This year I have four high school seniors auditioning for college programs in performing arts. Three of them are auditioning as vocal performance majors. At least one school for each student is requiring an English song and songs in two other languages. One in particular says that Spanish is not allowed.
This year none of my students is bilingual, but all have taken a foreign language in high school, in that half-assed American manner: You take a language until you’ve fulfilled the foreign language requirement, never use it again, and forget everything.
Given that we are a huge country with few other countries in close proximity, why are we requiring multiple European languages in entrance auditions for beginning singers? What will that prove? To pass the audition, the teacher or a coach will have to spoon-feed the text to 99% of them. Then the student may sing with “good diction” but still not know what they are singing about, or even if they do, with a lack of fluidity and conviction. All of this, while they may have a very raw grasp of singing in general, even in their own language.
Students majoring in vocal music have to present songs in at least Italian, French, German, and English. These are the “standard languages of classical music”. It’s too much. Monolingual students who learn how to pronounce, but not communicate, in several languages in four years’ time are not going to be able to convincingly sing in all of them.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but I would like to see high school kids becoming near-fluent or fluent in a foreign language. I’d like to see the schools more open to Spanish (#2 language in the US, #1 in our hemisphere) as a foreign language and not restrict the choices to Italian, German and French. I’d like to see a talented, musical singer with a beautiful young voice admitted for study even if they “only” had one foreign language song, or none.
At the post-secondary level, I know that the trend has been to add even more languages to the traditional quartet of English, Italian, German, and French – such as Russian, Czech and Spanish. And of course, for those church jobs, Latin. But what I hear coming out the other end of the voice degree mills is unconvincing. There is a disconnection from “realness” that pervades classical vocal singing presently, and the further remove of an un-understood language doesn’t help.
As an audition judge, I’d much rather hear someone who is conversationally proficient in German singing Schubert with an American accent, than someone who technically gets the diction “right”, but sings every word in the phrase exactly the same, and doesn’t tell me anything. If one is to give an authentic performance, does it not make sense that the repertoire should be in their native language, or at least one in which they feel comfortable expressing themselves?
Scrambling to get these students ready for auditions in three languages takes time away from musical and vocal work that they really need. That is why I find the very shortest lyrics possible to fulfill these requirements. It’s a silly game, but what can I do, but help them with the first of many hoops through which they must jump as they enter higher education?