When you have finally found a teacher, you wouldn’t want to lose time in your lessons because they had to explain how to use the oven, the scales and the mixer, right?
It’s the same with singing and pronunciation: you take singing lessons because you want your teacher to advice you on how to best use this beautiful instrument called voice. You want to learn about vocal techniques and how to use breath support, how to tackle the passagio, and where the voice resonates in your body. In short: you want to learn every aspect of singing. When in addition to that your teacher has to correct your pronunciation, you will lose precious time. That said, get thee to a pronunciation coach!
You want to learn techniques of professional diction preparation
Staying with the comparison of baking I’d say that knowing how to prepare a dough will help you a lot when learning how to bake cakes.
Every language has its general rules of pronunciation. To know these basics will save you a bunch of time in preparation and thus make your life a lot easier.
Imagine being able to prepare the pronunciation of a text on your own by just knowing, for example, that a vowel followed by a double consonant is pronounced open and short.
At the same time, you want to have somebody who can tell you exactly if your pronunciation is correct and who can help you for example to produce a genuine “ch”-sound and tell you how to form a proper R.
You are preparing for a role, a recording, an audition or a singing workshop with a top coach
When you are asked to bake a special cake for your mum’s birthday, you might want to make sure that you have learned and practised all the skills necessary for that task.
First of all: congrats! You got the role or the invitation and that’s wonderful. Now, it’s preparation time. I strongly recommend doing (musical, historical and societal) research on your pieces.
The next step is to get clear on every nuance of pronunciation and then: practice, practice, practice.
Only when you have internalized your vocal and diction techniques will you be able to work on your interpretation. However, internalizing takes time! This is, why it is so important to start preparing well in advance.
You want to have up-to-date information on pronunciation
When baking a cake, you will most likely choose a modern recipe, not one from 1898.
Language changes in the course of time. What was state of the art some decades ago might be outdated today. Admittedly, we may be talking about minor things here. Nevertheless, these issues could decide upon either “accurate pronunciation” or “what(s)hesays?”, upon “you get the role” or “thank you – next one please”.
When you work with a pronunciation coach, you want to make sure that they have an ongoing personal experience of language learning and the skills, motivation and knowledge to teach it.
You want to understand how the song text’s sounds and rhythms serve the meaning and the music.
This is not only the icing of the cake but the whole elaborate cake design!
Ah, my favourite subject! I simply love analysing a text with regard to its musicality. The use of words, the stylistic devices and the rhythm of the language are instruments, as well. It’s amazing how for example the use of bright or dark vowels can influence the mood of a song; or how onomatopoeic sounds and words may support the rhythm and complement the musical flow. Analyis and proper pronunciation not only help you to articulate correctly and understand the overall and detailed meaning of the text. They also endow you with a deep comprehension of the poet’s (and the composer’s) thoughts and intention. In the end this will be the key to a great performance.
Now, there are also a few situations when a pronunciation coach won’t be of use for you (yet):
1) You are just beginning to sing
When you want to bake a cake, concentrate on the basics first before you start to learn about icing.
In that case, concentrate solely on singing. You must build a solid basis from which to move forward. The time will come, when you will start to sing arias in languages different from your native one and then you may need a coach. Not earlier.
2) Your audition, recording, concert etc. is tomorrow
When your mum is going to celebrate her birthday tomorrow and you want to make her an exquisitely embellished cake, it’s too late to start baking it now.
Although I do offer emergency-lessons, I strongly recommend preparing your role or arias well in advance. It’s very difficult to learn and impossible to internalize (!) something new. Or even worse: wipe out mistakes you already acquired in such a short time and under severe pressure.
3) You are not willing to put in the necessary effort
You want to bake a cake but are not willing to fetch all the ingredients? This will never work.
Learning correct pronunciation, as well as training to become a singer requires time. A large amount of time. If, for whatever reason, you are not willing to take that time and put in the necessary effort, spare your money and your coach’s time and do something else.
The German letters P, T and K and their little siblings B, D and G often create confusion when it comes to correct pronunciation. One should think that when a D is written, a D is also said.
Alas, the rules are a bit more complex.
