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.

The French “h”: What’s the deal?

One of the most frequently asked questions I get during a coaching session on French repertoire is: “What do I do with the “h”? My regular students can recite this rule at any time in any place. It is one of the rules that I drill into them!

The French language went through changes phonologically between it’s origin, Latin, into what we know now as Early Old French. One of the major changes was the loss of the “h” consonant. It briefly made a comeback when germanic words were introduced into the French language, but the aspirate h ceased to be pronounced once more in either the 16th or the 17th century and this hasn’t changed since then.

Since the phonological behavior of aspirate h words cannot be predicted through spelling, usage requires a considerable amount of memorization or a bit of research. In the past, the misuse of the “h” was often used to size up someone’s education and social status. In modern usage, the knowledge of how we treat the “h” in “liaison” is more indicative of formal French, but it is not so present in less guarded speech. In general, the use of “liaison” is also losing ground in the less formal or slang use in the French language all around.

Interesting facts about the “h”

  • In all French words that begin with h, the following letter is a vowel.
  • Most aspirated-h words are derived from Germanic languages, for example, La haine (hatred) [laǀɛnə] Note: a tiny stop is recommended before the word “haine”
  • The h is generally not aspirated in words of Latin and Greek origin, for example, hystérique (hysterical) [histeˈrikə]
  • There are numerous exceptions, and etymology often cannot explain them satisfactorily. This makes it very difficult to find a pattern.
  • When in doubt, look it up in a French dictionary. When you do, you will see an asterisk (*) next to the word, and this indicates that the “h” is aspirate.
Dictionaire Larousse en ligne

What is the difference between aspirate and nonaspirate

It is important to note that the “h” is never sounded in the French language, not in speech, and not in singing! So why do we have to know if it is aspirate or nonaspirate? In French, the letter “h” permits or forbids “liaison” furthermore its presence can mean a slight soft reattacking of the vowel-sound.

Example:

Qui dans les halliers humides te cueille! (Who in the damp thickets gather you!)

IPA: [ki dɑ̃ lɛ| aˈliez ͜ yˈmide tə kœjə]

Note that before the word “halliers” there is a slight stop and no liaison because the “h” is an aspirate h. Before the word “humides” there is a liaison because this “h” is nonaspirate.

Sound file

As stated above, in normal everyday speech, a native French speaker would probably opt out of using a liaison, and most words which are nonaspirate, as they already instinctively recognize them and link them. While singing, however, it is very important to use the appropriate diction. When in doubt, just look it up in the dictionary for the asterisk (*), and remember the rule: It is forbidden to make a liaison on a word beginning with an aspirate “h”!

The French Semi-Consonants

What is a Semi-Consonant?

When you speak (or in our case sing) in French, there are 36 sounds to master:

  • 15 vowel-sounds
  • 18 consonant-sounds
  • 3 semi-consonant sounds (also sometimes called semi-vowels or glides)

In today’s post, we will focus on the semi-consonant-sound.

The Semi-Consonants

Semi-consonant [ɥ] 

Model word: nuit [nɥi] (night)

The corresponding sound for the [ɥ] is the phonetic [y] as in the word “lyne” in French

The Yod [j]

Model word: Dieu [djø] (God)

The corresponding sound for the [j] is the phonetic [i] as in the word “midi”. We often refer to this one specifically as a Yod. Think of saying the word “you” in English, that first glide is our [j].

Semi-consonant [w] 

Model word soir [swar] (evening)

The corresponding sound for the [w] is the phonetic [u] as in the word “tout”. Think of saying the word “we” in English, the first glide is our [w].

All of the French semi-consonants have these three things in common:

1. They are always before the vowel-sound of the syllable.

In French syllabification, each syllable can only have one vowel-sound per syllable, some vowel combinations make a vowel sound

Example:

  • aimer (to love) has two syllables ai/mer. The first “ai” makes one vowel sound and the last “er” make one vowel sound and they are seperated by the “m”
  • In the word “nuit” (night), there are two vowel sound and no consonant seperating them, also, there is not combination of “ui” which makes one vowel-sound, so there is no syllabification. The semi-consonant is created: [nɥi]

2.  They are introductory closures that open into or glide into the more open vowel sound, which in turn occupies the duration of the note-value.

