Choral Technique and Interpretation by Henry Coward
Mus. Doc. Oxon.
Chapter Five WORDS: ARTICULATION - DICTION.
ARTICULATION -- DICTION.
Clear articulation is one of the points upon which
both conductors and choirs deceive themselves.
They imagine efficiency to exist in performances
which, if tested by a clear, definite method and
unbaissed judgment, would be found woefully
Through having adjudicated very often for over
twenty years, I have naturally acquired the
analytical, mark-giving bent of mind, and when I
hear a choir sing, instinctively the appraising habit
asserts itself, and comparisons are drawn between
what is being done and the competition "bogey" of
100 per cent. When I hear, and in this way sub-
consciously adjudicate upon, a soloist or choir, in
drawing a comparison I generally find that while for
correctness of music the performers would get, say,
100 per cent., for voice 95, and for expression 90 to 98,
the percentage for words would be 80 or much less.
This lamentable imperfection would probably be
due to the impurity of the vowels or neglect of
vowal quantity, and the lack of sharp, clear, initial
and well-defined final consonants.
These defects being so patent to every listener,
how is it that in spite of all the severe things
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written said, choralists so universally fail to
overcome this vital shortcoming -- I was almost
saying "vocal sin"?
As I have remarked above, it is largely due to
self-deception on the part of the conductor and the
choristers. The conductor deceives himself by
dwelling in the realms of fancy, instead of living in
the region of solid fact. He hears what he knows
he should hear, or, in other words, he mentally
hears words and phrases because he already has
them in his mind; hence he allows defective
articulation to pass, which he would never do were
he conscious of being a victim of his own obsession
The proper attitue of a conductor is to take his
standard of sense-conveying distinctness from
something outside himself. Personally I always
think of an old gentleman rather hard of hearing
seated in the far gallery, and if the words are not
very clear the choir are reminded of the imaginary
deaf gentleman in the gallery, the result being a
marked improvement in the distinctness of utterance at
their next attempt.
Choristers deceive themselves by imagining that
in ordinary conversation they speak plainly, and
that if they sing as they speak they must be heard
This is a complete fallacy, as not one in ten, or I
might say one in a hundred, sings words distinctly,
unless special pains be taken to make each word
carry. In the first place it is a great mistake to
fancy that conversational speech is clear and
distinct. As a rule it is quite the reverse. The
great majority of people are guilty of muttering
their words, clipping the consonants, corrupting the
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vowels, and running words into each other. To
make matters worse it has become a fad of many
fashionable ladies to finish each sentence as though
they wished their voices to proceed from the bottom
of their throats. Fortunately the majority of
these irrationals do not speak for long, or they
would have to undergo treatment for laryngitis.
As it is, not a few are troubled with vocal
ailments which can be traced to this ventriloquial,
speak-in-the-boots fad. We may here tran-
scribe Madame Roland's famous words, and say,
"O Fashion, how many crimes are committed
in thy name."
As a matter of fact, people speak very indistinctly
in ordinary conversation, but they are understood
by means of the context. The listeners hear one
or two words in a sentence, and as they know the
subject of conversation, they instinctively supply
the missing vowels and consonants.
For instance, if you hear "It's ver fi de to-day,"
you know the speaker means to say, "It is a very
fine day to-day." A striking test of our usual
indistinctness is furnished by introductions. How
few ever catch the right name, and how many have
to ask privately the name of the lady or gentleman
to whom they have been introduced! This is
chiefly because there is no context.
A fine example of the use of the context was
furnished a short time ago by a party of navvies.
One of the party came up to his friends, and said,
rapidly, "an-ony-ony-ony-onyer?" They under-
stood him at once, because as he spoke he pulled
out his pipe, and they reponded with the offers of
tobacco. What the man asked was, "Have any of
you any of it [tobacco] on you?"
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Choristers further deceive themselves, even when
they have been made conscious of their deficiencies
by facts such as those just mentioned, by believing
that the amount of effort required to speak distinctly
will suffice to get satisfactory results in singing.
