Our task, as directors, is to encourage, cajole, joke, prod, vocalize, model, and insist on the very best in vowels and consonants in context.
One of the basic stumbling blocks to this goal is understanding the difference between the printed division of words and the way syllables must be sung. Marshall says: “A word of two or more syllables is divided, in print, on the basis of its structure; the same word, when sung, may be divided in an entirely different manner for the sake of clearer and more effective singing.”
The first rule of choral diction is that there are always exceptions to every rule. Those interested in the detail of these principles should consult the Marshall and Uris books.Above all, don't try to solve all choral diction problems overnight. Instead, develop a passion for the power, grace, and beauty of well-articulated words. They are the power to convey our worthy message.
The information that follows is based on four premises.
1. Alleluia (Hallelujah)–ah leh LOO-yah
Accent or word stress is on the third syllable. The second syllable, commonly pronounced “lay,” is more easily artic-ulated and understood when changing the diphthong “a” to the much simpler vowel “eh.” The “l” can be used to help with articulation and vowel color with a vigorous and quick execution. Imagine a tiny dot on the tip of the tongue and give the “l” a quick flip forward.
2. Lord–Lqh-dih (like “warm”)
The rule is to never sing an “r” before a consonant. Thinking of the final consonant as having a very short “ih” vowel will help enunciate the often missed ending, especially when “Lord” is at the end of a phrase.
Flip the “r” by singing “d.” Remember that the correct pronunciation is not the same as the words meaning “to harpoon!”
Depending on the text that follows, either take the vowel out completely or flip the “r” as it merges with the next word. If “ever” ends the phrase or if the following word begins with a consonant, take the “r” out. If the following word begins with a vowel, flip the “r.” In the phrase “forever and...,” flip both “r”s in the word “forever,” since both are followed by a consonant.
5. Savior–SEH-ih-vih-yqh or SEH-ee-vih-yqh
Sustain the first sound of the dipthong (“eh”) as long as possible before singing the second sound (“ih” or “ee”). The final “r” is either removed or flipped as with “ever” above.
The “r” should almost always be flipped, and moves the singer immediately to the vowel sound, helping both articulation and rhythm. The second half of the diphthong should almost be a bright “ee,” but the sound moves so quickly to the “z” that it's barely noticed. This is an excellent word for teaching the flipped “r.” Help the choir visualize the “p” as a grace note ahead of the beat, with the “deh” landing squarely on the pulse, since both consonants cannot be sounded exactly together.
7. Christ–KDAH-ihst or KDAH-eest
Like “Praise,” the “kd” sound must be made quickly, getting to the “ah” vowel on the beat. The second half of the diphthong can be “ee” if a brighter sound is desired. Again, the flipped “r” will help rythmically.
8. They're–THEH-ih-ə or THEH-ee-ə
One of the most misunderstood words, this should be treated like a tripthong, as the “ə” replaces the final “r.” Again, the “ih” can become “ee” if a brighter sound is desired.
Sustain the vowel as long as possible and use a quick downward thrust of the tongue for a light, quick “l.” Avoid “wee-uhl.”
10. Night–NAH-iht or NAH-eet
The “ih” half of the diphthong can become “ee,” depending on what works best with the text, tempo and rhythm.
11.Day–DEH-ih or DEH-ee
As with “night,” the “ih” can become a bright “ee.”
Again, the “ih” can become “ee.” The initial vowel sound is like “warm.”
Stay on the “ah” as long as possible before turning the quick “oo.”
This tripthong must still be treated like a diphthong, in that the first vowel sound is the primary sustained sound, with the two final vowel sounds coming “together” at the last moment. Like “they're” the third sound is the “ə” which substitutes for the dropped “r.”
15. What you–whah-tee-oo
Take time to articulate the “t,” making sure it moves into the second syllable with a good “oo” and not as “chew.”
16. Divine & Rejoice–dih-VAH-ihn & rih-Jq-ihs
The first syllable of both words works much better with the “ih” vowel than an “ee.” In the second word, the diphthong can close with an “ee” if the brighter sound is desired.
This “uh” sound almost always signals trouble. Often the taller “ah” vowel is substituted, which gives an artificial sounding pronunciation. Whichever vowel is used the jaw must be very relaxed.
The short grace-note technique will help visualize the concept of getting to the “oo” quickly. Again, the “ih” vowel creates a much more appealing sound than the commonly used “ee.”
19. Gloria in excelsis deo –GLq-dee-ah een eh-KSHEHL-sees DEH-oh
The “gl” must happen ahead of the beat, like a grace note, with the “warm” vowel landing on the pulse, followed by the quick flipped “r” and into the bright “ee” sound. Since this is a latin phrase the second word must be sung “een.” Take care that DEH-oh is “eh-oh” and not “DAY-oh.”
