Sequential Consonants “TH”

Please see video attached.

One of the most challenging consonants for our Chinese singers is the sequential consonants th. Quite honestly, I have found it to be difficult for many English speakers especially those that sing in English choirs.

Singers often do not put forth the effort to get the tongue between the teeth when making the th sound. Depending on the effort, the tempo and preceding consonants, the th can become a z. As the tip of tongue travels to the front teeth, it can get stuck at the alveolar.

For our Chinese speakers, the d has become the default for the th. There is no sound like the th in the Chinese language. There are however, many words that use the English d. The tongue simply does not pass through the teeth for any sound. As a matter of fact, because of the tones used in this language, the tongue is rarely in a relaxed position. The sounds must be made with an elevated and recessed tongue.

At the Webb-Mitchell Centre for Choral Studies, we have created a small exercise to reinforce the placement of the tongue for th. Singing a non legato unison pitch in the mid-range we sing this-that-and-the-other. It has been an effective exercise to add to the choral training that happens at the beginning of each rehearsal.

Of course, if one is singing the word the one must also consider if the long e or short e is used. Can you imagine the confusion with Chinese speakers? For instance, the word harp technically begins with an h. But, since it is the exception to the rule, the h is silent. Mind you, they don’t necessarily understand every word they are singing, but can pronounce almost any word put before them.

In the video on this post, you will hear the Welsh tune The Ash Grove. This is a great piece for young singers especially those that need practice finding the correct articulators to clearly pronounce th and those needing to understand the long e or short e usage in the.

 The Ash Grove is written in the key of G. The range is D4 to D5. The melodic line is very tonal and pleasing to the voice and ear. The phrases are short enough for young lungs and the only leap is the initial interval of a fourth. It is repetitive in melody and rhythm, although there is a slight variety of both in the second verse. Even though it could easily be sung A cappella, the use of the piano supports the singer vocally and aurally through its pure harmonic structure.


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.