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Basic Diction principles

(Note: there's already been a compilation of "Children and Diction" responses
broadcast on Choralist, and we received the following additional response which is
being passed on to Choralist as an addendum. manager(a)

The "oo" vowel is really the best place to start. The person who suggested
dropping the consonants and singing vowels only as the next step also has a
good idea, but this is difficult for children to do. When they are more
advanced, that works fine, if they know how to produce the vowels already.
I have worked with a variety of children's groups, from select to my
current Los Angeles Unified school groups. In the latter, many of the
children have no previous experience and are not primarily English
speakers. I get very good results, and very quickly, in the following

1. I ask the children to imagine what it would be like to talk with the
shape of a hard-boiled egg in their mouth. Then I demonstrate what it
sounds like when I do that. This creates the kind of space you want in the
mouth for singing, and the children think it is very funny when I talk like
that. With this feeling of shape, I have them sing on "oo". I also tell
them at the beginning that they have to be willing to make some sounds they
think are silly in order to become a good singer.

I ask them to keep that shape on everything they sing--put the inside shape
of the "oo" in the words (not the roundness of the lips). For many, this
is all it takes.

2. If they go back to the other sound, I say, "This is what that sounded
like to me", and I sing it back for them the way they did it--sometimes
exaggerated. Then I say, "This is how I want it to sound." I demonstrate
the correct way and ask them to do it again. Sometimes I have them copy
how I did it the wrong way, and then copy the right way. But often, I have
to use step 3. However, there are times all year when I need to go back to
step 2.

2. "Imagine you are imitating an English person speaking." Then I go into
a discussion of how in England they speak with a different accent than we
do in America, and how they speak at a generally higher pitch, with more
pitch variation, and more precise diction. I demonstrate the idea. (I use
the space mentioned in #1, a higher speaking pitch, more precise
diction--probably not an accurate mimic of an English accent, but they get
the idea.)

3. Speak the words in rhythm in this sing-song, spacey, higher pitched
style--you demonstrate and have them repeat.

4. Have them sing with the same sound. Start with you singing, they copy.
(It may be a bit more difficult with a man demonstrating, but maybe not.)
Stop them if they don't give you what you want. Demonstrate again. My
kids don't get to sing if they don't do it with good tone. The kids get it
very quickly. If they complain about how silly it sounds, explain that
singing is different than talking, and this is what they must do to make
beautiful sounds and to be able to use all of their voice--high and low.
Also, that even though they think it sounds silly, the audience will
understand the words better.

This method is also the same for teaching them how to sing a foreign
language. I have not said this to them, but it occurs to me as I write
this, that learning to sing vowels and proper diction is a bit like them
learning a foreign language. Many voice teachers start their students with
Italian songs because they want them to get those vowel sounds.

You can also demonstrate to them by having a student come up to listen, how
much louder the sound is, just by making the space for the vowel sounds
inside the mouth. Have them sing some warm-up on vowels only, with the
mouth shape they use for talking. (oo works just fine for this) Then have
them make the space inside. They will hear an immediate difference in
volume without any extra energy expended.

5. When it gets to r sound at the ends of words, I tell them they have to
speak like they are from Boston, when people drop all of these r sounds. I
speak a phrase like "Park the car in Harvard Yard" ala Boston, without the
r's. I have to translate it for them, because they don't understand it.
They think it is funny. I also demonstrate how awful it sounds when r's
are sung incorrectly at the ends of the words. They do much better after
that, but this is one I have to remind about frequently.

Someone said that they don't have children imitate because they want them
to have their own sound. I beg to differ on that point. The imitation is
for the space and the vowel sounds, and the connection with the breath.
Otherwise they will not find their own sound. Sometimes one or 2 kids will
pick up on the regular vibrato I have in my voice and imitate with an
exaggerated vibrato. I stop them cold and show what my voice would sound
like if I do what they are doing. They get that right away too. I
demonstrate with my regular voice, but generally sing lightly. I hear
people all the time who demonstrate for children with the voice they think
the children should have--straight tone, thin sound, little breath
connection. The children get that right away too, and try to create that
sound in their voice. It is then that we get children who all sound the
same. There are too many children's choirs like this, IMHO.

Best wishes,
Eloise Porter
Founding Director, Encore Children's Chorus

(Note: there's already been a compilation of "Children and Diction" responses
broadcast on Choralist, as well as an additional response. We received one further
response that belongs to the earlier complilation, so it appears below.

I'm sorry I didn't have time to respond earlier, but here are my
contributions to the thread.