You should never sing or elongate the semi-consonant, the glide should be made swiftly as you always aim for the vowel following the glide. If we look at the IPA for “nuit” [nɥi] the most important vowel to sing is the [i] which comes after the glide.

3.  They never, in themselves, constitute a syllable.  When they become vowel-sounds (and/or when they are assigned a note) they lose their qualities as semi-consonants, each being transformed into a particular vowel-sound.

Because we never elongate the semi-consonant, it cannot be a vowel-sound UNLESS they are assigned a note in the text:

In the example above, the first “curieux” has two notes, and clearly, you would have to use the glide to get to the [ø]. In the second example, the [j] loses its glide quality and becomes a vowel thanks to the composer who gave it a note value.

Be careful not to add a glide when it is not supposed to be there!

In the spoken French language, when a word ends in a vowel + mute “e” (a.k.a schwa), we do not pronounce the schwa.

For example “joie” (joy) is spoken without the last “e” [ʒwa], but many French composers gave a note value to the schwa, so that when you sing the word “joie” you would have to sing this otherwise mute “e” [ʒwaə].

Setting the mute “e” as accurately and elegantly as possible was always a goal for the French composers:

  • Setting the mute “e” on the weaker beat
  • Setting the mute “e'” on a lower pitch
  • Giving the mute “e” a shorter note value than the preceding syllable
  • Sometimes suggesting that we drop the mute “e” by setting it on a note tied to the preceding syllable.
  • The music determines whether or not we sing the mute “e”

So when you sing the aria “Que fais-tu, blanche tourterelle” from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod, you will see the following:

Looking at these two excerpts from the aria, you notice a note value given to the schwas in the words “proie” and “joie”. The danger here is the temptation to insert a [j] between teh [wa] and the [ə].

The correct way to sing this is as follows:

Laisse-là ces oiseaux de proie, Tourterelle qui fais ta joie

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈproiə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwaə]

And not

[lɛsəˈla sɛz‿waˈzo də ˈprwajə turtəˈrɛlə ki fɛ ta ˈʒwajə]

Believe it or not, I hear the addition of a Yod quite often, and sometimes from established singers. It is probably not because they mean to do it; gliding cleanly between these vowels takes a lot of practice. Not to mention that if you glide between the vowel and the schwa, you will create a stress on the mute “e” which is not allowed…You have all seen the meme:

Be like the schwa…never stressed

Adding a glide between these vowels, creates confusion because it does not sound like the right word, and it is a dead give-away that you are not French. The transition between these vowels must be seemless. Happy gliding!

How to Sing the French Mixed Vowels

The French language has fifteen vowel-sounds. I say this every year at the start of my French Lyric Diction class as the students’ eyes widen. I can almost hear them thinking “Fifteen? How is that possible? How can I sing fifteen different vowel sounds?” That seems like a lot and it can be quite daunting if you are a singer starting out singing in this language. The three vowel-sounds that I would like to focus on in this little French Lyric Diction post, are the three mixed vowel-sounds [œ] [ø] and [y].

When I say “vowel-sound” I don’t mean a pure vowel. The vowels we all know from when we first learn how to read are a, e, i, o, and u. Think of all the french vowel-sounds as derivatives of these. Some vowel sounds are even based on the derivatives of the derivatives. A mixed vowel is when you take two characteristics of two different vowels and as you combine them you create a whole new vowel. They are called “mixed” because their formation is dependent on the simultaneous positioning of the tongue and the lips.

In the chart above, we see the vowels in the tongue position, and the vowels in the lip position, in the middle are the mixed vowels.

