Memorizing a Foreign Language Song

Our studio-wide music festival is just around the corner – only ten more days, to be exact! Because the homeschool choir has been so busy practicing for contest, I have allowed the individual members of the choir to work on their own to prepare for solos and ensembles. Well, they haven’t been entirely on their own. The day I assigned solos, I also handed out my own personal plan for perfecting them on time. It’s the same method I used as a voice major in college. While a college student will need to move at a much faster pace (they will usually be memorizing six to eight songs per semester and performing three or four), this schedule is perfect for a beginning singer; it is especially useful when singing a foreign language song for the first time.

Week 1: Know when to breathe (between phrases, at commas if needed, etc. Never in the middle of a word or idea). Begin looking ahead at words and melody.

Week 2: Have a solid knowledge of the melody when reading from the score.

Week 3: Have a solid knowledge of the interpretation of the song. Be ready to give a short synopsis to the class. (If you can’t find a word-for-word translation online, try using Babel Fish.)

Week 4: Have a solid knowledge of the pronunciation when reading from the score.

Week 5: Be able to sing with accompaniment.

Week 6: Be able to sing the song using the words written on an index card (no peeking at the score). Bring the index card to class with lyrics written on it already. (I started using this little trick after reading Joan Frey Boytim’s book The Private Voice Studio Handbook.)

Week 7: Entire song from memory with accompaniment (no peeking at music or index card).

Week 8: Dynamics memorized and diction perfect.

Now, having a plan is all very well and good, but just how does a beginning singer go about learning the words to a foreign language piece?

The easiest way is to choose books that have CDs with pronunciation help on them. I love the books in The Vocal Library series, published by Hal Leonard. The CDs in this series also include the accompaniments.

What if you already have your music picked out from another source, and you don’t have access to a recorded pronunciation?

Well, you can do one of two things: You can learn the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) just for that song, and this isn’t too difficult, as long as you are willing to dedicate an afternoon or two to research. The information is out there, and readily available, but learning it can be a little time-consuming.

For the serious student of voice, I recommend studying the IPA in-depth, for at least French, German, and Italian (Spanish and Latin are easy enough without knowing IPA). If you decide to learn IPA from scratch, begin with Italian. Not only is it a great starting place, but I have had trouble finding Italian pronunciations on CD.

The other thing you can do is find a good online text-to-speech converter (Google “online TTS”). The free online versions aren’t great sounding, but the diction is usually pretty accurate, so they are a good choice if you are willing to put up with listening to an electronic-sounding voice. Some sites allow you to choose either a male or female voice in many languages. Some let you slow down or speed up the playback, and others even let you download the result as an mp3. It’s faster than learning the IPA, but more annoying and less educational.

Have fun practicing!

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