Expressing yourself in a foreign language

My favorite repertoire to sing is classical art song, chamber music, and experimental performance pieces. Occasionally there have been formal stage shows such as opera, musical theatre, or revues. Having gotten degrees in classical music, I was indoctrinated with a lot of “shoulds” about interacting with repertoire.

One of the “shoulds” was that I must sing in German, Italian, French, Latin and English if I am a “classical” singer. I have sung in all of these tongues in choral groups I’ve been in. You get hired to sing something, you sing it. You have an audition requirement, you fulfill it. Be glad you have a job. Do what you’re told, et cetera.

However, for the world of art song, which is my first love, I am many years past a time where I “should” balance my repertoire among the different languages. There are thousands of beautiful German songs to sing, but even after taking German classes and singing in it for decades, I honestly am not comfortable with it. Neither am I very good at it, except for Strauss Lieder for some reason.

In choral settings, I have sung whole concerts of German and Latin where I make all the right vowel and consonant sounds but have little idea what the text means. I just haven’t had time, desire, or opportunity to become truly proficient in six languages. We linguistically challenged anglophones teach our students IPA and earnestly argue on the internet about uvular versus flipped “R” and such. Some of the details that the diction geeks argue about do not matter if the language is not expressing something. Why should you add Russian and Czech to “your package” if you need IPA for every syllable and have no idea what you are saying?

What I finally woke up to recently is that when designing a song program, I must pick languages in which I really enjoy expressing myself or I feel like a fraud. Polishing my German diction and looking up every other word in the dictionary while not really making progress toward expressive proficiency is ridiculous. I don’t have to sing a NASM-approved jury anymore. I have paid my music school dues. If I don’t feel like I can internalize a German poem and feel great about singing it, why should I?

I am very comfortable singing in English and Spanish, the two languages in which I am actually conversant. Italian is a distant but viable third language, but life is too short for me to fuss with performing German and French when I don’t feel them. I love hearing that repertoire, but not from my mouth. I recently started working on Dichterliebe, a song cycle I love, and although it enriched my musical life to study it, I realized that I need to put it away and let others do it. Other music wants me much more. In its place I’m doing Songs of Travel, and it feels like coming home. Duh.

Now, I do not believe a person has to sing a language perfectly or without accent to give a convincing performance! A person can sing German with an American accent and still give a great performance if they have enough command of the language to really say something from the inside out. My Spanish is not perfect, but I love the language and can think and converse in it with enjoyment, so it is my good friend. I can feel in Spanish and English; this is the difference.

It is enough to have just one language in which to sing, let alone two or more. I am finally OK with that!

If you enjoy this blog, consider grabbing a copy of Sane Singing: A Guide to Vocal Progress, available in print and ebook!

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One Reply to “Expressing yourself in a foreign language”

  1. THANK YOU SO MUCH!

    I think this is why I love singing in English. I’d say I can feel in them.

    And the only songs I’ve done in FL that I’ve felt? I’ve worked to the point where I feel the words and know it word for word.

    I’m going to put this in my studio:
    “Know the lyric so well you can feel it in your bones.”

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