Thoughts on the French “R” in Classical Singing

The French r may be one of the most discussed sounds in the French language. It is also one of the most challenging sounds for a non-native French speaker to produce authentically. There are many ways to go about singing the French r.

Let’s look at the three most commonly used r-sounds in singing French repertoire:

  • The “rolled r“: The “rolled r” is also known by its more technical name “alveolar trill”. This is the r we are most familiar with, we use it in all other languages. It is voiced which means you should be able to sustain a sound while rolling the r. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [r]
  • The “flipped r: The “flipped r” is also known as an “alveolar tap or flap”. Very similar to the “rolled r” the flip requires just one brief flick of the tongue to the alveolar ridge. Think of saying the letter d [d]. The phonetic symbols for this vowel sound are [ɾ] or [r], but the latter is the most commonly used.
  • The “uvular r”: Also known as the “uvular trill” is the r commonly used in the French spoken language, but also singing. The uvular r is articulated with the back of the tongue (what is known technically as the dorsum) to the uvula (the hangy thing in the back). The difference between the rolled/flipped r and the uvular r is that it is the uvula that vibrates, not the tongue. The phonetic symbol for this sound is [ʀ].

So now that we have listed the three most commonly used r-sounds in French singing, which ones should be used?

Although the “rolled r has quite frequently been used in the singing of classical French repertoire, and it feels good to do it (sometimes it may feel expressive to roll an r), my advice is to avoid using it. Whenever I hear someone over-rolling an r in French music be it mélodie or opera, it ends up sounding very close to Italian. Also, any double consonant (except for a few words) should not be observed, so even if you see a double r, you do not need to roll it.

In the following clip, Chanson d’Orkenise from Banalités by Poulenc, Pierre Bernac, who was and still is an authority on singing in French, makes use of the “rolled r” (or one could argue that it is a repeated flipped r). It is still beautiful, but it has a flavor of the past mostly due to the r which is very rolled. This is a good example of how they were singing in French in this period.

Chanson d’Orkenise (Bernac/Poulenc)

The “flipped ris my personal favorite to use in classical French music. This r is a lot like its rolled counterpart. If you use it while speaking, it feels very strange and foreign but it sounds very comfortable while singing. It does not misplace the voice and it does not disturb the legato line. It is the r most commonly used in French opera and mélodie. In this recording , you hear an excellent use of the “flipped r” used by Véronique Gens.

Chanson d’Orkenise Gens/Vignoles

There are a lot of discussions about the use of the “uvular r in classical singing. While speaking French, we all use this r but should we use it when we are singing classical music? In France, Belgium and I believe in the French-speaking regions of Canada, the “uvular r” is recommended for singing in French. From a singing perspective, the argument arises that this places the sound too far back in the throat and that a “flipped r” keeps the sound more forward. In my opinion, the use of the “uvular r” gives a “pop music” feeling to the music. The discussions surrounding which r we should be using are ongoing. My advice is if you are not a native French speaker, do not use the “uvular r” because the chances are you will not make a convincingly authentic “uvular r” sound while singing.

Story time...

I once had a student who was not French, bring in a French aria he had studied all week. Before singing it, he said: “I don’t know why, but every time I sing this aria, I have a sore throat”. Alarmed, I wanted to hear it to see if he was doing anything wrong. It should be noted that this aria was very r heavy. Well, as soon as he started singing, I heard it immediately, he was using his version of the “uvular r”, but it was much too hard and aggressive, we switched to the “flipped r” and everything was solved. We had a good laugh about it afterward!

In this third recording of Chanson d’Orkenise by Poulenc, Patricia Petitbon opts for the “uvular r“. She does it with subtelty and she is gentle with the attack but you can hear that it is in the back of the throat.

Chanson d’Orkenise Petitbon/Manoff

My strong advice (and many of my voice teacher colleagues agree) is to use the “flipped r”. Whatever you decide to use, make sure it does not compromise the quality of your singing. Practice now and then with a “uvular r” in case you go off and work with someone who will have this as a preference, and it is requested of you to use it. Work it out with your French coach and your voice teacher to help you to do it healthily and authentically.

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