Alas, this is not so, because in singing the words
have to battle against the vocal tone, and there is
the further handicap of the muscular effort of the
tongue, lips, and cheeks in the production of the
quality of tone required, all of which effort
the singers mistakenly thing is given to the
production of the words; hence the universal
prevalence of deception number two. The
remedies for these errors will be suggested later.
But a more potent reason for the prevalent
indistinct articulation is the fact that few
conductors, and still fewer choristers, know how
to set to work to get the desired results; how to
prevent that set of mouth which is responsible for
the sound-position being usually one degree more
backward than it ought to be; how to obtain the
particular muscular action of the tongue, lips, and
cheeks which will secure the desired crisp, sharp,
incisive delivery of consonants.
The usual instructions re diction, "Get
pure vowels and clear consonants," are fine examples of
the "counsel of perfection"; but what good are
they if the people advised do not know the precise
point to aim at to attain these results?
When in South Africa I asked one of our party
who had been through the Boer War, and had
been engaged in sixteen fights, whether he had
ever killed a Boer. He said he thought not, for
though he had fired scores of rounds at the places
where he knew the Boers to be located, he never
knew the exact spot at which to shoot, and therefore
he thought he had failed in his object.
This is the position of nearly every conductor I
know. They have a good idea of what is wanted,
and the direction in which successful delivery of
words is to be found, but not the exact point to
which they can unerringly aim. To those who
desire this open sesame, I propose in the following
pages to disclose the plans I have followed for
years, which have made the clear articulation and
convincing diction of my choirs noteworthy. These
plans will enable everyone who will take the trouble
involved in following the instructions to secure clear,
understandable words in whatever class of vocal
work they may undertake.
Before proceeding with the exposition of the
plans referred to above, it will be absolutely
necessary to refer to a subject the consideration
of which cannot be any longer deferred, because
without complete mastery of the faults and
drawbacks inherent to it, the effort to improve
articulation would be futile. The subject is
Inertia. Inertia is in evidence in every department
of choral society work. It is shown in the
irregular manner of going on and off the platform
at a concert, the listless rising and sitting of
a choir, the attack and release of notes, and
the lack of responsiveness to the beat of the
conductor. These things being very obvious
to conductor and officials, efforts are made from
time to time to remedy the defects, and a
smartening-up period ensues, but alas! it is usually
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short-lived. However baneful inertia may be in
the cases mentioned above, its subtle influence is
much more pernicious in the region of words,
because, its connection with articulation not being
obvious, its presence is not suspected. Yet inertia
seems to have every singer in its grip, and,like
Sindbad's Old Man of the Sea, will not loose its
hold until it is forcibly thrown off.
It is through taking no cognisance of inertia that
conductors have failed in their efforts to improve
the articulation of their choirs. It is therefore
almost useless to give instructions how to remedy
lack of clearness in speech until the head and front
of the offence -- "inertia" -- is conquered.
On account of the importance of mastering this
infirmity, and attaining its corollary, the perfecting
of articulation, I take advantage of any special
choral event, such as the World Tour, the visit to
Germany, Paris, &c., -- in which every member is
keenly anxious to attain perfection, -- to give a
resume of the principles of perfect articulation and
how to attain it. This little lecture is usually
given at an extra meeting, when all the evening
is devoted to the exposition. Its purpose is to
initiate new members into the mysteries of lingual
muscular equipment, as well as to revise, revive,
and strengthen the knowledge of the older
members of the society.
This recapitulation, even in the case of those
who have heard the explanations before, is very
useful, for choristers are very much like human
clocks, and need to be occasionally re-wound.
Please imagine that such a special meeting has
been called and I am addressing the full choir --
each singer, as desired, provided with note-book and
pencil -- on the "Imperfections of Articulation:
the causes and the remedy." The following is a
rather full outline of what I would say.
