It is not as inscrutable as you might imagine.
Sometimes what you’re most afraid of doing is the very thing that will set you free. – Robert Tew
There are certainly enough instructional papers, blogs, and seminars about the IPA, but they beg some significant questions:
- How long does it really take to become proficient and use IPA in rehearsals?
- Is it worth the effort?
Linguists designed IPA to be unambiguous: every symbol has only one pronunciation. When you read a word in IPA, you’ll know exactly how to pronounce it. I will reference several sources for your edification, and you can dive as deeply as you wish.
https://www.fluentin3months.com/ipa-alphabet/ states 3 good reasons to learn the IPA:
- Get words right the first time. As we all know, it is much easier to learn than to relearn
- Speak with good pronunciation from day one
- Gain a deeper understanding of phonetics
Author George Julian is a polyglot, linguistics nerd, and travel enthusiast from the U.K. He posits: “The Portuguese sede has two pronunciations with different meanings, as does the German Bucht. In French, cent, sang, sens, sent, s’en and sans all sound the same. Confused yet? And how do you pronounce . . . “汉语/漢語” or “ภาษาไทย”?”
My personal reason for learning IPA is selfish. I really want to save time in rehearsal. But the additional benefit is that it leads to wonderful discussions about other cultures because learners get “inside” information they can access and inspiration for the rest of their lives.
As a primer, you may find http://www.antimoon.com/how/pronunc-soundsipa.htm has an easily accessible and succinct introduction to IPA. It also has a printable PDF version. https://ipa.typeit.org/#recommended-ipa-fonts will show you how to access IPA symbols on your computer if you need to use an IPA-enabled font.
To save you time, I highly recommend https://rachelsenglish.com/ipa-heteronymns-homophones/ to ground you and help you make up your mind. Rachel’s English Academy states in a short video that “The International Phonetic Alphabet was created by the International Phonetic Association as a standardized way to write the sounds of spoken language. Why do we need this? Because English is NOT a phonetic language.”To be sure, there are plenty of videos to help you if you want to dive in. But first you must answer the why to make it practical and guide your application of your learning.
As choral conductors, we need practical tools in our tool kit. If we do not clearly communicate text, the hearers and those with whom we wish to communicate will simply miss the point. https://www.languagejones.com/blog-1/2016/12/24/why-the-international-phonetic-alphabet-ipa-is-the-best-thing-ever points out that “Linguists know a secret: writing is a secondary technology, and spoken language (as opposed to signed language) is all about sounds.”
In my previous blog, “An Overview of Vowels and Consonants for the Singer and for the Choir,”I pointed out that the singer “lives or dies on vowels,” but it is consonants that bring both clarity and context . . . critical in communication (covered in the next blog). Twenty-first century tech has also provided us with a FABULOUS tool at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPA_vowel_chart_with_audio
You can know not only where the vowel is placed, but how it sounds when pronounced correctly. So what?
Well, consider: In your voice coaching of singers or a choir, does it matter where you place an “O…oʊ” vowel? What if your basses are “swallowing” the vowel and it is both cloudy and too dark of a vowel? What can you do? Look at the chart. You can use vowel modification as an intentional, slight adjustment for the placement of and affecting the acoustics of a vowel by altering the basic way in which a vowel is articulated, with the goal of attaining a more comfortable and pleasing tone production, especially in the higher part of the singer’s range.
Hmmm. You could add a little AH sound to get it out of the throat and “brighten” the sound by moving it forward. Shape an OH, sing a little AH. Same with i, as in see, or heat. If you hear it going laterally, modify it with a bit of I, as in hit, or sit and it is not so bright or difficult to blend. Singers are more comfortable, resonant, and blended perceiving and singing the same vowel.
On second thought, how about using the same vowel as a brief warm up? You can project the list on a white-board or screen. Using concept reinforcement (AKA drill), and the LISTS from https://www.ontrackreading.com/wordlists/multisyllable-words-by-vowel-sound, your choirs can, by repetition, become more and more aware of how and what they are pronouncing at the same time. Just correcting a vowel, or even reminding choristers does not guarantee they will cognate and reproduce the correct sound. Group drill has a much greater chance of properly perceiving and setting vowels and, more importantly, saving rehearsal time!
But far and away the best collection for practical, useful information and practice is by none other thank our very own ACDA publication Singing in English: A Manual of English Diction for Singers and Choral Directors (Monograph 5).
There are substantial word lists so choristers can better understand and practice the AMERICAN English language.
I am about to go on an important rabbit hole.
I will beg to differ slightly with the title of Monograph 5.
As we all know, we speak, on this continent, American English, which is substantially different than English spoken by, well, the British-English. For example, American pronunciation of the word broadcast, as the English pronounce it would be spelled brodecost, or, vase in English would be pronounced varz, but Americans would say vays: wrath in England is roth. In America it is rath.
That said, on this continent, even as we sing elsewhere in the world, we are American choirs, and our choirs receive enthusiastic responses in a variety of venues worldwide, so my point is not small. This is a FABULOUS resource for singing in American-English. It is well-researched and written as Cox explains in the first sentence of the introduction: “For choral singers, the need for clear and intelligible diction in the native language is obvious,”which takes my point. Our native language is American-English, with approximately 24 dialects not found elsewhere in the world.
Really, just for fun, look at the Wikipedia list of the dialects of English! You are about to become aware of the vast diversity on this North American continent, right under your nose. Now, back on track.
This, my second blog on IPA, hoping to stimulate you to consider obtaining accurate agreement amongst your choristers, who may, as the adult community choir I conduct, whose members come from Tennessee, the Philippines, the Pacific Northwest, and elsewhere, come with a passion for the choral art. Win-win. They are SO thrilled to find a “home” in which they find high-quality music from all over the world (we have sung in about 12 languages), but we must also quickly find common ground pronouncing text, or the audience will hear authentic babel. Lose-lose.
Next we’ll dive a bit deeper into IPA, but we must not neglect the equal importance of consonants, those things that bring clarity and context to life with text.