So— you’ve been hired to sing at a wedding, and the bride’s grandmother wants to hear her favorite love song from her native country. Or, you’ve joined a new choir, and you find out that they do all sort of songs in many languages besides English. Perhaps you just decided to be a voice major at college, and now you realize that you’re required to sing in all the major European art languages. AAAAAAAH! What’s an all-American singer whose only language experience is ordering off the menu at Del Taco to do?! Fear not! I’ve got your back, and you CAN do it! I’m going to show you how to sing in a foreign language– like a native!
Like anything else in life that at first seems overwhelming, you can overcome a challenging project by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable parts. Let’s attack that foreign language song that’s scaring you with tips that give you a foolproof strategy for success:
1. Know where the song originated and the context of the lyrics. In other words, is it from an opera, a musical, a song cycle (a related group of songs), cantata or oratorio (larger works with different movements for voices and instrumental accompaniment)? If so, what is the plot, which scene or moment in the story pertains to your song, and who is the character singing this song, and why? The more you know about your character, the story, and the greater context of the song, the more it will all make sense to you, and you can interpret it better for your audience.
What if the song is a stand-alone piece, not related to anything else?
Then at least look up the composer and lyricist, their birth and death
dates, and anything else you can find out about them. This will put
your song into a cultural and historical context that may affect the
translation into English, once you get to that point. An example:
In modern Italian, the word luci means “lights”. But in the Baroque
Era, it was a poetic metaphor for “eyes”.
2. Don’t use the English translation underneath the foreign language lyrics on your sheet music! This is always, and I mean ALWAYS not a literal translation. Sometimes it’s in the ballpark, and sometimes it’s not even close. You want to know WORD FOR WORD what you are singing, at all times. How can you communicate the song to an audience if you don’t know what EVERY word means? Well then, you ask— where do you find a trustworthy translation? There are several possibilities:
- https://www.ipasource.com. This is a great website that has translations of many of the most famous art songs, arias and other works. But, you have to pay by the song, or you can get a subscription if you feel that you will be using it frequently.
- Google the song title and “English translation”. You will pull up a number of free websites that have translations of the lyrics. But, you may need to compare and contrast them to see which translations seem the most accurate and consistent with each other.
- College foreign language departments. Call the local college in your area and ask for help from someone in the language department there. They will be more than happy to help you! I had to sing a Stravinsky song cycle in Russian when I was doing my Master’s Degree, and the Russian Department at the local university was incredibly helpful in both translating the lyrics and teaching me how to pronounce the language.
- Your local public or college library. Back before the Internet, (yes, there was a time we had no Internet!) voice students had to go to the library and use reference books with song translations in them, or ask the librarian to track down a translation for more obscure pieces. Librarians love to help people find what they need— don’t be afraid to ask for help!
3. Learn accurate pronunciation of the lyrics in your foreign language song. You want to be able to confidently and authentically perform your piece without any worry about whether or not you are pronouncing words correctly. How can you learn to sound authentic in the new language? There are lots of resources available:
- Google the song title and “pronunciation”. Chances are, there will be audio or video recordings online teaching how to accurately say and sing the lyrics, if the song is a well-known piece.
- https://www.ipasource.com. Again, this can be a terrific help, but only if you read International Phonetic Alphabet.
- College voice departments or foreign language departments. If the song is a well-known classical art song, aria or choral piece, chances are that a teacher from the college voice department can help you with accurate pronunciation of your piece. College voice professors like myself are generally trained to deal with the major art languages— Italian,German, French and English. Some teachers may have other languages under their belt as well; for example, I can also coach Spanish, Latin and Hebrew. But for any language beyond those, you might be better off calling the department of languages and finding someone there that can help.
- A friend or family member who speaks the formal language WELL. That means no dialects, regional accents or “street” language. If I’m singing an Italian art song, it should be “good” Italian, not Neapolitan dialect. On the flip side, though, if you are singing a Neapolitan folk song like “O sole mio” you had better sing it with a Neapolitan dialect, or you might get some tomatoes thrown at you by some angry southern Italians!
- Listen to multiple recordings of the song. Just because someone is a famous singer doesn’t mean that their pronunciation is perfect. Listen to as many recordings by various artists that you can, and compare them. You’ll find the ones that are consistent with each other, which you can use as a good model for your own singing.