"The subject that we have met to consider this
evening is how to master words, how to secure
clear, correct articulation, how to get perfect
diction. This is most important, because words
are, in my opinion, the most powerful things on
earth. You might think that I, being a musician,
attach more importance to the music than to the
words, but I do not. In vocal music the words are
paramount, and it is the function of the music,
by sound, by rhythm, and by expression, to
intensify and make more living the thought
embodied in the words; hence the importance
of having the message clearly and understandingly
"To go through a piece without letting the
audience know what you are saying is, in my
opinion, as you have often heard me say, a deep
disgrace. It is like playing 'Hamlet' and leaving
out the Prince.
"The lack of clearness and enunciation, joined
to the often incorrect pronunciation, are two of the
standing weaknesses of nearly all siners. This is
certainly true of most choral societies, and you
yourselves know that we usually fall short of our
ideal, namely, the making of ourselves understood
by our old friend the man in the gallery, whose
hearing is dulled.
"Considering that you are all anxious to be heard,
and most of you try to speak clearly, you think
that the fault cannot be in you personally -- that it
is because your neighbour does not speak clearly.
As a matter of fact, you both may speak clearly,
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as you think, but you do not speak clearly enough.
The reasons for this are twofold. First, because
you do not know exactly what to do, namely, how
to use the muscles of the mouth to advantage, and
secondly, because of the inertia which prevents
the required freedom of muscular action.
"The question arises, What is the inertia of which
we speak? It is the strong indisposition of the
muscles to work, and their refusal to move, except
under the impulse of a strong will, conscience, or
"Some people would call this idleness, but idleness
is such only when the muscles refuse to work,
though desire, conscience, or necessity demand that
work should be done. In this obedience of the
muscles of the mouth to the call of the mind, soul,
and will lies the salvation of pure articulation and
"It may be taken as an axiom that every muscle
in the body is afflicted with the infirmity of inertia,
and none more than the muscles of the mouth,
tongue, lips, and cheeks. St. James spoke of the
tongue being an unruly member. This is true in
another sense besides that meant by the Apostle.
"I have said that salvation from inertia lies in the
fact that our muscles would respond to the will.
While this is true, we must not think that it is an
easy matter. When any of our muscles have
acquired certain habits in the course of years, they
rebel against the slightest disturbance of those
habits. Let a man whose foot turns slightly inwards
decide to turn it outwards. The struggle to achieve
this will be so severe that in all probability he will
abandon the contest, unless the impelling force
be a sense of duty. But, you may fairly ask,
'If everybody is naturally idle, why have we so
many unidle men and women?' It is because the
sense of duty comes in to strengthen the will.
For duty, people deny themselves indolent ease,
selfishness gives way to self-denial, and 'taking it
easy' is replaced by strenuous effort. This is the
key to the situation. So long as singers' consciences
are content with 60 per cent. or less of efficiency,
they will make no effort; they will follow the line
of least resistance, namely, their old easy-going
habit. But let them get an ideal of perfection, and
feel that it is their duty to art, to the society, or the
city to which they belong, and a transformation
"This sense of duty to our society and to the
audiences who honour us by their presence I wish
you to feel, and you will then overcome the Giant
Despair against whom all conductors, including
myself, have to wage eternal war. Therefore I
beg you to be so determined to combat this
insidious weakness that, when the muscles of the
mouth say, 'Oh, leave us alone,' you must reply,
'No, I won't, you don't do your work efficiently,
consequently you must respond to my demands.'
"Here let me give some cautions, instructions,
and hints with regard to mastering inertia.
Remember that the slightest muscular effort beyond
what is habitual will seem to be greatly exaggerated;
therefore make up your mind to give twice or
thrice the effort you at first think necessary, and
then you will probably give half the amount which
"Persevere until the unaccustomed muscular
action becomes natural, as it will in a short
time, and later it will become a subconscious
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attainment. Remember, though it be hard at
first to get the tongue to move promptly and
sufficiently, it is harder to control the lips, and
hardest to dragoon the cheeks. In other words,
in point of inertia the tongue is bad, the lips
are worse, and the facial muscles the worst, as
we shall see presently when we discuss how to
use these muscles in developing pure, clear
"But be of good courage; you will triumph over
all difficulties and come out conqueror, if in your
struggle with about ten square inches of muscular
fibre you decide to make your will the controlling
"Having seen that by mastering our natural
inertia we shall be able to control the organs of
articulation, we will now consider the principles of
clear and correct articulation and its consummation,
--diction, i.e., the accomplishment of picturing out
and giving living power to every word spoken or sung.
