Finnish language coaching

I met last week with Chorale’s Finnish language coach, Elina Hartikainen, preparing for our performance of Rautavaara’s Vigilia in December. Elina is fully bi-lingual, and able to address very specifically the difficulties Americans encounter pronouncing Finnish. Working with her powerfully brings to the fore, an issue I have struggled with for years: languages are not just collections of sounds, sorted and ordered differently depending on the language at hand. Speaking only of mechanical sound production—each is an entire physical system, with its own peculiar inner structure, its own shape, its coordination, it’s innumerable details. Gérard Souzay sings his native language, French, beautifully; Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau does similarly with German. In one anothers languages, however, each of these great artists sounds peculiarly out of his element, despite extraordinary talent, years of study, and the supposed universality of musical beauty and expression. Classical singers, especially Americans, are expected, with the aid of the International Phonetic Alphabet, to sing all the major European languages perfectly, often four or five of them in a solo performance lasting an hour and a half; does our American-ness make us better at this, than Fischer-Dieskau? Elina tells me that when she returns to Finland and resumes speaking Finnish regularly, she suffers through weeks of laryngitis-- that her entire inner system has to adjust before she can pronounce her native language painlessly and without stress. This reminded me of an occasion, twenty-some years ago, when I sang chorus for an excerpt from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov—rehearsals with the language coach were excruciating; the depth of sound he wanted from us, combined with forward ring, threatened to ruin my voice before we ever got on stage for the performance. That coach, like Elina, was not a singer; his concern was with the perceived authenticity of the sound, not with translating vocal sensations into the sort of fakes and substitutions a singer uses to “pass.” I felt some despair, going through the Rautavaara text with her-- how would I ever get Chorale to sound like a bunch of Finns? When I sang this work with Bella Voce, several years ago, this fine ensemble accomplished only an approximation of basic sounds, something that bothered me throughout the run of our performances; dare I hope for something better from Chorale’s singers?

Well— two responses come to mind. One: as an unpaid group, Chorale can afford plenty of rehearsal time to coach language; and Chorale’s singers, highly educated and conscientious, will readily apply themselves to this problem. For the other, I refer back to the question with which I ended my first paragraph, above. Does our American-ness make us better at this, than Fischer-Dieskau? Conventional, practical wisdom would have it that, indeed, Americans singers are very good at counterfeiting other languages. Though we are shameful monoglots as a nation, that tiny percentage of us who are classical singers are expected to learn and sing in languages other than English. The majority of the repertoire we sing, in fact, is not in English; from the very beginning of private vocal study, with G. Schirmer’s Twenty-four Italian Songs and Arias, we are taught and coached in something Richard Miller called the “Western International style,” and are expected to develop the flexibility and the ear to be saleable in a variety of languages and styles. We have very little indigenous “classical” repertoire; singing in English, sadly, is a pretty specialized niche for an American singer. Chorale’s singers do not have the extensive training that, say, the members of an all-professional choir would have; but most of them have studied voice, and share in this typical American vocal culture.

Finally, it is far easier for a group of singers, than for an individual, to make a believable sound in an unfamiliar language. Like violins in an orchestra, we fit together as a unit, canceling out the idiosyncrasies of the individuals among us. Effective language coaching for a choir largely consists of focusing on typical patterns of sound production, typical colors and gestures, in addition to individual details. If we can accomplish that, with Elina’s help, I believe we will satisfy our listeners.