When most people speak about "diction," I believe they are referring only to
the consonants, but there are two components to diction, the consonants and
the vowels. David Schildkret made some excellent comments and
suggestions, but they focus more on the vowels. I'll comment on his ideas

Even though many of the ideas will apply to church and community choirs as
well, the original scope of this thread was "children and diction," so my
first comments will focus on that.

I would talk to the children first about some of the differences between
choirs and soloists and rock, country and/or jazz bands. Pop, jazz and
country music styles don't require good diction, and in fact can hinder it.
One might play examples of choirs with excellent diction, examples of
choirs with poor diction, and examples of singers or groups in the other
styles/genres where vowels are distorted and words unintelligible. Learning
is always more powerful when people can hear and learn for themselves, so
let them hear how important energized, clear diction is. Stress the idea of
communication of the texts.

Often, in trying to get better diction from children, directors will say
"sing louder." This is bad, as it can lead to the children pushing, forcing
and/or straining their voices, and using chest, rather than head voice.
It's much better to say sing with more energy and crisper consonants and
purer vowels. Then the laws of acoustics take over and carry the sound. A
pushed or forced sound doesn't carry anyway.

Tell the children that pure vowels sound better, carry farther, and get a
better blend. Develop and train their head voices as part of this work.
Pure vowels will help in this effort.

Have them speak the vowels correctly, then have them sing the vowels
correctly. Point out the differences between regional accents and the ideal
vowel sounds you're going for. Have them speak it normally (perhaps even
slightly exaggerated) and then correctly, and BOTH listen to the difference
and feel the difference in their mouths and throats. Make liberal use of a
tape recorder. Play examples of children's choirs singing with good, pure

Children are less inhibited than most adults, and will try many things and
won't think of them as being weird or silly, or feel embarassed about doing
them as adults will. In fact, unless you tell them that something is hard
or "different" they won't think it is. Stress from the very beginning how
important it is to energize their consonants and to articulate clearly.

Games, word play, and tongue twisters are the best (and most fun!) ways to
develop good diction habits. Posters can be helpful reminders of this. One
of my voice teachers and I developed a set of drills for various consonants
(the lion's share of the credit goes to her) that one can use to help train
the articulators and develop better diction. When done correctly, many of
these also help free tensions in the jaw and tongue and engage the support
muscles correctly. If anyone is interested in receiving one of these lists,
please contact me, and I'll be happy to send it to you.

As the children begin to master these, one can mix in vocalises with
consonants as well as vowels. Remember that voiced consonants like "l,"
"m," "n," "v," "z," and rolled "r" have pitch and help keep the voice
forward and brighter. Consonants such as "b," "ch," "d," "j," "k," "p,"
"s," "sh," "t," "th," "v", "z," "zh" help engage the abdomen and breath
support musculature when done correctly.

Now on to David's comments.

>2. there was only one vowel to deal with.

This is one of the most important things about using vocalises...that is,
they allow the singers to focus on only one concept or idea at a time. When
singers are working on a song, there's rhythm, intervals, vowels and
consonants, tempi, dynanics, text and phrase stresses to deal with. That
can be overwhelming and can be simply too much thrown at them at one time.
Using vocalises simplifies things and allows them to focus on only one
thing at a time.

>1. Sing the piece on the VOWELS only, omitting the consonants and
>connecting the vowels. You might go from loo to the vowels of the text,
>insisting on good, consistently-held vowels (I often ask singers to REPEAT
>the vowel). Commonly, singers don't use a well-formed vowel and/or they
>allow the vowel to drift away. This exercise will help that.

After concentrated work on vocalises and obtaining the pure vowels one is
after, this is an excellent way to start incorporating vowels into the
literature you're working on. One can also write one's own vocalises based
on literature one is singing or taking phrases from the literature itself.
The last sentence in the above paragraph is especially vital. Many singers
lose focus or get lazy and vowel sounds don't stay consistent as they are
sustained or repeated. Again, vocalises are perhaps the best way to teach
this, but it can also be done through literature. Phrases from polychoral
works or from Handel choruses or solos where one vowel is sung over many
notes is an excellent way to teach this. It is a "process" of training
their ears, of developing a certain kind or level of listening skill, of
training their muscle memory, and developing the discipline and good vocal
habits necessary. Vocalises can be done both legato and staccato, scalewise
or arpeggiated to keep things varied and interesting. The keys are keeping
the placement high, forward, and identical from vowel to vowel. Many people
work on vowels, and some work on placement, but this is often done
independently. To get the best tone and diction, vowels need to be matched
to each other while maintaining the same placement.