"To get clear, distinct, intelligible articulation
you will have to devote special attention to two
things: -- (1) Correct vowel quantity, and (2)
distinct consonant delivery.
"It is astonishing in how many cases the mere act
of singing changes the vowel-sound. Ask even an
educated person to sing the word 'man,' and the
chances are that he will sing 'maun,' while the
word 'my' is oftener than not sung 'moy.'
Similarly, the short vowel in 'the' is changed to
'thuh'; 'ow' often becomes 'o,' and most of the
other vowel-sounds are more or less perverted.
Probably you would do the same yourselves. This
would be so, not because you do not know better, but
from inertia, which, as I have said, compels you
to miscalculate the amount of muscular movement
necessary to produce any vowel when singing. This
strong indisposition to work causes the mouth to
make the minimum of effort, with the result that
the vowels are placed a degree further back in the
mouth than they ought to be. The remedy for this
is to sing with forward articulation, such as is
favoured by the use of nasal resonance. Those
who shoot for prizes at Bisley always 'make
allowance for the wind.' Similarly, you must
make allowance for the muscular disturbance
caused by placing your mouths in the position for
singing, and by will power project your voices and
words much more forward than you deem necessary
to attain the same position in your mouths that the
words would demand if you were speaking.
"The vowels oo, oh, aw, ah, ai, ee, and their
corresponding short vowels should be practised to
Ex. 1 (page 22), with special reference to vowel
quantity rather than to tone-quality, which has been
the object in the past.
"You must realise that some vowels and
diphthongs are more difficult to sing than others,
and that a vowel is often more difficult to sing on
a high note than on a low note.
"A very difficult vowel to get pure is ah and its
short form a. Unless great care is taken it
becomes perverted to aw. To give one example
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only, you are familiar with 'Mighty in battle,'
which, as you know, is frequently pronounced
'Moighty in bottle.' Alertness and determination
are required when the vowels ah, ai, ee, and
their short sounds are sung on high notes, otherwise
every one will sound like aw or short o, as in
the case of 'His mercy' (Elijah), which is nearly
always sung as 'morcy', on the high G.
"The reason why the much-abused i is
perverted to oi is because i consists of
forward ah and ee, the former dwelt on, and
the latter just glanced at as the diphthong is left:
if the ah is not forward then it becomes aw,
the result being aw-ee = oi. Should the ah be
quitted too soon, and the ee dwelt on too long, we
get that quaint effect which we have heard so often
-- but of which few know the real cause -- in the
'When I-ee can read myee tieetle clear
To mansions in the skiees,
I-ee'l bid farewell to every fear
And wi-eep my-ee weeping eyees.'
The importance o the two things mentioned above
--the forward ah and the rapid quitting of
the second vowel of the diphthong -- is showen in
words containing ow = ah-oo. This is reversed
in one diphthong, u = e-oo, as in dew, where the
second sound must be dwelt upon and the first
vowel quitted rapidly, or we shall get such a result
"Some of our great singers have so far
transgressed in the matter of vowel quantity that
they have sanctioned some of these errors, and
have caused less gifted singers to copy such
peculiarities, just as Spurgeon's students used to
copy the pulpit mannerisms of the great preacher.
But let it be said that these singers are great in
spite of these faults, not on account of them.
Even they are victims of inertia; hence their fall
from perfection in articulation. But these
blemishes are overlooked on account of other
great qualities which throw them into the shade.
The public unconsciously measure them as profit
and loss is gauged; they count as gain all that is
left of the profit when the loss has been subtracted.