Nevertheless, I can assure you that correct pronunciation of the plosives is no rocket science and I promise you that it is not difficult to get the rules of how to pronounce them.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me introduce you to
German Plosives or Stop Consonants:
Plosives are defined as consonants that completely interrupt the air flow.
Furthermore, they are classified by their place of articulation and by whether their release is voiced or unvoiced.
Each place of articulation can produce a pair of consonants, the so-called cognates which differ only in their being voiced or unvoiced.
What both, the unvoiced and voiced plosives have in common is, that air builds up either behind the closed lips (p,b), behind the tip of the tongue (t,d) or behind the back of the tongue touching the soft palate (k,g).
The result is a more or less explosive sound.
Place of articlulation
P as in Puppe (doll)
B as in krabbeln (to crawl)
T as in tag (day)
D as in Dach (roof)
K as in Kind (child)
G as in Garten (garden)
So much for theory. Now, let’s have a closer look at the cognates:
The cognates P and B
You pronounce “p”:
– in all spellings of “p” and the double consonant “pp”:
Platz (place), Knospe (blossom), Treppe (staircase)
– when a medial “b” is followed by a consonant:
trübt (blurrs), liebt (loves)
– when a word is spelled with a final b (including compound words):
lieb (dear) Lieb/haber (lover)
Lob (praise) Lob/rede (eulogy)
– when a medial “b” is followed by l, n, and r where a schwa-sound has been eliminated from the word stem, it is pronounced as “b”:
übel üb(e)ler übler
– the combination “ph” is pronounced as “f”:
You pronounce „b“:
– in all spellings of an initial b
Burg (castle), blau (blue), ver/borgen (concealed)
– when a medial “b” is followed by a vowel:
Leben (life), lieben (love)
– when a medial “b” is followed by l, n or r where a schwa has been eliminated from the word stem (see exceptions under b) above)
– in all spellings of “bb”
The cognates T and D
You pronounce “t”:
– in all spellings of “t” ,“tt” and “dt”:
Tat (deed), beten (pray), betten (to bed), Stadt (city)
– when a medial “d” is followed by a consonant:
Widmung (dedication), einlädst (you invite)
Exception: when a medial “d” is followed by l, n or r where a schwa-sound has been eliminated from the word stem
edel (noble) ed(e)ler edler
– when a word is spelled with a final d (including compound words):
Lied (song), und (and), Abend/licht (evening light)
This also applies when “d” becomes final due to truncation:
Gnade (mercy) Gnad’
– in spellings of “th”:
Theater (theatre), katholisch (catholic)
Attention: in German, “th” is never pronounced in a way similar to the English “th” as in “the” or “throw”!
You pronounce “d”:
– when a word or element starts with the letter “d”
Dach (roof), ver/drängen (displace)
– when a medial „d“ is followed by a vowel:
reden (speak), verwandeln (change)
– when a medial “d” is followed by l, n or r where a schwa has been eliminated from the word stem (see exceptions under b) above)
– in spellings of “dd”
Exception: when two consecutive d’s belong to two separate elements:
The cognats K and G
You pronounce “k”:
– in all spellings of “k”, “ck” and “kk”
König (king), Haken (hook), Spuk (spectre), Akkord (chord), glücklich (happy)
– in spellings of “ch” in words of Greek origin only:
Charakter (character), Chor (choir)
– when a medial g is followed by a consonant:
trägt (carries), legte (laid)
Exception: when a medial “g” is followed by l, n or r where a schwa-sound has been eliminated from the word stem
eigen eig(e)ner eigner
– when a word is spelled with final “g” (including compound words):
Weg (way), Weg/rand (wayside)
This also applies when g becomes final due to truncation:
fliege( fly) flieg’
You pronounce “g”:
– when a word or element starts with the letter “g”
– when a medial “d” is followed by l, n or r here a schwa has been eliminated from the word stem (see exceptions under c) above)
– in spellings of “gg”:
Exception: when two consecutive g’s belong to two separate elements:
Weg/geben (give away)
Attention: the German letter g is always pronounced like the English “g” in “garden”, never like the “g” in “geometry”!
