As we’ve worked with choirs through the years, we’ve all come across some unique regional pronunciation disorders. Of these, one in particular has always perplexed and offended my choral ear. The first time I heard it was during a rehearsal while my church choir was singing through an arrangement of the hymn, "Are You Washed in the Blood?" The initial stanza had been completed and the ensemble began singing the refrain, "Are you "waRshed" in the blood, in the soul cleansing ....." Wait, what? I wasn't sure I was hearing correctly, so to be sure, I asked the choir to sing it again; and again they sang, "Are you waRshed” in the blood..." Yup! I was definitely hearing correctly. Some of my singers had placed an "r" right smack dab in the middle of ‘wash!’ Where did it come from, and how did it get there? More importantly, how do I get rid of it?
Once sensitized to the intruding consonant in "wash", I began noticing the mispronunciation wasn’t specific to my particular region of the country (deep south). I heard the same offense in the north, the west, on the radio, and even from a television news anchor. It was everywhere! I also noticed other frequently used words infected with the same disorder; waRter, WaRshington, ideaR, and even ChicaRgo. Oh my!
In choral music, our ensembles sing words, and it is the responsibility of the choral director to assist the choir in pronouncing, shaping and forming these words correctly so that they are intelligible, beautiful and moving. An errant “r” in the middle words which contain no “r” is neither beautiful nor moving.
What can we directors do to help the ensemble rid the lyrics we sing of intrusive consonants such as a misplaced "r"? In most cases, these problems are a learned behavior. So, it is imperative to teach the ensemble a new way to think about the offending word. One of the best ways to adjust the ensemble's mental process is by using a simple word substitution.
Word substitution is a simple process through which the director chooses a word with the desired vowel sound but with a different ending and substitutes that word for the mispronounced word. For example, the word "wash." The director writes “wash” on the board, and then underneath it writes an appropriate word for substitution (note that the problem word and the substituted word have identical vowel sounds).
The ensemble is then instructed to pronounce the substituted word in unison.
Then, the choir is led to elongate the vowel in the substituted word.
Next, while the choir sustains the vowel the director randomly points to either word ending. The choir completes the word in concert with the director's cue.
Once this final step is repeated several times the ensemble will have a new grasp of the production of the desired vowel, and hopefully the new sound imbedded in their ears. Then, the exercise can be substituted into your favorite vocal ease and practiced often. Apply word substitution to this and other problem words and over time we can all help our choir get the "r" out of wash.
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