Tongue Twister: Fear of French is a Forlorn Fate

March 25, 2019

by Dr. Sylvie Beaudette, Summer@Eastman Director and French Lyric Diction instructor

With internet resources and new editions that include IPA translations of mélodies, one would think that singers, choral conductors, and vocal coaches have all the tools necessary to dive into the rich French repertoire. Yet, most people I coach admit—perhaps preemptively—that French is their worst language. Granted, French speakers are very protective of their mother tongue (France has an entire Académie of 40 members called “immortels” constantly working on the dictionary) and nurture it as their most precious cultural attribute. This alone can make French seem inaccessible to non-native speakers. Nenni! Like anything musical, French diction needs practice.

There is more to diction than IPA, and that’s where I come in. French poetry follows strict versification rules, which in turn create a naturally flowing and musical language. Romantic poets, especially, used a variety of “meters” to diversify stress patterns from one line to another, or to tie two seemingly separate verses with a similar or complementary meter, shedding new meaning on the poem. Composers like Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, and Poulenc understood very well the inner poetic rhythm of their native tongue and were directly inspired by the poetic style(s) of their time. Mélodie, therefore, followed poetry’s lead in terms of form, phrasing, and word setting.

 

 

What does this long preamble have to do with diction, you ask? While singers can pronounce most sounds neatly caged between [brakIts], declaiming a verse without a sense of meter (with stressed syllables as your guide) will make the reading unintelligible even for a native speaker (stressed sylLAbles, anyone?). Furthermore, a lack of vowel legato will negate its innate musicality. Singers can rely on the composer’s setting for clues about stressed syllables…and breath management (most of the time) but a knowledge of the language’s rhythm, meaning, and precise diction is a must.

Eastman’s new online French Lyric Diction course offers a step-by-step and holistic method, through oral and written assignments, guided listening, group discussions, and synchronous in-class practice with instructor’s instant feedback. The online delivery allows students to take the class from anywhere. The noncredit option makes the tuition affordable. Pas d’excuses! This course is designed for singers, vocal coaches, and choral conductors who need a self-confidence boost in French (i.e. the most beautiful language in the world, in this author’s opinion).

This Summer, Free yourself from the Fear of French!

For more information about the French Lyric Diction course, click here.