Additionally, make sure you do not start the “g” with an “n”-sound. (Read my blog article on “Phantom Sounds”)
Now, this seems to be a lot of stuff to remember and a lot of exceptions to bear in mind.
On second look, however, you will see that the basic rules are the same and once you understand when to use what sound, it simplifies your life as a singer tremendously!
I would love to learn about your experiences with German pronunciation in general and the plosives in particular!
Please feel free to write me an email (email@example.com) and tell me all about it.
Every now and then I am confronted with certain prejudices against German pronunciation. Some can be easily cleared; others are more persistent and harder to explain. Had they been questions, I would have integrated them into the FAQ-list of this website.
However, people often state them as facts or certainties, and I do not want to leave it at that. Especially since all of these ideas severly manipulate your mindset towards neglecting more than one aspect of your art. At worst, this could lead to bad performances and thus prevent your success!
For this reason, I have chosen to “demystify” the three most common myths about pronunciation coaching:
#1 German is Difficult
Well, yes, it is.
No use to sugar-coat it.
But so is Russian. And French. And baking a cake. And walking…
The truth is: everything new and unfamiliar is difficult at first.
I once listened to a speech of a man who had managed to speak Chinese fluently within half a year (!):
he said the trick is that no matter what language you learned, you should speak it as often as you could. Not only to learn the words and become fluent but also to get used to the way they are pronounced.
Furthermore, he said, it is vital to have someone you could talk to and who would correct you immediately.
He told that his jaw, tongue and lips muscles had been sore when he had started to speak Chinese because the way he had to use them in order to speak was so unaccustomed!
What we learn from this story is that everything can be acquired with a bit of dedication, constant practice, and the help of a good coach.
#2 I Can Learn Correct Pronunciation by Listening to YouTube Videos
YouTube is a very good source for recordings of any kind and if you just want to be sure about the pronunciation of a single word for example, it may be enough. BUT: never ever fall into the trap of thinking that listening to a recording can replace a live teacher! Mistakes, once acquired, are hard to eliminate and it will take you way more time to get you where you want.
Let me tell you a story about one of my experiences with a similar example: some years ago, I decided I wanted to learn tap dancing and I was quite clever to learn it online. I chose a free course on YouTube and for several weeks I practised like mad. After some time, I found a tap dance teacher, Albert, not far from where I live and one Saturday morning, we met for my first lesson.
After five minutes, Albert told me very gently that none of my steps was carried out correctly and that I would have to start learning from zero. I was devastated! In the end I agreed, but it took me a good deal longer to erase the wrong movements from my brain and body and learn them properly than it would if I had taken a good live teacher from the beginning! Albert did what no video or recording can give you: watching me carefully, immediately interrupting when he saw a mistake, correcting it patiently by showing me and telling me exactly what I should pay attention to and kindly motivating me when I got frustrated.
#3 The Focus Should Be on Singing – Text is Secondary
Ah, the old question of the hen and the egg or rather: what’s more important? Music or text? Singing or pronouncing? And the simple answer is: neither!
I know, you are SINGING your part in an opera and you will have to make yourself audible above the orchestra sound. But no matter whether you are singing an aria or an art song, you are singing text. Even if we as audience do not hear every nuance of your articulation, we will note if the overall sound, that is for example the colouring of vocals, the “t”s (or the lack of them) and the “ch”s are performed correctly. If you are merely singing vocalises without paying the words proper attention, your Performance will be boring!
The second point is that you need every word of the text and its meaning to understand the character you are playing and the sentiment of a song or aria. When you reach that level where you actually use the words for your interpretation, that’s what stunning performances are made of!
You see, there is no shortcut to success. Go “back to school” and practice to speak in the foreign language.
You did not learn how to sing all on your own, did you? Why would you consider doing so when it comes to pronunciation?
It’s not easier or harder to learn, nor more or less important. That said, take the same steps that you have taken with singing: get a teacher, study your texts well with him or her and practice.
Still looking for that shortcut?
Well, here is my advice:
Do not regard learning as necessary evil but try to have joy in what you are doing!
When you switch your mindset towards fun, you will reach your goals faster and make your performance outstanding!