Phantom sounds in German pronunciation – A Case Study

1. February 2020

“Could you please sing that once again?” I made my client, the Russian bass singer Evgeny (name changed), repeat one passage over and over. We had been practising Robert Schuman’s song “Ich grolle nicht” and something was still amiss.

Before we had started to work on this song, he had listened to YouTube-recordings of it by famous German singers.
In our first lesson, I asked him to speak the text first so that he became aware of the correct pronunciation of all the words. Then we practiced singing it, adjusting the forming of the sounds whenever necessary. He recorded himself carefully so that he could practice between lessons.

Something is amiss

After having dealt with all major and minor aspects of pronunciation for some time, I considered him to be on the finishing line. We put all details together and I asked Evgeny to sing the whole piece. I could hear the considerable improvements he had made and was very proud that I could say he sounded almost like a native. Almost? Yes. Something was not right, but I was not sure what it was.  I let him sing the piece again and listened as carefully as possible and actually could narrow it down: somehow, the first words, “ich grolle nicht”, were not right. Yet, I still did not know why.

Recognizing the problem

I asked him several times to sing that passage again and again (see the beginning of the story 😉) until it finally clicked and I knew what had disturbed me: Evgeny had created a phantom sound, that is a sound that is audibly there and distorts the word(s) but is invisible (i.e. a “phantom”) because it is not written in the text. In this case, Evgeny had sung a nasal “ng” before “grolle” so that it sounded like “ich nnnng-grolle nicht”. As soon as the issue was discovered, it was a question of mere minutes to erase it.

It was a small detail for the singer – but had a major impact on his interpretation and performance. All of a sudden, the words flew steadily and Evgeny performed the song with ease and dedication. At this moment, it was no longer just a song but became a piece of art.

What can YOU do to improve your German pronunciation?

Nevertheless, Evgeny admitted, he would never have detected it by himself and asked what he could do in order to prevent those mistakes in future.

If you are in the same boat, here are my tips for you:

Do listen to YouTube videos to get a first impression of the correct pronunciation.
However, understand that this alone will never be enough to learn about proper articulation.

Record yourself when practising and listen to it carefully and repeatedly.
Our perception when singing or speaking is very subjective as we hear ourselves
at that moment “from the inside” which is why listening to our recording may
help us in analysing our pronunciation. However, as you could see in the case study
above, even that will not be sufficient. If you are not fully familiar with German,
I dare to say that you will not hear every nuance.

Get help from a pronunciation coach. (Hint: you need not look very far 😉) He or she has a trained ear for little anomalies like the one described above and can help you with every aspect of your pronunciation.

I hope this article has made you aware a bit of some pitfalls that may be lurking in German pronunciation. Do not hesitate to contact me – even or rather especially if you are not sure whether I can help you. I will tell you honestly whether what I offer will make sense for you or not.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Until then, have joy in singing German.