The Phonetic [y] vowel-sound:

  • Phonate the [i] sound, as in the French word “midi” [miˈdi] (noon) or if you wish to come from the English language the [i] in the word “we”.
  • Now, sustain this [i] sound, as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] as in the word “rose” [rozə] in French (or English) all the while not changing your [i] tongue position.
  • You now magically have the phonetic [y] vowel as in the French word “lune” [lynə] (moon).

The o-slash vowel:

  • Phonate an open [ɛ] as in the French word “tête” [tɛtə] (head) or from the English language, the word “feather”
  • Again, sustain this [ɛ] and as you do so, form your lips to the shape of a closed [o] while not changing your tongue position.
  • You now are making the sound of [ø] as in the word “feu” [fø] (fire).

The o-e vowel is a little different:

  • Start out in the same way you did with the o-slash: phonate on an open [ɛ].
  • While sustaining this vowel, you will form your lips into an open [ɔ] as in the French word “homme” [ɔmə] (man) or from the English you can think of the word “on”. So this is less of a closed [o] formation than we used above. (If it starts sounding like [ø], turn back you have gone to far towards a closed vowel with your lips!)
  • You now have a perfect o-e vowel, and you can now perfectly sing the word “coeur” [kœr] (heart)
  • Nota bene: the Schwa [ə] sound is equivalent to the [œ]. They have the same sound, the difference is that the schwa can never be stressed while the [œ] can be stressed. Example: émeute [eˈmøtə] (riot) while singing this word, the stress is on the o-slash and you would sing the schwa unstressed if it has a note value.

As you sing, if you think about the vowel that you are making with your tongue and just adjust your lips, you can avoid going too far between sounds, and your singing and legato will feel easier, especially depending on the tessitura in which you are singing.

Example:

Intonate these words, all the while keeping your tongue in the [i] position while forming your lips into a closed [o] when reading words with [i] or [y] sounds.

Tu dis qu’il a une fille unique. (You say that he has an only daughter.)

[ty di kil a ynə fij ynikə]

Looking at the phonetic transcription, you have only 2 vowels ([a] and [i]) and two vowel-sounds ([y] and [ə]). The [y] and [i] are the ones you want to practice here. Glide to and from these vowels, see how it feels to not change the tongue position. Try it on different pitches to practice. Do the same with the other mixed-vowels until you master singing them, it will feel easier and your voice will most definitely respond!

Singing in French can be a very scary thing. I am not going to lie to you and tell you that it is easy. But with a few tools, it can definitely be more singer-friendly and as you practice, you will really learn to enjoy singing in this beautiful language.

When Does a Nasal Vowel Lose its Nasalization?

The four French nasal vowel sounds

If you have taken any French diction course in your life, you know that in French there are 36 sounds to master and 15 of them are vowel sounds (and then you have 18 consonant sounds and 3 semi-consonant sounds). The most misunderstood of all French sounds is the “nasal” vowel sound. In the French language there are four:

  • [ɑ̃] which is based on the french “dark a” sound as in the word “âme” (which means soul)
  • [õ] which is based on a “closed o” sound like in the word “hôtel” (which means hotel)
  • [ɛ̃] which is based on an “open ɛ” sound like in the word “mais” (which means but)
  • [œ̃] which is based on the “o e” sound like in the word “chacun” (which means each)

When I say it is “based on”, I mean that the basic vowel takes up approximately 85 -90 percent of the nasal sound, depending on tessitura, and the rest is resonance which passes through the cavities that are found near the nose, in the yawn space, more or less in the center of your head, but not in your nose.

The reason a nasal vowel is called as such is because the consonants which follow the vowel in question are the nasal consonants n and m. In order to produce these consonants, you must pass through your nasal cavity. That being said, you should not pronounce the m or n in a nasal sound unless it is in a “liaison*”. The combination of a vowel plus the nasal consonant is why they are known as “nasal vowels” and not because they belong in your nose. The m or n that follows every nasalized vowel-letter is silent. A nasal vowel is just that, a vowel. It is not a vowel-plus-a-consonant, a sort of m or n, or the faint “ng” sound which is nonexistent in French.

