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!

Make Haste Slowly

Make haste slowly

“Make haste slowly”

This is what my mentor and teacher, the late Dixie Ross Neill used to repeat to me when I was studying with her, but Caesar Augustus is said to have first adopted the motto: Festina Lente. Make haste, slowly. It took me a while to understand what it meant. I think that when I was a student, I was impatient and maybe a little result-driven. Imagine, back in those days, no social media or profiling trends were pushing me to show my results to the world. Fast forward to 2020, we are the age of social media, instant fame, and being discovered on big platform talent hunts. How does a young aspiring singer get to their desired result while fighting the temptation to skip steps?

I work with singers, and a big part of my work is training young singers who are more than aware of their online content. Knowing how to brand yourself, is an important skill, but the question is, are we skipping important voice building steps in the rush to get “there” faster? Some go into the process, they lay down the base for a great technique, let the voice develop, work on their languages, musicianship skills, bodywork, all of which make someone into a complete artist. Then, there are some who lack patience and are always running after results. They put in the work, but they always try to skip steps because they want to get there faster. With the latter, you can feel an actual sense of panic, which some may confuse with ambition. Skipping steps can make them feel like they are getting there faster, but the truth is, they will inevitably have to turn back and redo the steps they have skipped.

What does it mean to make haste slowly? Let me use the following metaphor: A pianist, while learning a difficult musical passage which is at a high level of technical difficulty is tempted to just play it at tempo, just do it, get it on the first try. There may be a slight chance that they get it right on the first try, but what about every time after that? What will happen to the consistency of their playing? How will they know if it was just a fluke (which it absolutely was)? They now go back, dissect the passage, play it slowly, practice with different rhythms, build up tempo, work on the fingering, and put in the necessary amount of time to learn it from start to finish. Instead of doing it instantaneously and risking that it is just a fluke, the goal now becomes not only to do it right but most importantly, to learn it so that you never do it wrong.

Building your career as a singer is a lot like that pianist working on the difficult passage. Just because you are talented, have a beautiful voice, and sometimes you get it right on the first try, does not mean that you are ready to hit the ground running. Like the pianist working on the passage above, you will want to take the time to establish the foundation on which you build your voice, and that will, in turn help you achieve your artistic and professional goals in the long run. Even if it seems that everyone around you is posting concert photos or doing exciting things; stick to your lane, keep your eyes on your ultimate goal, and eventually you will pass them.

The thing to remember is that we are all learning a craft. Whether you are a pianist, a singer, or any other kind of professional. Knowing everything you can know about what you do is very important. As a young singer I suggest studying where your art comes from, listen to all the great recordings available, examine how the technique and the esthetic have developed over the years. It is a good idea to take note of different styles and conventions of the repertoire so that you can implement them in your singing, or respond to a coach or a conductor when they request them. As you are absorbing all this, also explore listening to all vocal repertoire, not just your voice type, but every voice type, other instruments, and orchestral works. Educate yourself on what you need to know so that once you get out there, you don’t have a lack of knowledge. All this information will most definitely influence your singing and artistry.

As you are doing all of this, be curious and insatiable when it comes to your vocal technique. Whether you are a singer, a pianist, a violinist, or any other musician, technique is the absolute foundation of artistry. Without technique, it is not possible to achieve your musical goals. Imagine doing something incredibly musical: a long phrase, a triple piano on a high note, a lightning-fast coloratura passage, and making it look effortless. Now, imagine that you had the technical knowledge to do this, every-time, without fail. That is what technique means; it is a vehicle for artistic choices. How long does it take to get the technique of a high-level singer? You will probably be working on your technique for the duration of your career, as long as your voice changes with your body. Many of my friends and colleagues with elite careers, still seak help from their voice teachers regularly. When you are a young singer, you lay down the foundation of your technique which hopefully will take you throughout your career. The foundation is the most important part, of course, just think of what happens to a house when the foundation starts failing: it crumbles.

