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Teaching French diction efficiently

I am a college undergrad music student and for my conducting class I am working on Faure's "Cantique de Jean Racine". While melodically straightforward, there is a lot of French. I am spending most of my rehearsal time teaching the diction rather than working on the music and still am getting incorrect pronunciation. What is the best and most efficient way to teach French diction to a high school chorus?
Replies (8): Threaded | Chronological
on April 21, 2014 3:31am
It is such wonderful music, but, as you noted the French can present a unique challenge.  This may sound obvious, but it's important to remember that French is a foreign language to most in your class.  Not only is the vocab and grammar different, the muscles and physical processes used to create the words when speaking or singing are different than American English.  I normally work with amateurs and pros 18 years and up, but whenever we start singing in a foreign language, it's very important that they get comfortable not just singing French, German or Italian, but also that they feel French, German or Italian when singing in these langauges. (I am [dæn] when singing in American, [danjel] in German, [danjɛle] in Italian and so on.) Even if some of the sounds are not 100% perfect, if they feel comfortable and secure with what they're doing, the voice and mind can be free to express this beautiful music. 
Play a French TV commerial or show and have them immitate one of the characters. Have them pretend to be whatever they think French is. There are many different possibilities. After they're more comfortable being "French" start working on the text. Alway remember it's better to go slowly and be accurate than try to accomplish everything all at once. Whatever difficulty your students are having is where you need to place your attention. Diction issues will never be fixed simply by pointing them out; you need to give them the tools.  That may mean going over the French vowels for a few minutes before each class, or speaking the words slowly in rhythm, or just singing on vowels.
Aural reinforcement at home is also a powerful tool. SingersBabel provides pronuniciation tools for singers and conductors. Here's a poetic reading of "Cantique de Jean Racine" along with a literal translation and phonetic guide.  
Hope this is helpful!
on April 21, 2014 4:18am
There are several treaties of diction among which one of the most known is the one of Georges Le Roy "Traité pratique de diction française"
You can find him it here for example:
It is true that to understand these works, you need a minimum of French language ability... There are maybe similar works in English.
Richard Augugliaro / Chef des Chœurs du Mercantour (Nice/France)
on April 21, 2014 7:09am
While these treatises are of great value to the diction specialist, coach and conductor, the problems of pronunciation in practical situations, such as rehearsals, often don't lie in (only) the comprehension of the rules, but the ability to execute them.  For example, many native French speakers who study/speak/sing English don't realize that they're not saying [h] in words like "happy", "horrible" or "hello." I don't think this is done out of malice or disrespect, but a lack of aweness. In my experience as an ESL teacher and diction coach for singers, when I inform the student after several attempts and explanations that the sound was missing or inaccurate, very often I hear "but I thought I did it."  
The diction coach is someone who can help in this area.  Ideally, this coach has more than just an ability to speak the language.  He/she should understand the sung language and its relationship to the music and the voice.  As solo or ensemble singers, we need another set of ears (diction coach or conductor) to help us determine if we're making the sounds.  If we're not able to make the sounds accurately, despite our best efforts, we need someone to help us find those sounds in our voice. As Cairril noted, this is a process; just because it happens correctly once doesn't mean that it will happen again. The second set of ears needs to be there until the singers/ensemble is confident to do it on its own. 
At the end of the day, you want your singers to sing beautifully and express what's in the music. Strive to make the language as accurate as possible, but remember the efforts you put into the execution of the text should work to bring out the music, not overshadow it. 
on April 21, 2014 5:00am
We have been working on a French song recently and I had everyone break down into groups of two or three and sing the tricky parts for a French speaker. The speaker then corrected the pronunciation until the singers could do it correctly. We will periodically revisit this, as pronunciation can "stray" after a while. It was a tedious process but necessary.
Sing on!
on April 21, 2014 8:49am
The only thing I'd add is to remember that your singers are there because they love to sing.  Be careful not to spend too much rehearsal time beating the diction into them at the expense of time spent singng.  If they get bored or frustrated, they will lose focus and the harder you push, the worse it may sound.  Be willing to let some things go.  If no one in the group has any experience with the French language, be willing to look at this piece as setting the ground work of pronunciation for the NEXT French piece.  And it is totally okay to tell them that.  "It's not perfect, but you're improving and I'm happy with that.  Let's move on to some singing, but please keep thinking about pronunciation.  There is still plenty of room to improve."  
Also remember that music is a WONDERFUL memory stimulant.  Learning notes and pronunciation simulataneously may help the pronunciation stick in their minds, as long as you are teaching them in small, manageable chunks, so no one feels overwhelmed.  If you asked me to recite the text of the Rachmaninoff "Bogoroditse Devo," I'd be hard pressed to remember it, but I can sing the piece for you pretty easily from memory.  If you asked me to read just the text aloud from a sheet of paper, I'd be mentally referencing the music as I went to key my memory of the correct pronunciation.  
Good luck!  Keep going!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on April 21, 2014 9:50am
I am not sure how you've been teaching. But this is how I usually do.
1) Teach singers all vowels in French (or whatever) and how to symbolize them easily. You can use IPA, but you could use whatever the symbols which are easy and clear to singers.
2) Do same for consonants.
3) Together with singers, rewrite the lyrics phonetically so that what singers see on the score would be closer to what they are supposed to pronounce.
It is very difficult for non-French speakers to guess the pronunciation from the spelling. So, I teach singers how to make helpful memos and reminders on the score so that they don't have to guess.
on April 21, 2014 11:52am
I am glad you have chosen to present a piece in French; it is good for the world and for your singers. The suggestions below are excellent and I hope they help you.  It sounds like you are facing the additional challenge of this taking loneger than planned. Could a seperate rehearsal time, just for language study, be created to supplement your other rehearsals?  Perhaps a native speaker could lead a call and response styled reading of the text in a brief workshop setting. Or perhaps, you could create an audio track and leave a space for them to respond  (practice) in the silence you intentionally create.  There would still be a problem in that that the way one sings French is not the same as one speaks it. Perhaps then, you could intone or chant the phrase without changing notes; so they can just focus on hearing and creating the sound. Perhaps creating some French vocal warm-ups might come in handy.  As for text prep, I have taught French and found it helpful to underline adjacent words which need to be connected. For example, I would have them link the "s" in "nous" to the "a" in "avons" and then cross out the silent "s" at the end of "avons." Have they tried singing the alphabet in French? I wonder if that could help... Good luck!    
on April 23, 2014 12:40pm
Thank you everyone for your replies; they were all very helpful. :)
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