As a singer, you’ll come across songs in Italian or other languages that are great to practice and perform. Here, Pittsburgh, PA teacher Jennifer V. shares her tips for tackling songs as you learn to sing in a foreign language…
Imagine walking into a voice lesson and your teacher casually places a book on the table that reads “24 Art Songs”. You open the book to see where the pretty pictures of paintings are and… you see a bunch of unknown words. Your teacher gives you a big smile and says, “Let’s try singing in a foreign language this time!”
You freeze. Visions of ninth grade Spanish and French class whirl in your head. There is no WAY you can do this.
Well, I’m here to tell you, as a person who used to believe she’d never learn to sing in one language, let alone four, there is always a way! Like any other subject, you simply need a game plan to learn the nuts and bolts of a song. And your voice teacher will be there to help you every step of the way! All you need to do is take a deep breath and follow these steps:
1. Find out what you’re saying. This can usually be done by going to websites like The LiederNet Archive. There you can type in your song and – bam! – a translation is born.
2. Keep in mind that many art songs are about things we know about. “Caro Mio Ben” is about someone who is dear to us. “Vittoria mio cuore” means “Victorious my heart is!” Usually the plots and ideas aren’t too far from our daily lives. I also suggest my students highlight the main words and meanings, so there is no confusion. Colored pencils can be purchased with erasers and can make a big difference in learning. Sometimes all we really need is to see the differences.
3. Speak the words slowly. Have your teacher say them for you, one sentence at a time. Then try it yourself! If you stumble it is no big deal. Everyone does and that is how we learn. After saying the words, have your teacher record them for you on your phone or recording device. Another excellent thing to do is go through your vowels, which can help with pronunciation of the Italian words. An example of this is: a as in “father” is how you pronounce an a in Italian. Same with o as in “close.” It takes a little practice, but you will get it!
With my students I begin by saying the words like poetry, giving them a rhythmic feel. I then have my student say them with me and, if needed, I say the words while I play the song, so they can understand how the rhythm and sentences work together.
The next step is when everything begins to come together. We use our musical skills and add rhythm. Counting the measures, beats, and words help make the piece of music not sound so foreign and weird. It’s finally just becoming another piece of music!
Finally, the last step is my favorite! After practicing the words, pitch, rhythm, and translation, it’s time to learn to sing the song! But so we don’t go crazy too fast, maybe start singing the piece on la, and slowly adding the words. When we learn a habit it can be very difficult to fix, so it’s better to go nice and slow.
Singing in a foreign language can be very intimidating. To this day I take a deep breath and have to go through the steps myself. But the truth is, these wonderful composers from vibrant, foreign lands and cultures were simply just telling us a story in their own language, and asking us to keep a story alive for years to come. They are stories of falling in love, losing a beloved, or slaying a enemy in battle. Even things as simple as the beauty of a flower. With patience, love, and some elbow grease, anyone can learn to sing in a foreign language.
Jennifer V. teaches singing and music performance in Pittsburgh, PA. She received her Bachelor’s degree from West Virginia University, a Master of Music degree and Artist Diploma from Duquesne University, as well as a Certificate of Contemporary Vocal Pedagogy from Shenandoah Universtiy. Learn more about Jennifer V. here!