<![CDATA[Multilingual Singing - Blog]]>Fri, 12 Feb 2016 23:56:50 +0000Weebly<![CDATA[Singing in as many languages as we can: our own way to fight radicalism]]>Sat, 12 Dec 2015 22:55:25 GMThttp://multilingualsinging.weebly.com/blog/singing-in-as-many-languages-as-we-can-our-own-way-to-fight-radicalismA month ago I woke up to find a text message from my brother saying: “We’re ok”. My brother lives in Paris. Then I heard the news. I was due to run a singing workshop that afternoon, and my first thought was to cancel it as a mark of respect for the victims, and also because I just felt too upset to engage in what seemed like a frivolous leisure activity. But then I thought again and changed my mind: Precisely because of the Paris attacks it was more important than ever to go ahead and sing in as many languages as we possibly could.

Radicalism and intolerance are the products of ignorance. Much of the conditioning undergone by terrorists is based on imposing a simplistic view of the world in which anything that strays from our own, narrowed-down culture is regarded as alien and hostile. It creates an ‘us’ against ‘them’ mindset, and feeds on confrontation. Radicalism needs ignorance in order to function and deliberately promotes it.

This is why the best way to fight radicalism is to turn ignorance into knowledge by giving the ‘other’ a name, a face and a voice. Singing in a foreign language enables us to do just that. The first thing that strikes you when you hear an unfamiliar language is usually the way it sounds: vowels you cannot figure out, consonants you never thought could be pronounced together, unusual tones, or just a series of pleasant sounds that still do not make any sense to you. Learning a song in a new language gets you to engage with the sounds of the language in question. Even if you don’t always get it right, that language will no longer be entirely alien to you. When you hear the language again you will be much more likely to recognise it and to remember how easy or difficult you found it to pronounce those sounds yourself.

Most people want to know what they are singing, so you are likely to look for a translation of the songs that you sing in unfamiliar languages. Behind every song there is a story, and many songs also take new meanings over the years, or when they are sung in different circumstances, or listened to by different people. Even assuming that you were unable to get any information other than the melody and how to pronounce the lyrics, the song would still have its own meaning for you once you have learnt it. For example, it might remind you of the choir you sang it with, the mood you were in at the time, or the acoustics of the hall where you performed it. Whenever you hear the first couple of bars you will remember the rest of the tune. No matter how little you know about it, that song will never be entirely alien to you anymore, because through the act of singing it you somehow made it your own.

Music plays a central role in people’s cultures and sense of identity, and when you combine it with language in the form of a song, its emotional power is very strong indeed. It is claimed (CNN, 2008) that Nelson Mandela once said: "If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart." Add the right tune to the mix and you shall win him over. The advantage of singing is that, while it takes several years to become fluent in a language, it takes a few moments to learn a simple song. Freddie Mercury only had to sing a couple of lines from Tavaszi Szel (a Hungarian folk song) at his 1986 concert in Budapest to bring the house down. He did seem a bit nervous and had written the words on his hand to aid his memory, but it definitely worked!

Because songs have such powerful meanings, when you sing a song from an unfamiliar culture or historical period you may be conveying certain implicit meanings of which you are not aware. Take a well known tune like We shall overcome: It started its life as a gospel hymn sometime in the thirties and later became the unofficial anthem of Civil Rights Movement, as activist singers such as Pete Seeger and Joan Baez performed it at rallies and Luther King cited the first verse in his final sermon in 1968. But at the same time the song was being adopted by Catholics in Northern Ireland. In the late eighties it was sung in Czecoslovakia during the Velvet Revolution, an anti-communist movement. Pink Floyd used it as a protest against the Israeli blockade of Gaza. In India, children in the eighties used to sing it at school assembly, this time as a patriotic anthem, whereas in South Africa it became an anti-apartheid song.  Even football clubs have given their own meaning to the song, and Middlesborough fans have made it their anthem. There are probably many other groups around the world who use the same tune for very different purposes. Songs, like other cultural creations, are not limited to the meaning that their creator originally intended. Discovering unsuspected meanings is one of the things that makes learning songs from other cultures such an enriching experience.  