Thus if a singer shows a good balance of voice and
artistic effect, we forgive in one the 'swoop' with
which her name is associated, the wretched
'wobble' of another singer, the slight out-of-tune-
ness of another, the hanging-on-below-pitch of
another, and the bad control of vowels of quite a
number. Nevertheless these great singers would
be better without such defects. The great choirs
of the future must be without them, and their
influence will cause artists to remedy their own
defects. Signs of this are not wanting even now.
"However important the vowels are, the consonants
are still more important, for on these depend the
precise sense and graphic power of what is sung,
and in their delivery rest a great deal of the spirit
and verve of a piece. Notwithstanding the
reiterated injunctions in elocution books to make
the final consonants clear, we still find the same
old slipshod way of articulating consonants.
"Why are consonants so widely neglected? After
making due allowance for the ever-present inertia,
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I think that the non-success is due to the singers
not knowing precisely what to do, what to aim at.
They do not know what particular muscular action
of the lips, tongue, and palate will secure the
desired crisp, sharp, incisive delivery of consonants.
I will therefore endeavour to put in a new light,
and to state in a new way, what a consonat is,
promising that whenever a pupil or a class has
grasped this, all indistinctness will vanish.
"By a consonant we mean a letter which
represents a particular impression made upon the
mind when a sound is abruptly, forcibly, and
markedly stopped by the lips, teeth, palate or
throat. These sounds may be stopped entirely or
"As illustrations of what is meant, let us take the
explodent, which are classified as under: --
Labials, p and b.
Dentals, t and d.
Palatals, ch and j.
Gutturals, k and g (hard).
"If we wish to say 'rope' we first say 'ro,' and
then make a stoppage of the sound at our lips, and
this particular kind of stoppage we associate with
p, and we then hear the word 'rope.' If we say
ro, and make a heavier stoppage at our lips, we
get 'robe'; if we stop the sound at our teeth we
get the impression of t or d, as in the words 'get,'
'rote,' or 'road'; if at our palate we get ch or j,
as in 'church' or 'judge,' while if the stoppage
is made in our throat we get 'roke' or 'rogue.'
Though this is not quite the same will all
consonants, it is quite near enough for our purpose
to make the general and important statement that
to get clear consonants what we have to do is to
make the stoppage of our sounds complete, and in such
a manner as to give the hearer no doublt as to where
it is made.
"From what you have heard you will realise that
to get keen, incisive articulation you have to know
the exact spot in the mouth or nasal cavities where
each stoppage of the sound is made, so that each
click, hum, buzz, and aspirate can be located.
This can be done by the rapid, crisp, smart,
well-controlled movement of the articulatory
muscles, as opposed to the conventional sluggish
manner in which many of you now sing.
"Just imagine what this knowledge should mean
to you. In stead of floundering about in the bog of
uncertainty, you can act with decision. Whereas
in your will-'o-the-wisp-like search you had
metaphorically to sing, 'Thou art so near and yet
so far,' you should now be able to sing, 'Thou art
my guiding star.' Summarizing the whole, here is
the talismanic key to unlock the gates of indis-
tinctness of speech: -- Hold the vowel-sounds as
long as the notes sung will allow, then by an
instantaneous movement of the muscles of the
mouth effect the stoppage of sound in the place
required, and the result will be the production of
"On account of the inertia already referred to, the
most anxious student cannot perform these actions
as cleanly and as swiftly as they should be done,
without preliminary exercises, which should be
designed to give a maximum of benefit with a
minimum of trouble. Such a set of exercises is
provided for initial consonants in the following
alliterative sentences, which, as many of you know,
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have proved to be very advantageous to those
who have used them conscientiously: --
P. Pearls please pretty Penelope.
B. Big Ben broke Bertha's bouncing ball.
T. Try teaching to tax temper.
D. Dear Dora danced delightfully.
Th. Thin things think thick thoughts.
Th. Thee, thou them that thou thee (thou used
as a verb).
Ch. Church chaps chirp chants cheerfully.