>2. Chant the text in rhythm on a single pitch. [snip] Consonants are
dropped into >the continuous flow of the vowels,they do not disrupt this
flow (in other words,
>the sound shouldn't stop and start).

This is an excellent idea, but some consonants WILL stop the flow. It is
unavoidable, so it will depend if one is focusing primarily on pure vowels
or crisp consonants as to the effectiveness of this method.

Proper text stress is important in good diction as well. One of the things
I learned from Dr. Richard Westenberg of Musica Sacra is that text can be
obscured by choirs singing every beat with the same stress and every
syllable with the same stress or accenting unaccented syllables. A great
rule of thumb that I picked up last year at a music conference from Dr.
Roger (?) Vick of Furman (sorry, I've suddenly gone blank on his first name)
is to teach one's choirs that "no two notes get the same stress." In some
pieces, there should be a regular stress on the downbeat, but in others,
there may be a key word in the musical phrase that should be aimed for, with
the rest building up to or falling away from that stress. Thus, one is also
teaching one's children to sing musically and make phrases, and have a
firmer feel or understanding of rhythm and phrasing.

>Oren Brown, in Discover Your Voice, rightly points out that choral
>conductors frequently expect to hear the final result too soon, before
>everything about a piece is properly established in the voice. Careful,
>deliberate teaching will help prevent problems later. Breathiness may be
>partly due to uncertainty.

I think this is correct. There's no real mystery to developing good
diction, pure vowels, or good tone. It just takes repeated work,
consistency, focused drilling, and demanding nothing short of their best.

I hope this helps.

Best regards,

Craig D. Collins
Director of Music Ministry
Mt. Zion United Methodist Church
19600 Zion Street
Cornelius, NC 28031

on April 18, 2003 10:00pm

Dear list

Following are two more posts that I received regarding children and diction.

Kenn Wollmann

Hi Kenn,

It's a beautiful Palm Sunday afternoon here in Maine, and we just came home
from church. Checking the mail, I came across your compilation and thought
I should kick in my own two cents, based on observations here with our own
church childrens' choirs.

We have two groups: The Spirit Risers (grades 3 - 6) and the Sunshine
Singers (Pre-K through 2). And a teen choir and an adult choir, but that's
a story for another day. The problem at hand last year was the nine kids in
the Sunshine Singers, who couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. Their director
was getting desperate as the Christmas season loomed on the horizon, and
week after week they attempted their warring version of DO-RE-MI. His
comment was that he'd never come across a group that had so much trouble
finding and staying on pitch.

Listening to them, what I heard was an initial uncertainty on each note of
the scale, like they were "leaning on one another" for strength. If they
came in flat compared to the singer next door, then that singer would lower
pitch as the first one tried to correct by raising it. Before they reached
concensus, the next note came along and began the process all over again.

For the fun of it, I brought in a garbage bag with nine HearFones in it to
see what would happen. The kids were a bit intimidated by these strange new
things, but they were happy nonetheless.

The HearFones went on after they had warmed up with the usual discordant
results. But when they popped on the HearFones, eight of them sang
together, and one (boy) was a monotone. The next half-hour was interesting,
as they practiced their carols with a new sense of cohesiveness and not just
a little pride.


We've seen this before with several high school select choroi, who of course
sing much better overall. Even in their case, the first quarter of each
quarter note seems to be spent homing in on pitch. Just popping on
HearFones gives them the initial feedback to hit the pitch right as the note
starts -- or to bomb out totally if they don't yet know the pitch, of

I think they might help in your situation, but I need to warn you that Ray
Miller and I invented HearFones, so if you're cynical this might be seen as
a commercial message. Be assured, that's not the intent.

The folks who responded to your discussion made some excellent points, and
as an engineer I'd like to comment on a couple of them:

1. The tongue/teeth/lips thing works great. It gives them a visceral feel
for what diction is and how it's created. Kids learn from their parents and
communities, and thus they span the entire range from the Queen's English to
unintelligible red-neck marble-mouth slurs. Insist on excellence, and you
will get it.

Because vocal sound is directed forward, a singer's ears pick up mostly
guttural "bone conduction" and reflected room sounds. The result is that a
chorister hears the adjacent singer much more clearly than themselves. Even
if they don't want to.

Picking up sound from in front of the mouth and delivering to the ear works
great to help them perfect their diction, just as it does in speech therapy.

