The American “R” and the Chinese “R”

I am privileged to be appointed as the Assistant Director of the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir in Zhuhai, China. It is a chorus under the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies. The children are taught Western world classical music in the British Choral Tradition.

I have had initial rehearsals with all of the children’s ensembles in the short week I have been working with the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir.  There is also a beginner women’s chorus and an intermediate women’s chorus. The children are eager to learn and therefore learn very quickly. Chinese families are motivated to give their children every possible educational opportunity available in order to advance themselves. Expectations to succeed in areas that will help them operate on a global level is very high. The work ethic is very strong. Higher education is revered and sought after. They are a very competitive people. In essence, they strive to excel in all that they do.

Regarding observations I have made, in my first rehearsals, on the impact of language and singing Western-world classical music –

Mandarin has few words that end in consonants. Generally, the words are one syllable. Vocal inflection is not part of the phrasing. Consonants used at the ends words include n, ng, or er.

Tones are used to differentiate word units even though the spelling is the same. The first tone is the same pitch throughout the pronunciation. It’s pitch is also high. The second tone starts mid-range and rises. The third tone starts mid-low and falls then rises again. The fourth tone starts high and quickly falls. Occasionally, there are unstressed syllables that possess a neutral tone. The use of these tones can be very nuanced and therefore sometimes difficult to identify especially in the flow of a sentence.

If you know me at all,  I am constantly talk about nuance and the difference this makes in music coming alive or leaving one empty. Anyone can sing the notes, but how they sing the notes breathes life into the phrase.

Every dialect and every language has its difficulties when producing a unified choral sound according to Western-world standards. The r sound creates the most problem for, as we like to say, corrupting the pitch. There are so many colors and variations of the pitch when an r is present. We teach our choirs to default to the ah sound if in the middle of the word or to flip the r replacing it with the letter d.

In Mandarin, the use of the er allows for variation of pitch and what can sound like a glissando or intentional bending of the pitch. The use of the Chinese er can create extreme intonation problems and lingering tones.

The use of the er also creates tension in the jaw and teeth. It can handicap the resonators. To cleanse the young singers of the use of this harsh default (certainly where Western-world classical music is concerned) we have included exercises that encourage the lifting of the soft palate and zygomatic arch muscles. I have added kinosthetic actions that have positively and almost immediately resolved the issue. These don’t require explanation, just modeling.  The children copy perfectly.

These exercises include stretching and yawning. Yes, stretching, yawning and sighing are universal. Using the thumb and index finger to draw the sound up from the cheeks to above the head has also been a good remedy. Explaining that the vowel must be reinforced on successive notes and not produced by using articulators has been a great revelation. Even though these singers may need to be reminded about these issues, they quickly fix them when asked.

Published by

Lynn Swanson

Executive Artistic Director Milwaukee Children's Choir

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