Children have an incredible capacity to mimic sounds, so there is no reason why shaping good vowel sounds and giving detail to some consonants should wait until children are in upper elementary school. I have become a firm believer that we should model our best diction and be intentional about teaching and reinforcing good diction with our youngest choristers. I introduce diction awareness to my PreKindergarten singers the first day of rehearsals in August. We make choir fun, but infuse good diction training throughout everything we sing: warm-ups, singing and counting games, hymns, anthems.
Good choral diction does not just happen. It must be properly modeled, taught, and reinforced. The earlier we expect good diction, the sooner we hear it and the more it becomes ingrained in our children's choral sound.
Where to start? What to do?
- Are you a good vocal model? Record yourself singing one of the children's anthems and be honest. Are your vowels tall? Do you sing ending or internal R's? Do you sing the second part of a diphthong too early? Ask a colleague to evaluate. Be ready to make corrections in your own diction. What the children hear is what you get!
- How does your choir sound now? Record your choir and listen with a discerning ear. I have discovered vowels that, to my ears during rehearsal, sounded fine, but when listening to a recording sounded less than desirable. Example: the "ah" in Gloria sounded more "uh" than "ah". We have modified it so that we think a darker "aw" to get the desired "ah" vowel.
Which vowels and consonants should we address with young singers?
- Begin with AH - as in ought, OO - as in moon or you, and the ending R - as in sister (sistuh). Your goals are to encourage openness within the child's mouth and to train good listeners. Correct AHs OOs and Rs are easy to see and create.
- Pure OH - as in Deo, short E - as in let, inner R - as in Lord (Lawd), and consonants. One must be careful when encouraging young singers to give attention to beginning and ending consonants. Exaggerations accompanied by some emphatic head movement usually occur! Use discretion when asking for more air on beginning K, P, H and ending K, T, P, D.
Which visual images help children understand and correct these important sounds?
AH as in ought
- Alligator jaws: use your whole arms to mimic large alligator jaws opening up to sing "AH"
- Tennis ball w/ mouth and eyes: Make your own tennis ball with a slit cut into it for a mouth or purchase the FUNdamentals Toy Box by Lee Gwozdz (includes this, and many, great teaching toys). Squeeze the ball to show a dropped jaw for the perfect "AH." After the giggles, they will get it.
- Flat/Tall vowels created with the palm of your hand: Place palm flat (parallel to the floor) in front of your mouth. Twist so palm is perpendicular to the floor, thumb on top, eyebrows raised, to demonstrate space inside the mouth.
- Hands on cheeks: Ask singers to gently place the back of their palms on their cheeks, creating a tall AH. Keep the palms in place throughout a song.
OO as in moon or you
- Drinking Straw: pretend your index finger is a straw. With lips in the OO shape point 'the straw' to the lips (not in the mouth!) as if to make room for a straw.
- Pull the sound out of your mouth: While singing a continuous OO pretend to pull the OO out of the mouth, extending the arm.
- Owls and wolves: hoot like an owl, howl like a wolf. Use these sounds rhythmically in warm-ups or at transition times in rehearsals.
Ending R as in sister (sistuh)
- Learn a song with lots of ending R's: Love, Love, Love by the Brokerings is the perfect song with the phrase, mother, father, sister, brother. Demonstrate properly when teaching. Draw an R on a dry erase board or paper and cross it out with one slash. Write out mother, father, sister, brother and invite the children to find the ending R's; draw a slash through each one. This is possibly the easiest diction problem to fix. Your young singers will become "R Detectives!"
Internal R as in Lord (Lawd)
- Demonstrate the difference in singing the internal R and then removing it with the word Lord. Our goal is to always keep the mouth tall on the inside, but when we sing that R our mouth closes on the inside and the tongue fills the mouth. When we remove the R something magic happens between the singers' mouths and the listeners' ears...the R is magically heard! Be diligent about correcting R's. Over time your singers will automatically sing ending and internal R's correctly.
Pure O as in Deo (no diphthong)
- Sing simple songs and liturgical phrases in Latin and Spanish, creating the pure vowel sounds, especially the O's. Singing these languages properly helps English vowels. Also, singing in foreign languages at a young age removes the fear of doing so later. Be very careful to model the correct pronunciations the first time the song is introduced. If you are unsure, check with someone who knows.
Short E as in let
- ALLELUIA! The perfect word, yet in the South we can add multiple syllables by just saying 'lay' instead of 'leh.' Place your index finger in front of your mouth and give your singers a direction for each syllable: AL - finger straight up and down (tall AH), LE - finger points sideways, like you are brushing your teeth side to side, LU - the straw, point finger into mouth (lips forward, making room inside), IA - finger straight up and down again (tall). Keeping the index finger directly in front of the mouth reminds singers about good position of the mouth and lips, and especially encourages a non-diphthong LE on the second syllable.
Beginning and Ending Consonants
- Encouraging crisp consonants may encourage young singers to overemphasize, occasionally adding a head nod for good measure, so be careful what you ask for! Just making them aware of the consonant sounds is a good start. Place a flat palm in front of your face and show them how air should hit your hand when pronouncing a strong T, P, K or H. When they get older, they will be able to successfully add crisp consonants without it being comedic!
How often will you have to correct your singers' diction? OFTEN and FOREVER! It is consistency that makes the difference. Always be a good model, even if only singing numbers or nonsense syllables. Find ways to make reinforcement fun by creating warm-ups from your anthems and using a variety of silly voices to speak the words correctly (a Mrs. Doubtfire or Julia Child voice perfectly places voices in the head and improves vowels). Over time your singers will be critical listeners and automatically sing with beautiful diction needing only slight reminders.