Teaching German text to Chinese Singers

Teaching German to Chinese Singers

In some ways, it’s easier for a choir to sing a foreign language than it is to sing in its native tongue. The reasons may or may not be obvious. Every language has socially distinct varieties that will differ from its standard language.

In the Zhuhai Classical Children’s Choir, the children sing in Latin, English, and Italian. They are now preparing two pieces in German. The first is Beethoven’s Merkenstein for alto and soprano voices. The second is Schubert’s Psalm 23 for four-part treble voices.

The two select choirs named Elgar and Britten are capable of reading English. For the most part, they have been singing Latin and English for a few years. They performed the choral score of Madame Butterfly in Italian of course, with orchestra and professional soloists this past June.

Now, we are teaching them German. Just a quick note, many of the English sounds made for our language are not a part of the Chinese language. Imagine the confusion, when after having read English for a number of years the “w” is suddenly pronounced as a “v”. Then, there is the even more explosive ending consonant necessary in the German language. “Und” must be pronounced with an exploding “t”.  The final syllable “en” becomes an “un”. Let’s not forget that singers must suddenly remember to make an “sch” sound for what is an “st” sound in English. The umlaut has not been as big of an issue as expected even though they do not encounter this production in English or Chinese. For the most part, the greater issue is the brain making the switch as to how a certain vowel or consonant differs from English to German.

They are relieved to know that the “th” sound only appears in English. I have found this sound to be by far the most difficult blend for Chinese children to produce. Of course, I believe it is a difficult blend for English speakers as well. Even in well-rehearsed English singing choirs, the “th” often comes across as a lazy sound because the tongue is allowed to remain behind the teeth.

I have included two excerpts from a tutorial session with three of the boys that sing in both select choirs.

They have only been learning this piece, notes, rhythm and now text for three rehearsals.

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.

Do Raising Muscles Surrounding the Cheek Bones Also Raise the Soft Palate?

Voice teachers have consistently advocated for the “smiling position,”
or “raising the cheeks,” when one sings for the purpose of enhancing tonal balance or affecting chiaroscuro or color of the voice.
In the case of the position of the zygomatic musculature (muscles surrounding cheek bones) any amount of lift in most cases will result in increased acoustic intensity or certain increase in resonating qualities.
Leon Therman, Specialist Voice Educator and Founder of the Leon Thurman Voice Center in Minneapolis completed research that shows:
Zygomatic arches and soft palate raising ~ The zygomatic arches are part of the facial bone structures, specifically part of what are called the cheekbones, just under the eyes. We also have two muscles that are labelled Zygomatic Major and Zygomatic Minor. Z-Major is the primary muscle that moves the “lip corners” laterally when we smile Neither muscle has a direct interface with the soft palate or the muscles that move the soft palate up and back to close off the nasal cavity, or to arch the soft palate. However, neural networks that move the soft palate and the lips co-contract at the same time as part of a singer’s “habitual singing coordinations.”

Must I Always Warm-up My Voice Before I Sing?

All Voice Experts advocate warm-up exercises. The lack of a proper warm-up may contribute to vocal fatigue and even dysfunction in singers as well as anyone using that uses the voice throughout the day. Poorly warmed-up voices are less durable and less sustainable!

What happens to the vocal folds during the warm-up?

Since the vocal folds contain muscle tissues as a major component they depend on efficient blood circulation in order to retain good function and viscosity. Good circulation is stimulated by a well-planned and methodical warm-up. All great athletes rely on efficient and optimal muscle function and therefore warm up their muscles as part of their initial exercise.

Just how does one warm up the voice? Believe it or not, it can be achieved in much the same way one prepares the body for a work out. This warm up includes:
• Full body movements to activate the breath and bring circulation to the pharynx and larynx
• Intentional but natural movement of the diaphragm
• Massage the jaw and facial muscles
• Gentle onsets with soft phonation using resonators
• Experience the head voice, then mixed register voice and finally chest voice
• Work the articulators [i.e. mouth, tongue, jaw, hard palate, etc.]
• Integrate consonants with vowels and transition to forming words