During the spring semester, we were pushed into a different situation in all training programs and education due to Covid-19. We had to go online. It was not ideal, and nobody wanted this, however, I do feel there were good lessons to be learned if you were willing to look for them. The singers that I have heard or seen since have made remarkable vocal progress which in turn has made them much better artists. The focused and meticulous work they did during this time has given them more vocal freedom. They were also free from deadlines and pressures of getting to the result which became somewhat less important for a while. Consequently, they improved quicker than they thought they would. It has been a dreadful time for everyone, but what we can draw from these positive points is that process means progress. In the age of “get there fast”, the part where we slow down to figure things out, is something that most of us have forgotten how to do in this age of “high-speed”. It may take time to get your result, and that is OK. In the words of Caesar Augustus or the great coach and pianist Dixie Ross Neill, “Make haste slowly” and you will get to your result better, stronger, and yes, faster! The quickest way to accomplish something is to proceed deliberately.

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.

Choosing Your Vocal Coach-Pianist

Singers, maybe more than anyone else in the performing arts, are bombarded with people giving them their opinion on the way they sing. Everyone seems to have something to say, and they regularly voice their opinion to the singer whether or not the singers wants to hear it. Because singers are not technically able to hear themselves when they sing, it is easy for them to fall into the trap of believing all these opinions. All day long, singers are put in situations where they are set up to receive feedback. The conductor gives them comments, the stage director and/or the stage manager gives them comments, the diction coach gives them comments, the coach gives them comments, the teacher gives them comments, and when they perform, the audience and the critics give them comments. Those are a lot of COMMENTS. This is just a normal day in the life of a singer. It is important for singers to surround themselves with a team of people they trust completely to help them weed through all of the comments and all the outside “noise”. A good coach is a great help in figuring out which feedback is useful.

The coach

What is a pianist-coach? A pianist-coach is a skilled pianist who specializes in vocal coaching. Mostly we know them as coach, opera coach, vocal coach or collaborative pianist. You see your coach regularly, you trust them, you let them see you in the beginning of your process and they stay with you until you are ready to step onto the stage.

There are different types of pianists who specialize in working with singers. You can collaborate musically with a pianist by being both equal partners, you share your musical vision, prepare recitals and recordings together. This is when when the pianist plays the role of a “collaborator” or a “recital partner”. There are also “rehearsal pianists” who you call when you want to run through repertoire without much or any input. You just want to repeat things ad nauseum until you feel ready. Sometimes, a coach can play that role as well, mostly after the preparation is complete and the singer is about to start the job. A coach is not someone who will teach you your notes and rythm. There are pianists who do that, and sometimes singers do need this kind of help, but this is not a coaching, it is more like a practice session, or what is commonly called a “note-bashing” session. Most coaches do not want to do this. “Spoon-feeding” is considered a waste of resources, so don’t just show up expecting your coach to do this. If you are a singer who needs this from your session, you can kindly ask the coach first if they would agree to doing this kind of work, and if they don’t, then ask another pianist you know for a session (often younger pianists or students do this for extra earnings).

When you properly work with a true coach you can expect a more of a teacher-student type of relationship. They provide you with valuable feedback and information. You go to a coach when you want to prepare roles, work on recital repertoire in detail, work on language and text, work on your audition preparation, get to the finer points of character and the music.

Some things to consider when choosing a coach:

  • Your relationship with your coach is an intimate one, so most importantly, find a coach that you like as a person. The work you will be doing will be intense. It demands a lot of trust from both sides. You should feel comfortable making mistakes, and they should make you feel comfortable about being corrected.
  • Find a coach who meets your skill level. If you are an experienced singer, find a coach who has been working in the field for at least the same amount of time as you have, but preferably they should have more experience.
  • When you sing repertoire which is advanced, you want your coach to be able to play it (or at least sight-read it well) and make comments on what you are doing in order for you to improve. If a coach does not know your repertoire, they should not pretend to know it. When I am confronted with unfamiliar repertoire, I am honest about it, I still work on it, but the next time I see the singer, I have learned it. If you are doing something that you suspect is unknown, giving a heads-up is a good idea.
  • A coach, should have excellent pianistic skills, they should inspire you to sing and make music, and if you are singing opera, they should be able to conjure up an orchestra from the keys! My favorite compliment is always: “You play like a full orchestra!” This does not mean loud and “bangy”. Playing “like an orchestra” is about the texture of the sound and supporting the singer fully.
  • A coach should have quite advanced language skills, they should be able to speak or at least have a firm grasp of the lyric diction in a minimum of four operatic languages: French, English, Italian and German. Their ear should be developed enough to hear even very subtle language inaccuracies.
  • Find a coach who understands style and tradition, as well as current trends in performance practice. Whether you bring bel canto, baroque, romantic or contemporary music, your coach is well versed in all of the styles in order to guide you.
  • If you are preparing a role, it is of the utmost importance that your coach is able to play the score while singing all the other parts. It does not have to be beautiful singing (trust me!) but it should be audible. If your coach can’t do this, and you have a role coming up, find one who can.
  • Your coach is not your voice teacher. A coach can support your vocal technique, but please do not go to a pianist to learn how to sing, or to get vocal technique. This is what a voice teacher is for. Confused? See this previous blog post: A Voice Teacher and a Vocal Coach-Why you need both! A good coach who has years of experience working with singers will be able to point out something that needs technical attention, and then suggest that the singer address the issue with their voice teacher.
  • When you work with a coach, they can also be your collaborative partner. If you have musical chemistry with your coach on all levels, then by all means collaborate with them on stage, too!
  • It is important that a coach treats you like a person. Yes coaches teach, but you should feel comfortable in your session, not only with the singing, but with making a contribution to the session. A good coach asks questions, wants to know what the singer’s opinion is on the music, text and character, after all, you are the one who is singing it! If you feel like your coaching is a one way street, find a coach who lets you get a word in edgewise.
  • The coach you work with makes you feel respected. They are on time and they should not cancel at the last minute (unless it is an emergency…it can happen…but not regularly) and you should do the same for them.
  • Look for a coach who has worked with great conductors, organisations, opera houses and singers. They will have first-hand knowledge of what is needed in the world in which you aspire to work. That being said, do not expect that by working with someone attached to a house, that they will get you auditions, work or any kind of exposure to where they work. When singers come to a coaching with the idea that they can get a contact, audition or a job from the coach they are working with, it is very obvious. Believe me, we spot it from a mile away.
  • Finally, the coach (or coaches) you choose to work with are accessible, you should feel like you can approach them for advice and have confidence that they will be honest with you. A coach who only tells you what you want to hear is not a coach you need. There is no time to waste and honesty will help you improve, even if it doesn’t always feel great to hear the truth. A good coach will tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear!

Coaching fees-How much should you be paying?

I think every coach needs to come up with a fee that represents what they think their time is worth. Other than the points mentioned above, the following can help you along as you are considering hiring a coach:

  1. Level of education and/or experience: The longer someone has been working as a coach, the more knowledge they have to share. You are basically paying for their experience and knowledge. As you record your session (always ask first if it is permitted. If not, take tons of notes!), you will be able to refer back to the session for the rest of your life. You will, in turn, most likely use the acquired information in your own teaching and get payed for it yourself in the future!
  2. Repertoire: With experience, comes a vast knowledge of repertoire. Imagine how many hours the coach in question has spent behind the piano learning repertoire over the years. There is no way they are really breaking even financially!
  3. Supply and demand: Prices can vary depending on if they are in demand. Some coaches prefer a lower fee and work with many singers, and other coaches like a higher fee and fewer singers.
  4. The bundle: Some coaches like to bundle, meaning that if you take several sessions, they will give you a lower price. You can ask if they have something like this available where you book a certain amount of coachings ahead of time.
  5. Student prices: If you study at a school, hopefully they provide a coach, if not, ask about a student fee. Most coaches won’t charge a student the same price as someone already in the profession.
  6. Online sessions: With the corona-crisis, we are now being more open to the possibility of online coaching. This means that coaches can open up their studios world wide. It is still early days, but maybe there is a different fee depending on what is offered. As the technology develops, we will see how far this can go, but it is an exciting development. It means the planet is a little smaller and you can work with people who are on another continent!

You are paying for advice and expertise and you want the best help you can get in order to do the best you can do. If it feels too expensive, then find someone that is more affordable for you. Ask around and see what the rates are. Every country, city, region has a going rate so answers will vary depending on where you are. I don’t advise haggling on the price of a session. Everyone who offers private coaching has thought long and hard about their fee and it is not customary to try and bargain.

As you go on in your professional career, you can and will work with more than one coach, you can have a list of different coaches for different aspects of what you are working on. Some coaches have specific strenghts that stand out of their vast skill set. When you are a professional singer, you will sing everywhere and have a list of coaches for all the cities where you work-a set of ears you trust everywhere you go!