As I mourn for the victims of the Paris attacks, I propose that we add our own new meaning to this anthem. By singing it in as many different languages as possible, we make an audible stand for peace, and we show that learning is the best remedy against intolerance. Let us embrace diversity and proclaim our respect for otherness from the very soul of humanity: through music and language. By singing in other languages, we are stating that the ‘other’ has actually got a name, a face, and yes, a voice. And for the short moment it takes to sing a verse, the voice of that other becomes our own. Different is good. Vive la différence!

Add a verse in another language!

Here are just a few languages to get us started. If you have more lyrics please add them below as a comment. You can use any language you like, but please make sure the verses are singable first!
<![CDATA[7 reasons why good pronunciation of foreign lyrics matters]]>Sat, 07 Feb 2015 16:34:21 GMThttp://multilingualsinging.weebly.com/blog/7-reasons-why-good-pronunciation-of-foreign-lyrics-matters Learning to pronounce lyrics in a foreign language can take some effort, especially if the language in question is very different from your own, but there are some very good reasons to put in the extra work. Here are 7 reasons why it is a good idea to get the pronunciation right when you sing in a foreign language:

  1. Comprehension:  If your audience happens to include people who speak the language in which the lyrics are written, good pronunciation will ensure that they can understand the words you are singing. They will be able to appreciate both the music and the lyrics of the piece, and therefore be more likely to enjoy your performance.
  2. Singing skills:  Singing new, unfamiliar sounds expands the range of nuances that your voice is able to produce.  Singing coaches often start their warm-ups with exercises asking people to sing in funny voices and make unusual sounds. In the same way, singing in a foreign language makes you more aware of your voice’s potential and gives you better control of your vocal instrument.
  3. Musical consistency:  When a vocal piece is well written, melody and rhythm are a reflection of the melody and rhythm of the spoken lyrics. If you pronounce the vowels in the way they were meant to sound, they will ring with harmonics, and rhymes will naturally slide into the melody. An awareness of the correct stressing of spoken words and sentences will help you get the most out of the stresses and dynamics in the music. You will find that the piece just comes together and makes sense.
  4. Language skills: Needless to say, singing in a language does improve your pronunciation in the language in question, provided that you take care to pronounce the lyrics correctly. Language teachers are well aware of this and often use songs to teach pronunciation.
  5. Artistic integrity: Lyricists and composers often put their hearts into their work as they try to create the best fit between lyrics and music. By making sure that you pronounce the lyrics as they were meant to be heard you are showing your respect for the creators’ hard work. After all, they rely on singers like you to bring their piece to life and it is only fair that you give it your best.
  6. Professionalism: No matter how well executed a piece may be in terms of voice quality, intonation and dynamics; if the pronunciation is sloppy the quality of the performance will inevitably suffer. Good pronunciation tells listeners that you have done your homework and tackled the piece as professionals do. It is one of the many signals that singers can send to their audience to make their performance stand out.
  7. Self satisfaction:  The greater a challenge, the more satisfaction you get when you succeed. It is very satisfying to hear yourself sing perfectly pronounced lyrics and to know that the piece is coming together thanks to your careful execution. Remember you do not need to be able to speak a language in order to pronounce it well. Once you have nailed it, pronunciation is thoroughly enjoyable and each new song will be more fun!

<![CDATA[Forthcoming articles]]>Thu, 13 Nov 2014 00:30:01 GMThttp://multilingualsinging.weebly.com/blog/forthcoming-articlesHere are some of the topics I am planning to write about over the next few months (in no particular order):
  • 7 reasons why good pronunciation of foreign lyrics matters (published 7.2.15)
  • What makes some classical singers incomprehensible?
  • Transcribing a song's pronunciation
  • How to practise lyrics in a foreign language
  • Translating songs
  • Understanding the lyrics. Does it really matter?
  • Researching repertoire in foreign langages
  • Bilingual singing
  • Different languages, different challenges
Titles may change slightly once I get writing.

<![CDATA[The challenges of singing in a foreign language]]>Sat, 08 Nov 2014 00:22:27 GMThttp://multilingualsinging.weebly.com/blog/the-challenges-of-singing-in-a-foreign-language Last week at choir rehearsal we started learning a new song from The Lion King musical. As the director handed out the scores my neighbour's face dropped: An entire section of the lyrics is written in Zulu! Singing in an unfamiliar language is a challenge for any singer, and it can be particularly daunting for monolingual singers. However, these difficulties are easier to overcome if you understand their causes.  

