Articulation of the consonants and intelligibility
© Lloyd W. Hanson 1999
[Re: Consonants/legato and German]
Graham: I have found the same phenomenon about singing consonants, that is : "[I] hardly touch each consonant, but because my way of producing consonants is very efficient, I am still understood."
The first opera I directed was "Gianni Schicchi". We had a very fine mezzo playing Zita in the cast but as she sang her aria, we could not understand her at all. (It was sung in English.) I spoke about the problem with her voice teacher who worked diligently on her articulation of her consonants. It only made her intelligibility worse and this was not a criticism of his work. Standing in the hall I could hear every single consonant but could not make out one word. I then suggested to her that she concentrate on singing a very connected vowel line and not worry about the consonants. Voila! Her diction was perfect. Every word was a clear as someone whispering in your ear.
As I applied this to other situations I have found that the continuous quality of a vocal line does more to help the listeners ear make sense out of the text. It is as if the mind needs this continuous line of sound to maintain a continuity that allows it (the mind) to connect the consonant sounds and the vowels into a thought. Highly articulated consonants tend to do the opposite. They tend to break up the continuity of the sung line into small bits which the mind must then piece together. This take more time than the music tempo allows and when the mind cannot do the task, it goes into a neutral state which no longer attempts to understand the text.
A device that I have found works well with most singers is this: I ask the singer to sing as if he/she is a ventriloquist, that is, without moving the mouth/lips at all. Suddenly the singers makes the necessary internal mouth and phryngeal adjustments to define the vowels and, although some of the consonants suffer badly because the singer is not trained to produce consonants in this way, the overall intelligibility of the text is better and the continuous line of the singing is much improved. Keep in mind, this is merely a passing demonstration of the ability of the singer to make text understood in the poorest of conditions. But it also makes the singer aware of their ability to project text without having to overemphasize consonants.
Try it, you might like it.
Lloyd W. Hanson, DMA
Professor of Voice, Pedagogy
School of Performing Arts
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, AZ 86011