While singing, if someone wishes to sound “as authentic as possible”, they tend to over-nasalize the French nasal sound which results in a much less resonant sound-actually it can cut your sound in half leaving you feeling stuck. Thinking of the appropriate basic vowel, and focusing your attention on it while letting the resonance take care of the rest, will be more conducive to proper singing and will sound much less stiff to the listener whereas exaggerated over nasalization sounds a bit comical.


Now that we have had a brief look at how a nasal vowel functions, when does the vowel loose it’s nasalization?

Rule: Any vowel-letter(s) followed by m or n is usually nasalized unless the m or n is followed by:

1. a vowel-letter or a vowel sound in the same word.

Example:

immense (which means immense) [imˈɑ̃sə]. The double “m” takes away the nasal.

or

2. an m, n, or h in the same word.

Example:

bonheur (happiness) [bɔˈnœr]. Although the word “bon” is most definetly nasalized, the word “bonheur” is not.

So whereas the vowel-sound of the word “sein” [sɛ̃] (meaning breast) is nasalized the name of the river flowing through Paris, the ‘Seine’ [sɛnə], is not, since the n is followed by a vowel-letter.

Denasalization usually does not occur between words or words in liaison: mon amour (my love) [mõn ͜ amur] As you can see, even if the n is pronouonced because it is in liaison, the o stays nasalized.

Exception:

In these following instances, the nasal vowel stays intact even if the m or n is followed by another m or n:

emmener (to bring) [ɑ̃məˈne]-this word has a double m, but the nasal remains.

ennui (boredom) [ɑ̃ˈnɥi]-this word has a double n, but the nasal remains.

And remember what I said about this rule does not apply in liaison? There is an exception to that too (as there are exceptions to most French diction rules):

When you wish someone “Happy Birthday” in French, you say: “Bon anniversaire!”. The correct way to pronounce this is [bɔn ͜ anivɛrˈsair(ə)], without nasalization on the o or the a, but I notice that the pronunciation of this saying confuses the orthography and it is often wrongly spelled: bonne anniversaire. This of course cannot be, because “bonne” is the feminin form of the adjective “bon” and “anniversaire” is a masulin noun. So, we speak it one way, but it is written another way.

So the next time you want to write a message on your French friend’s social media, you can write “Bon anniversaire!” and you will know why we pronounce it differently than how it looks!🎂

*liaison: A liaison may occur only between a normally silent final consonant and an following vowel-sound. Ex: les ͜ amoureux (the lovers) [lɛz͜͜ ͜ amurø]

What is a «tréma»?

The “tréma” and what it does

Technically, the trémaor diaeresis- is a diacritic sign made or two dots on top of a vowel. It used to be written like two accents (“), but is now written as two dots (¨).
If you know German, the tréma looks like the German umlaut and is known only as “tréma”, notaccent tréma”. The tréma can be found most often above E and I, it can appear over U and Y, but mainly in proper nouns for example: Louÿs. It is less common over O or A which would only occur in words borrowed from other languages. The tréma changes the pronunciation of French words. If you know your basic French phonetics/reading rules, you know that some letter combinations form a new sound, eg. “ai” = [ɛ], “oi” = [wa], etc. When the tréma is used, it means that you must distinctly pronounce the letter under it as well as the letter before and after it separately and you will also need to sound the last letter of the word if it follows the tréma. A tréma can also indicate that a vowel is silent as it applies to ancient spellings. For example in this famously mispronounced name of the French composer Saint-Saëns. The tréma over the E (ë)means that the letter is silent, so this name is pronounced [sɛ̃sɑ̃s] and yes, this is really how you pronounce it! The first syllable is the nasal [ɛ̃] sound as in the IN in the word matin (morning) and the second syllable is as the nasal sound [ɑ̃] as in the AN in the word maman (mother) and because it follows the tréma, the final S is pronounced!

Example of how it works:
The word “mais” (which means but) is pronounced [mɛ].
The word “maïs” (which means corn) is pronounced [ma’is] since you sound the A, the Ï and the S separately, and the stress falls on the second syllable.

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