4. Practice, Practice, Practice! It seems like an obvious statement, but if you think you had to practice a lot for your English songs, double it for the ones in a foreign language. Even when you’ve done your homework and know what each word means and how to pronounce it, it’s going to take a little longer to perfect your pronunciation and get it all to “stick” in your brain. Some helpful tips to make it sound authentic, and to stay that way every time:
- Concentrate first on the vowel sounds. Remember, the vowel carries the majority of your singing voice, so getting those correct first will put you WAY ahead in making the language sound authentic.
- Then work on the consonants. The clarity, character and placement of your consonants is more important in some languages than others. Think German versus French— much of the rhythmic and percussive quality of German comes from those consonants, whereas singing in French is much more about a smooth vocal line with very precise vowel sounds.
- Write out the lyrics (no typing!) on a sheet of paper, as studies show your retention goes up tremendously if you write it out manually, versus typing on a keyboard. Write the original language first, then the word-for-word translation underneath. Now add a third row, the IPA underneath (if you know it) or, make up your own phonetic system for reminding yourself how to pronounce something. For example, the vowel in the Italian word “madre” might look like “Ah” to you, or the Italian word “mio” might look like “Mee-oh”. Any system that works for you is fine!
- Speak a line, sing a line. Singing in a foreign language, or even in English, for that matter, is not just about singing correct-sounding syllables. You always need to follow the natural cadence of speech, no matter what the musical phrase is doing. So, with a good example to follow (from one of the sources mentioned above), practice speaking the line like a native. How would someone actually say it? Where are the stronger accents? And what is the rhythm of the language? You want to bring that natural, fluid quality of speech right into your singing.
- Pretend to be a character from that country. Step away from being you for a moment, and take on the character who is singing your song, or any character that helps you more closely embody the language you are trying to sing. Exaggeration also helps! For example, if you are trying to sing in French, you may want to pucker your lips and imitate the cartoon character of Pepé Le Pew (my apologies to any French natives out there!), the lovesick skunk who is always chasing after a black cat. (His accent is actually an exaggeration of French Cabaret singer Maurice Chevalier). It may seem silly, but the sound of your French could improve simply by watching this Looney Tunes cartoon! Find other examples online, both audio and video, where you can try to “be” that person or character that gets you closer to the sound of the language you are trying to emulate.
5. Memorize in Sections and Use Landmark Words. Break your song down into small sections as you memorize, and don’t add another section until you are completely secure with what you have done so far. The brain likes to compartmentalize, and if you give it too much to remember all at once, you’ll have a big mess on your hands trying to learn your song. Also, you will find that there are spots where a key word can trigger a whole phrase for you, often at the beginning or end of a phrase. Find these “landmark” words and use them to your advantage! These specific words are turning points in the lyrics that really speed your memorization and recall while you are singing. Another technique is what I call “environmental study”. In other words, when you can’t actually concentrate on your song directly, play it in the background while doing other activities. It will seep into your consciousness, and then when you have the time to actually practice, you’ll be surprised at how much faster you progress because of this “passive” form of learning.
For more help memorizing songs, visit my earlier post: https://singingvoicesuccess.com/have-trouble-memorizing-music-10-great-tips-to-make-it-faster-and-better/
6. Ramp up your acting/performing skills. If you are going be performing this song live, you want to make sure that the audience is seeing the meaning of the words in your eyes, your face, and your body, as well as hearing it in your voice. Every singer in every language has one primary job— to communicate the meaning of the lyrics to the audience, and in so doing, to move them in some way. Practice in front of a mirror or videotape yourself to make sure you’re doing just that. One of my favorite compliments is when someone in the audience comes up to me after a performance and says something like “I don’t speak that language you were singing in, but I really felt what you were singing about”. Success!
7. Give the audience a translation. Last, but certainly not least, if you can give the audience a translation of your song, either written (in the program) or verbally before you sing, it will enrich the experience for you and them. It will give you a concrete reminder of what you are about to express through your song, and it will create the mood and meaning for the audience, even before the first note leaves your mouth. Win-win!
Still worried about singing in a foreign language? You shouldn’t be! With this definitive list of tips at hand, singing in a foreign language will be a breeze, and doesn’t have to be scary at all! If you break the process down into smaller steps and put in the practice time in the right way, you will WOW yourself, and your audience, with your versatility and authenticity! Singing in another language can be fun, freeing, and feel like you just took a trip into another time and place. So go ahead, start the journey— Bon Voyage, and Bon Chance!