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French Boot Camp concepts review

Bon mots”

FRENCH DOES NOT FORGIVE: it will expose all of your worst vocal habits unless you are specific about every element, especially the underlying vowels behind nasals and lip vowels. All these elements must be treated with ultimate mastery of legato.

INTENSITY (tension) in French comes from evenness. Legato = tension = nobility.  Legato is like a hoop under a dress -- it’s a structure that holds up the pretty fabric.


All schwas are not equal.

 Two kinds: open (IPA: œ) as in “je”    and    closed (IPA: ø) as in jeux. The key to success with both is that the vowel sound behind the lip shape stays true to that core vowel sound.

The vowel “behind” the open schwa is open E (IPA: ɛ). 

Keep the tongue position of the open E  (ɛ), add rounded lips and you have open schwa (œ)

The vowel “behind” the closed schwa is closed E (IPA: e). 

Keep the tongue position of the closed E  (e), add rounded lips and you have closed schwa (ø)

Final (unaccented) schwas are generally open and “fully relaxed”. Any shift in vowel should be unobtrusive and legato from the stressed syllable is paramount.  These might be called ‘passive’ schwas as opposed to the above which might be called ‘active.’  These final schwas are notated as open schwa (œ) but shouldn’t require any extra effort.

Schwas can change (modify) depending on tessitura. If you need more space on a high note schwa, open it up!



French nasals can be summarized through a lovely phrase:  Un bon vin blanc.  


As with schwas, the key to French nasals is being clear about the core vowel.



IPA main vowelœ  oɛ   ɑ


Of course the IPA for the nasal has the “tilde” above those vowels, but googledocs won’t let me do that!


Remember in particular on “un / um” that the core vowel is  “ɛ.  We add the lip shape to get the schwa “œ“ and add nasal resonance to get the full monty “un” or “um”


Nasals are passive, like an open window. The moment one tries to be active about nasals, things actually shut down and become overdone.


As with schwas, the nasality should not disturb the core vowel.



Audrey Saint-Gil a dit, “Consonants are the major part of French diction.”  They should be controlled, supported.  Consonants are the elevator between vowels. “The magic happens between the vowels.”


Be in charge of your mechanism. Consonants should come before the beat, and they need to take time to register. We shouldn’t hear any hard edge where a consonant ends and the following vowel begins.


Practice slow “Canadian” consonants: slow, with less pressure, more contact, more flexibility.



Supported and sung:  m, n, v, l, etc.


Rs:  flipped or rolled?

Think of it rather as supported shorter or longer roll.  They must be heard either way!

Forget the ‘Parisian’ R.  Not particularly vocal, and does not lend itself to legato, even in spoken lines.


Spoken dialogue in opera can follow the same essential patterns as sung recitative.

No ‘Parisian’ R

Final schwas can sound (subtly)

Stage directors can have some say about combining words (Je ne sais pas could = Je’n sais pas), or  this  could be used to indicate a different (lower class) of people 



Oh Dieux!!  Fuir!

  • Before the beat: further ahead, the slower you can ‘feel’
  • On pitch, controlled, supported
  • The diphthong should already have the mechanism of the following vowel



Legato makes them subtle


Musical Accents

Written accents and markings are added by the composer to highlight the text.

  • Accents highlight the next word
  • Dots and long notes give us more time for the next consonant



Sense of vibrato cannot be even. With consonants it cannot be full speed. There always needs to be a shaping of the vibrato speed. Keep singing and shaping….don’t “hold.” (this is a subtle concept and hard to explain without examples….included here as a reminder of our discussions in class)  In relationship to this, we discussed string playing and mentioned the playing of great players like Pablo Casals (here playing at the White House in 1961)


AMERICAN BRAIN” (or really, anything but French brain)

All of us non-native French must not rely on our eyes, which can never be French eyes. The French brain has a tendency not to emphasize anything in a sentence, but creates tension and color with consistency. Support is the legato foundation for French, with staccato articulation of the consonants on top.


Use memory not eyes when learning French phrases. Your eyes will activate your American brain, and you will put inappropriate “bounce” in your French!


French Recitatives

  • French sentences usually start with a ‘prep,’ not a hard start. Allow the time for that ‘prep’
  • French recitatives are usually written on (or at least center on) one note (unlike Italian recits). RESIST the temptation to do anything melodic. “Reduce” the scope of the pitch changes, using awareness of the “home” pitch (sea level)
  • Rehearse like a robot to eliminate American brain
  • Legato foundation / staccato words
  • Find the even “ta ta ta ta ta ta TA” shape with crescendo to the end no matter the emotion
  • No bouncing!  Evenness creates the tension
  • Intensity comes from ‘spine’....consistency, nobility 
  • Doing ‘nothing’ is difficult!

Practice steps:

1) ta ta ta ta TA (no words, even rhythm, syllabic ‘count,’ crescendo to end

2) add French syllables, same even rhythm, crescendo; not fast: EVEN

3) memorize immediately (don’t read and use your eyes)

4) all the while, work consonant contact, lip-vowel accuracy, nasals accuracy

5) remember: when musical indications (articulations and rhythm) are added, they are all indications of the poetry: accents usually point to the next word; a dot on one note gives you time for the next consonant; a short rest gives you time for the next consonant; consonants before the beat


Final “bon mots”:

  • No nasal, no lip vowel, no consonant should kick you out of your vowel placement.  LEGATO rules.
  • Be in charge of your mechanism
  • Portamento is an enhancement, not an excuse; portamento is not legato
  • Tongue, lips, jaw must all work independently
  • Diction takes time but happens on the pitch
  • Lightly-pressured consonants: control speed and pressure of tongue
  • Donc” is punctuation. There are many opinions about the pronunciation of the final “c” 
  • Questions:  1) Yes/No questions go UP in pitch  2) All other questions go DOWN
  • Breaths should emphasize the thing before; accents should emphasize the thing after

Observation from Karen Rich:  When you invest that much energy in each sound, it becomes impossible to “bounce.” 

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