2. The "OO" vowel in "LOO" is as close as a human can come to a sine wave
-- the pure tone composed only of the fundamental and with no overtones.
That's why they can use it to such strong effect, because there is one and
only one pitch to deal with.

Here we use an oscilloscope with a Fast Fourier Transform plug-in to analyze
the sounds of singing, with and without HearFones. What we've found is
typically a "steeper spectral slope" which indicates a cleaner singing voice
with less hash and upper harmonics in it. The singer hears the sounds --
breathiness, gurgles, pitch accuracy -- and corrects for them intuitively.

Dr. Anne-Maria Laukkanen ran a test at the University of Tampere in Finland
last year, which will be appearing in the Journal of Voice shortly. It
shows the effect graphically (if you'll pardon the pun). Good diction
follows after good confidence is attained.

3. The vowels are critical to beautiful sound. If two singers in the same
part group sing the same pitch but even slightly differing vowel sounds, it
sounds just terrible. The famous example is "REEjoice vs. REHjoice," but
even a "dark OH" vs. a "bright OH" can illustrate the effect.

What's happening is that vowels are "formed" by the vocal tract, and thus
the difference between two nearby vowels is determined by the upper partials
the vocal tract lets through. If these partials aren't themselves
harmonically matched, well . . . all bets are off.

4. Oren Brown is right. HOWEVER, it's also true that the conductor needs
to have a goal of excellence in mind. Premier childrens choirs like the
Vienna Choir Boys are not the result of constant practice and rehearsal so
much as the result of the challenge of high standards. They KNOW the sound
they want to make, and a skilled director/teacher/vocal-coach has a box full
of tricks to help them attain that sound.

Classically instruction has always depended on the director, who actually
can hear what's out front, giving feedback (body language, subjective words
like "brighter" or "darker," and the hairy eyeball) to the singers who
cannot hear themselves.

HearFones let them help themselves.

[Editor's note: if you don't want to buy HearFones, you may be able to get a similar result by having them cup their ears forward with their hands, or using a flexible tube, such as a vacuum cleaner hose. -AHS]

Best regards,

Pete Mickelson

NEXTEP Incorporated



Sorry I didn't catch your earlier posting, but here are some other things.
Use the warmups to establish proper vowel production. Most directors move
from bright to dark (ee-eh-ah-aw-oo), however, I have found that reversing
that (oo-aw-ah-eh-ee) is better for young voices (and adult voices as well).
First of all it follows David Schildkret's suggestion to begin with "oo".
Secondly, you can ask the singers to be certain that the jaw and lip
position on "ee" is the same as the beginning "oo", which eliminates the
pinched "ee" sound that so many young singers produce. Be sure that the jaw
is relaxed on ALL vowel sounds (try having the students place hands on face,
palms facing outward, with middle knuckles between the teeth (very
This is not to force the jaw, rather to monitor it. If you rehearse in a
room with a mirror, that also helps. Placing a "k" consonant before the
vowels also helps propel the jaw into an open position. All this can be
accomplished as part of the warmup, so that the singers understand the
rounded, open vowels. Then transfer that to the music through David's
excellent suggestions.

Also help students achieve beautiful tonal quality through a certain amount
of vowel modification in the upper register and lower register. I've also
found that when students aren't utilizing proper breath support, rounded
vowels suffer as they try to grab the note with the throat! In that sense,
breathing affects the vowel.

Thanks for you interesting question and compilation.

Charles Facer, Director of Vocal Music
Greenwood Laboratory School at Southwest Missouri State University
Springfield, MO

on September 11, 2004 10:00pm
1. Diphthongs are by definition two vowel sounds; for example, in "sky" you have AH-EE. The general rule in Engish is to prolong the first element, saving the second vowel sound for the very end, just before the note ends.

2. Consonants are usually placed on the cutoff rest, forming a percussive element on the cutoff beat (or wherever the rest occurs). Voiced consonants are no different, but they should be pitched on the same note, not just spoken, and made a short as reasonably possible.

Hope this answers your question.
on September 11, 2004 10:00pm
I am teaching middle school chorus for the first time (my background is instrumental) and I have a few questions on diction. I have studied Don Collins book, and have been working with the students on vowel production and placement in our warmups. I would like some clarification diphtongs. We are working on Rain Dance by (Berta and Sonja Pooorman ) which has a lot of phrases ending with dipthongs. (sky,dry, cry, Iohay, ayeohi) which are then followed by rests. What is the correct pronunciation of these? Also, how should I handle voiced consonants like b? (tribe again before a rest). I would appreiate any input, as I really don't want to reteach something I have taught incorrectly to start with!