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Diction for Choirs

Date: Tue, 30 Apr 1996 10:33:51 -0400
From: Robert Miller
Subject: Re: Diction for Choirs: Responses

Dear Colleagues:

I Thank you all most heartly for your prompt and informative responses. Here are
the responses.
If more responses come in later I will recompile and post again. I'm thrilled

Carl Ashley Responded:

> I have recently accepted the responsibility of directing my
> church choir and would like as my first priority to address the diction
> of the choir. I welcome suggestions from some of the experienced
> directors out there on the best resources presently available
> (books,articles,tapes,etc...) that would assist me in teaching this
> subject from the ground up as a part of the regular rehersals.


One resource I recommend is __Group Vocal Technique__, by Frauke
Haasemann and James Jordan. __The Singer's Manual of English
Diction__ by Madeleine Marshall is a source that many college
diction courses use, but it isn't particularly wonderful.

> As a start, what would you recommend as a good resource to teach them
> the IPA symbols, and what is the best way to introduce this consept to
> individuals who may have not been exposed to this before.

I would not recommend that you teach IPA to your church choir.
They really don't need to know it. YOU do, but they don't.
You most likely don't have the time to teach it to them properly.
Start them with pure vowels, starting with a pure, hooty [u].
Gradually work toward the more open vowels. You can also
include consonant pronunciation in your warmups. I normally
have my choirs warm up on repeating short, simple rhythmic
patterns after me on various consonant sounds. Remember to
teach very gradually so that they absorb the information.
Don't try to teach them everything the first rehearsal. It
will take you, depending upon the choir, anywhere from one
rehearsal to YEARS to get them to be consistent with [u].

Keith Pagan responds:

There is no question: the best approach to diction STILL is the Fred
Waring approach...he sorta "borrowed" it from Wesminster! His "Tone
Syllable" booklet spells it out. It works. It can be TOO MUCH, if over
done. My choirs are well known for their intelligibility...and it is the
foundation to what I do and what MANY fine choral directors do.

Good luck.

KeithPagan Internet: chairMU(a)
Chair, Department of Music Phone: (619) 221 2353
Point Loma Nazarene College Secretary:(619) 221 2344
3900 Lomaland Drive
San Diego, CA 92106 Fax: (619) 523 0459

David Janower responds:

Re: IPA - I would suggest that you teach them yourself, not use any
published source whatsoever, and teach them only what they will need,
whcih I think is the crux. You don't say what the diction issues are.
Are they impossible to udnerstand when they sing? Or do they all sing
different vowels and therefore sound out of tune or unbalanced? Are you
trying to introduce foreign languages? These have very different solutions.

If the problem is proper pronunciation of mostly English and church Latin
repertory, I'd make my own list of the vowels, which will be 99% of the
problem, and their IPA symbols. They can learn more quickly from a short
list of vowels, like [E] vs. [e], than they can from a long IPA list,
when the consonants are not the problem! DOn't overload them with stuff,
but give them what they need most, and they way YOU want to hear it,
since we all differ a bit. I like Madelaine Marshall's approach to
English diction, slightly modified for group singing, but it's only one
of many approaches...

If their inability to articulate and be understood is the probelm, then
IPA is not the issue, so I assume that's not it. If it's foreign
languages, the best sources depend on what languages you need them to sing.

Hope I am being clear.

David Griggs-Janower
Albany Pro Musica &
The University at Albany, SUNY
228 Placid Drive
Schenectady, NY 12303-5118

Dean Ekberg responds

>As a start, what would you recommend as a good resource to teach them
>the IPA symbols, and what is the best way to introduce this consept to
>individuals who may have not been exposed to this before.

I'm not sure how valuable IPA would be to your church choir. I am very
familiar with IPA and find it most helpful in my own work, but not with my
choirs. It seems to me that if you can pronounce things the way you expect
the choir to pronounce them, your goal of having their singing be
inteligible will be realized. Most church choirs, even the exceptionally
good ones, are singing as an avocation and while they usually want to
improve themselves, I don't think that teaching them IPA will be
particularly helpful.

If you find that their enunciation is unclear, you might want to try
recording them and letting them hear for themselves how they sound. Then
your suggestions for improvement will be more meaningful to them.

Good luck.

========================================================================== Dean Ekberg "Never teach a pig to sing. = dekberg(a) It wastes your time = and annoys the pig" ========================================================================
John Howell responds:

My own prejudice, of course, but I would NEVER use IPA with singers who did
not already know the system.

One of the best systems of choral diction remains Fred Waring's tone
syllables, which can be used perfectly well without some of the
exaggerations that Fred preferred. My mother learned them at a Waring
Workshop in about 1947, and I grew up with them. They are simple, they
make sense, and they work for any language.

I'd contact Shawnee Press and ask whether the original brochure on tone
syllables or any later publication is still available. I know that choral
conductors like to look down their noses at Waring and what he did, but the
man was nothing if not fanatic about diction and developed a system that


John & Susie Howell (John.Howell(a)
Virginia Tech Department of Music
Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A. 24061-0240
(540) 231-8411 Fax (540) 231-5034

Jo Scheier responds:

Assuming your chior is made up of adultsI found the _International Phonetic
Alphabet for Singers_ by Joan Wall to be excellent.
Publisher: Pst... Inc, P.O. Box 900208H, Dallas TX 75380-0208
ISBN 1-877761-50-8

Something that really helped me when I was a student was a book of exercises
written with the IPA symbols. (I'm thinking of Coffin's _Overtones of Bel
Canto_). My teacher would say the two or three sounds involved in the
exercise and I would use those sounds while looking at the notation. That's
really how I learned IPA! Perhaps you could write out some of the warm-ups
you do with the group in IPA so they start to associate sounds with the

Best of luck,

Jo Scheier

Judy Zuckerman responds:

RE>Diction for Choirs 4/29/96

John Moriarty's book, _Diction for Singers_ is an excellent source for
Italian, Latin, French and German. I frequently transliterate choir pieces
into IPA and provide the singers with a guide to the symbols based on
Moriarty's charts.
Good luck with your choir!
Judy Zuckerman

Again, Thanx!!!!!!