In order to sing confidently in a foreign language three conditions must be met:

  • You need to know what the words are meant to sound like in the first place
  • You need to be able to use your muscles in the right way to produce the sounds in question
  • You need to feel comfortable making sounds that may feel alien to you and singing words you may not understand
The first condition is to do with knowledge. For example in French, the spelling ‘oi’ is pronounced /wa/. This is a rule that can just be leant once you are told how it works. With less commonly taught languages it may be difficult to find all the information you need, but assuming you know where to find it, you should be able - at least in theory - to learn the necessary rules. Even the complex and often obscure relationships between spelling and pronunciation in the English language can eventually be learnt by speakers of other languages. They may need to memorise a set of rules and a ridiculously long list of exceptions, but it can certainly be done.

The second condition is to do with skills and relates to your physical ability to produce  the sounds in question. Because our articulatory system was trained to make a certain set of sounds from an early age (i.e. the sounds of our native language) it may be difficult to start using our muscles in a different way later in life. Some people, for example, find it almost impossible to roll their Rs. For singers, the problem is not only in the pronunciation of individual sounds, but in stringing the sounds in the correct order and at a fixed speed that is set by the tempo of the music.  Just think of Rossini’s famous aria Largo al factotum in The Barber of Seville (“Figaro qua, Figaro là, Figaro su, Figaro giù.”). It is so fast that even Italian singers can get their tongues twisted when they sing it! Like in any physical skill, the key to good pronunciation is practice and repetition: muscles are trained through exercise. Once you understand what you are supposed to do with your jaw, throat, tongue and lips, the only way to get it right is to start very slowly and do it again and again, increasing the speed as you become more proficient. Breaking the song's lines into manageable chunks also helps. This technique will be explained in more detail in my forthcoming post How to practise foreign lyrics.

The third condition is to do with emotions. While children are perfectly comfortable making all sorts of unfamiliar sounds, adults tend to be more self-conscious. Even if you are pronouncing it correctly, a perfectly pronounced Korean word may sound really strange to an English ear. Adults are often afraid to sound stupid when they make such ‘strange’ sounds. Add to this the fact that they do not understand the meaning of the lyrics and the result can be very unsettling, especially for people who are not used to find themselves in situations where they do not understand the language being spoken. Regular exposure to linguistic and cultural differences is the best antidote to these uncomfortable feelings. Eventually people realise that it's ok (and even fun) to make unfamiliar sounds, and so long as the music is good it no longer matters if you do not understand every word you sing. Foreigners are often more relaxed about it because they have experienced this kind of situation many times before.

Whenever one of the three conditions above is not met, you are bound to struggle singing in a foreign language. A singer who knows how the sounds should be pronounced and is able to articulate them may still feel unable to sing because of the strangeness of it all.  They may have the necessary knowledge and skills, but their emotions are a barrier.

On the other hand, a singer who normally feels confident and able to articulate all sorts of alien sounds may find, when presented with a song in a language in which they have not sung before, that they have no idea how it is meant to sound. Here they may have the physical skill and emotional disposition to produce the right sounds, but they lack the knowledge.

Finally another singer might know the pronunciation and be perfectly happy to give it a go, but find it simply impossible to articulate the necessary sounds on a fast tempo. In this case knowledge and emotions are not a problem, but physical ability is.

As you can see from these examples, singing in a foreign language is far from intuitive or straightforward. Singers can certainly be forgiven for getting things wrong from time to time,
especially if they have no experience learning other languages. At the end of the day, it's all about sharing and disseminating the music we love. I'd rather hear a song with a few mistakes in it than let it lie forgotten in some quiet library. So next time your local choir performs a song in Zulu, make sure you give them a big fat round of applause!

<![CDATA[Welcome !]]>Tue, 28 Oct 2014 19:33:17 GMThttp://multilingualsinging.weebly.com/blog/welcomeWelcome to the Multilingual Singing blog. Here you will find information about language-related musical events and resources that may be of interest to multilingual singers, teachers or listeners. From time to time I will be also be sharing my thoughts about singing, languages, intercultural awareness, and other matters to do with multilingual singing.
I will start with an announcement: If you live near Bedford you may be interested in the Multilingual Carol Workshop that I will be running between 8th November and 7th December. Looking forward to meet up for a good, informal sing in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and maybe also Polish!
...and just in case you want to hear me sing I have put a few videos in the Gallery. Hopefully there will soon also be some videos of Multilingual Singing choirs!