First off, I have to say I LOVE singing in French. This is crazy, because in voice studios we are taught that French is one of the hardest languages to sing – and then there’s the grammar! But whether it’s because French was my first foreign language, or because I have a long-standing love affair with the cuisine, the country, and the City of Light, I adore the round vowels, the liquid consonants, and the lilt to the end of the sentence.
For me, early French is to modern French as crunchy peanut butter is to smooth. The diphthongs are a bit twangier, the consonants are pronounced, and the nasal sounds are unapologetically up the nose. All this just makes the richness and salty-sweet complexity of the language more interesting because it’s punctuated with these crunchy bits of articulation. That said, it’s still a challenge to put to music.
Take the nasal vowels as an example – French is full of them, and they are really exaggerated in early French. But this is a problem. Singers sing with a high soft palate – the feeling of yawning, or being about to sneeze. That’s what gives us nice “round tones” that ring and soar freely. But nasal sounds are produced from a compressed tongue and palate. Try it yourself: say something in a nasal voice and notice how your palate descends to meet your tongue – now try to sing a high-ish note! That pinched sound is what we have to avoid. What we do to compensate is an elaborate compromise. We find the precise position where the vowel sounds right to the ear, but doesn’t shut down our voices, often substituting darker color for the nasalization, and changing position depending on how high or low the note is in our voices. It’s tricky, but when it works, the sound is free and the language is still clear. And it is so fun to sing!
Next week: The instruments