J. John Jones jumps jauntily.
K. Clever cricketers keep catches.
G. Guy gives good gifts gracefully.
F. Fair flirts fancy French fashions.
V. Vain Vernon vowed vengeance.
M. Mild-mannered men make money.
N. Nellie never noticed Norah.
R. Round rough rocks ragged rascals ran.
L. Lion lilies like light.
W. Wise women won't whine.
"Exercise for final consonants is provided in
phrases like the following: --
Tip-top trip. Search church porch.
Bob rub tub. Madge lodge Hodge.
Bright white light. Make woke Luke.
Fred led Ned. Snug swag-bag.
"In practising these phrases, bear in mind that
it is not the mere saying of them, but how you
say them, that counts. For instance, in words
containing p, b, f, v, m, or w, which involve
the use of the lips, see that they close with
rapid action, because the lips are very reluctant
"The th groups require great care, for you
know we have often to stop to get 'the' clearly
pronounced. In fact, any choir which can sing
'the' perfectly is in the highest class. When
singing a final consonant, avoid the common error
of ceasing to make the sound before you actually
reach the end of the word, with the result that
'sheep' sounds like 'shee,', 'Help, Lord' like
'Hel, Lor.' To remedy this serious shortcoming,
introduce the faint-sounding uh at the end of
each consonant. This acts as a sound-carrying
'glide,' or, in other words, enables the sound to
glide to the click, hum, or buzz necessary to
make the consonant distinct. To secure this
carrying 'glide' some singers add er or a
short ah to their words: thus 'sheep' becomes
'sheep(er)' or 'sheep(a)'; 'Help, Lord' becomes
'Help(a) Lord(a).' This is exaggerating the
glide unnecessarily and disagreeably, but if the
glide uh is given delicately, it imparts definition
to the consonant, without being in the least
"Up to the present I have spoken of not
giving enough prominence to the finals, but in
the case of the sibilents s, z, sh, and ce, please
curtail them as much as possible, and never
introduce them till the last eighth of the beat.
Usually there is a disaggreable hissing sound at the
close of many such words as 'peace,' 'hush,' 'pass,'
because many singers pass to the sibilant too soon,
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and nearly everybody keeps the tongue to the roof
of the mouth instead of withdrawing it quickly, say
to the lower teeth, or letting the lower jaw fall slightly.
Attention to this will remedy a grave defect.
"In conclusion I would remark that the practical
application of clear articulation to the laws that
govern diction will be treated when we study
It is strictly on the lines enunciated in the
foregoing little lecture, supplemented by passing
remarks at rehearsals, that such success as we have
had in diction has been achieved; and I feel sure
that others may be equally successful, or more so,
even to the obtaining 100 per cent., if they will
follow the hints given.
It has been assumed in the foregoing that the
singers were perfectly familiar with the correct
pronunciation of every word, and that every
deviation from correctness was due to imperfect
control of the vocal muscles. But there are
districts in which even educated people have certain
peculiarities of pronunciation which call for a word
of caution. For instance, a city in the south had
some of its peculiarities well revealed by a verger
who was showing a party of Yorkshire people round
a well-known cathedral during a recent Handel
Festival week, immediately after he had ciceroned
a party of Americans. He said, "Oi can under-
stnad what you Yorkshire people sye (say), but the
wye (way) those Americans murder the King's
English is enough to give anybody the 'amp'
(hump)." He was blissfully unconscious that he
was not using perfect King's English himself. The
same can be said of those who turn every g into
k, as in the word "nothink," while in the north
there are those who say "deeficult waird" for
"difficult word." The importance, in an artistic
sense, of being absolutely correct was shown to
me by a famous Scotch baritone singer. I asked
him how a common friend, who had a really
good voice, was getting on in the profession. He
answered, "Oh, he is not getting on at all, and
won't, because he sings English songs like a
Scotchman" -- i.e., with a Scotch accent.
In every case the conductor must be sure of
King's English, and, if necessary, pattern every
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