“That’s all poetry is, in a sense. It slows you down rather beautifully. And you just enjoy the bounce and heft and glory of one word following another.” -Stephen Fry, being interviewed on the subject of poetry.
As if you needed one more person to tell you how important diction is…..
I love this quote, not only because is so wonderfully exemplifying the very thing it describes, but because it reminds me of something I had the joy of experiencing in the recent past during a lesson - something which perhaps hadn’t truly occurred to me before.
I had the good fortune to briefly work with a young lady for the period of her regular teacher’s maternity leave. It was evident that she had a pleasant enough voice, and we set to work using exercises and looking to improve where we could. It is an easy thing to get very used to your regular exercises, and easier still to focus on what you are looking for- evenness of line, legato, intonation, etc. But when we turned to a song, I was struck by a certain inexplicable prettiness of sound that hadn’t immediately been apparent to me. It was beautiful, really. It wasn’t that her diction was so great that it rivaled Julie Andrews. It wasn’t even that it was completely correct throughout. But there was something distinct that the introduction of words had done to her sound…..
Now, all singers are usually taught about two things, at least: Beauty of tone, and good diction. Beauty of tone for obvious reasons, and diction for the purposes of clear communication. But what about good diction for the purposes of beauty? If I may clarify further, I don’t mean beauty of consonants themselves, trying to make Fat Beautiful Bs, Ts, and Ks into something very present and even elegant. We sometimes hear that too (thought not nearly enough.)
No, I mean what can our diction do for beauty of tone? They are usually considered separately. And as regards legato, they are often sometimes considered at odds with one another, text being the great interrupter of your carefully practiced tone.
It was after this lesson that I began to think that perhaps diction is very much like what Stephen Fry describes regarding poetic word choice. Every mixture is different and can highlight different relationships of sounds. In the case of diction in song, we first shape the sounds into vowels, and then the words cut, slice, carve, nudge, bump, kick, trip, push and pull the various vocalized vowels as they are emitted. It became apparent to me that enunciation of text, much like the cuts in a jewel or precious stone, are able to display facets of our voices and sounds. And it takes these cuts to highlight these unique qualities. Without them you are left with, well, just a stone, no matter how polished.
I am not entirely sure the degree to which such a thing can be identified and honed as a skill. Good diction? Sure. Elegant diction? Certainly. Identifying and exploiting the natural qualities diction can highlight in your native sound?…… Well, singing is challenging enough already, but I am still investigating. It may simply be that this is just one of the wonderful little elements that makes this art so magical. At the very least, though, it seems a good place to start to recognize this possibility, and to make text and diction a chief priority on the off chance that while you are absorbed in telling your story, the words themselves might bring a little unexpected shimmer or glimmer to your otherwise lovely sound.