Heather Wilcox

Heather Wilcox

Guest Blogger

Heather Wilcox is a Winthrop University graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education and a Master’s Degree in Conducting.  She has been an active member of choirs since middle school, and has loved to sing all her life!  She has performed with esteemed conductors and clinicians, such as John Rutter, Moses Hogan, Simon Carrington, Robert Ray, and most recently, Eric Whitacre.  She performs with The King’s Counterpoint, a vocal ensemble that specializes in the music of the Middles Ages, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.  She also serves as the United States publicist for Grammy Award-winning composer/arranger and former baritone of The King’s Singers, Philip Lawson.

Heather has brought her love of choral music and experience to the classroom and has been teaching at the secondary level for the past ten years.  She currently teaches in Lexington, SC, where she conducts an honor choir and two larger choral ensembles, and also co-teaches a musical theatre class.

Heather’s a bit technologically behind the times-doesn’t have the first clue about the Instagrams and the Snapchats and such, but you can connect with her via Facebook

Hi, guys!  I’m stepping in for our fabulous Lindsay today to share my take on diction for any singer, choral or solo, classical or Broadway, you name it.  I find diction to be sort of a throw-away topic-something that seems to be really common sense, but as I listen to live performances of choirs, I have to look for context clues to figure out what the students are singing.  Are there program notes?  What language is the title in?  Wait, this is in English???  I end up like many of our parents who tell us on the way home from our concerts, “That sounded pretty, honey, I just wish I knew what you guys were singing about!” (By the way, that’s usually followed by them telling you they could pick out your voice from all the others the entire concert!)  As someone who does this for a living, I hate the feeling of not understanding the words and it makes me-ME, a choral professional-start to look at my watch and wonder how much longer the concert is going to last.  Horrible, right?  This is the reason I’m seriously bent on text and I have been affectionately dubbed by my students, “The Diction Nazi”.

I haven’t always been this way, you know.  I lovingly blame my articulation OCD on one man: Dr. Robert Edgerton, former Director of Choral Activities at Winthrop University.  Every year in Chorale, Dr. E started the fall semester by teaching the university’s two alma maters.  We wouldn’t touch our actual repertoire until he whipped us into shape with unified vowels and spit-inducing consonants.  (See?  It’s not just band where spit happens!)  Through that process, I developed my respect for text and over my 10 years of directing middle and high school choirs, this became my approach to teaching diction:

1. Don’t dive in! I don’t teach the music with the text first.  Bad habits will form you will just have to undo later.  Count sing or teach using Solfege first (with good, pure Latin vowels).  Text is complicated enough, so save it until you’ve laid a good foundation.

2. The power of the warmup! Of course, we’ve all done the echoed consonant warmup (i.e. “sk, p, k, t”), and you probably jazz it up with some interesting rhythms.  Good-keep doing it because it works!  I also use this poem that I completely stole from a clinician a long time ago.  Please feel free to steal it from me:

Articulate the consonants,

Spit out the words.

Elongate the vowel sounds

Or else you’ll be misheard!

Say this chorally, in your best British accent (kids love trying that!), and don’t let them get away with being lazy about any part!  Explode those consonants crisply and don’t allow American diphthongs to creep up!

3. The British Italian

I tell my students that to do diction right, you have to pretend you are a British Italian!  Tall vowels like a Brit, and a phantom “-a-“ between consonants.  For a “w” that is not followed by the letter “h”,  add an “oo” sound before it.  The audience never hears these things, all they know is they understand the words that are coming out of your mouth!  Be very deliberate with the students about this and make them write it in.  I’ve included two examples from when I did Roger Emerson’s “Riversong”:

Riversong example 1

Riversong example 2

4. Know your language. And dialect.  And style.  They all present their individual challenges when you get students from ANYWHERE else to pronounce them correctly.  I always operate under the assumption that someone in the audience speaks or has a knowledge of the language we’re singing, so it needs to be done right.  For example, don’t explode a “d” in Spanish the same way you would in English or German.  Dentalize that sucker and soften it behind the teeth!  If everyone does it, and I mean every singer, it will be understood.  Vocal jazz is a nother genre that is special-think of it as if a newscaster with zero accent is singing it.  Diphthongs are very purposeful, the American “r” is expected, and ending consonants are typically imploded, but not ignored.  Do some research and listen to choirs that specialize in those languages and styles.  You will not be teaching your students bad habits, you will actually create better musicians because they will understand that vocal technique is not one-size-fits-all.

5. Lastly, live in the text.

Creating good articulation habits take time, so don’t let this hard work come last in the music-making process.  I know of directors who wait to incorporate the text until two weeks before the concert, and I personally think that’s NUTS!!!!!  There’s so much to do if you want to be understood!!!  Not only do singers have to make the words understandable, they have to send a believable, moving, memorable message to the audience.  A truly effective singer connects with the text to deliver it with the appropriate intensity and passion.  It is a responsibility we all have as singers.  Every person must be dedicated to conveying the story, and that only comes with taking the time to live in the text.

I leave you with an experiment of sorts.  Record your choirs in rehearsal.  Record yourself in the practice room.  Now, take that recording and find your boyfriend, girlfriend, mom, dad, or anyone who will sit still and listen for 3-4 minutes (pets and children under 5 do not count!), and ask if they can understand the words!

Thanks for reading and I hope you can steal something from it!

-Heather Wilcox

“The Diction Nazi”