20. Kyrie eleison & Christe eleison –KEE-dee-eh eh-LEH-ee-sohn & KDEE-steh eh-LEH-ee-sohn
The “eh” sound must always be preserved, never turning any latin syllables into diphthongs.
The final “r” is replaced by the warmer “uh” vowel, the “ə.”
The “r” is replaced with the “ə” vowel. (The same technique applies to words like “morning,” “eternal,” “dark-ness,” and “work.”) The final consonant should be voiced to be understood, using “in” and not the darker “uh.”
23. God–Gq-dih or GAH-dih
Use either the “warm” vowel or the brighter “ah.”
The secret is to prolong the “m” a bit, with very relaxed lips, barely touching. This allows the “m” to sound and resonate the “eh” to follow. The final “n” uses the tongue tip touching the upper gum. It should be prolonged enough to sound but not be overdone.
The “ee” vowel needs depth with a high soft palate. The closing “ng” is made by raising the back of the tongue to meet the lowered soft palate, adding voice. The depth and tongue relaxation helps reduce nasality.
The “kd” (flipped “r”) must be made quickly, getting to the vowel on the beat. Take care that no “s” gets into the “ih” vowel. Delay the final “s” as long as possible.
Not a dull sound, but also not an “ah,” which is artificial. Often the “k” is not crisp and articulated. Even though it has no voice, it must be exploded into the vowel.
28. Hosanna–1. hq-ZAH-nah or 2. hq-ZÆ-nah or 3. q-SAH-nah
#1 is an English pronunciation where the “h” is sounded and the “s” is a “z.” The second vowel is the pure “ah.”
#2 is an alternate English pronunciation where the second vowel, “Æ” is the brighter “a” sound, as in “ask” or “cat.”
#3 is the ecclesiastical Latin pronunciation, where no initial “h” is sounded. The “s” is literal, not a “z.” The second syllable is a pure “ah.”
In most applications, the #1 option is preferred.
As in “Christmas,” the “kd” is ahead of the “oo” vowel and must be articulated ahead of the beat. The second syllable should be “ih” and not “ee.” The final syllable is a diphthong: AH-ee.
30. Tired, fire–TAH-ih-¶d, FAH-ih-ə
The key is to stay on the primary “ah” vowel as long as possible.
31. Blessed, great–BLEH-seh-dih, GDEH-eet
The “bl” and “gr” must occur ahead of the beat, like a quick grace note into the tall “eh” vowel.
It's so tempting to move to the “l” too soon. Work to separate the “l” from the bright “ih” vowel, and then move through the “l” at the last possible moment. Since it's virtually impossible to flip the “r” when preceded by a “d,” the sounded “r” will have to be more traditional in nature, but moving as quickly as possible to the “eh” vowel, keeping the entire syllable in the front of the mouth.
33. Mercy, merciful–Mu-see, Mu-sih-fuhl
Two of the most common words in sacred liturature. The “r” is not sounded, but the first vowel sound is not “uh” (“mussy”) but “u,” like “full.” To teach the “u” vowel, try curling the lips outward in the shape of a french horn bell. Marshall always calls the “u” vowel shape “a morning glory mouth.”
34. Merry, very–MEH-dee, VEH-dee
The flipped “r” is essential on these type words. They also make excellent teaching words, since “meddy” and “veddy” force the flipped “r.”
This extremely awkward triphthong is made easier when the first vowel sound is secured and the final two are added quickly, getting to the “lz” as quickly as possible.
The final “st” is the same as “puts,” “hits,” "or “hat,” but there is that extra “s” in “hosts” that must be sounded. To correctly ennunciate the word, two motions of the tongue are required, one for each of the two consonant sounds. Try a slight pause before the final “ts,” especially during the learning process.
The quick “oo” vowel sound is the precise pronunciation for all words that begin with “w.” Sounding the “oo” gives vitality and flavor (providing the needed clarity) to the vowel and word that follows.
38. Endure, gratitude–EHN-du-ə, gdah-TIH-tee-oo-dih
The second syllable of “endure” is the “u” vowel in the IPA, with the vowel sound of “full.” The final sound is like most words ending in “r,” where the “r” is replaced by the neutral “ə” vowel. With “gratitude,” adding the “ee,” instead of singing a simpler “tood,” helps the perceived pronunciation.
39. Measure, treasure–MEH-ih-sju-ə, TDEH-ih-sju-ə
The opening diphthong “eh-ih” can be shortened to a simple “eh” if desired, but the diphthong provides more clarity. The closing diphthong is like that of “endure” above.
The “ah” vowel is pure. The “nk” must both be sounded quickly, but the “k” must be exploded to be heard.