By Richard Stokes, Ellie Buchdahl

18 November 2014 - 05:53

'To make something your own, you have to understand and believe the words that are coming out of your mouth.'
'To make something your own, you have to understand and believe the words that are coming out of your mouth.' Photo ©

Matt Wright

What can songs teach us about a language? Richard Stokes, Professor of Lieder at the UK’s Royal Academy of Music, talked to Ellie Buchdahl of Education UK about teaching the wonder of language through music.

How does a man who describes his own singing voice as ‘risible’ and who once taught GCSE and A-level students to ‘read lyrics, learn music and make an absolute racket’ churn out so many high-performing musicians and linguists?

Musician or teacher – which are you?

I am certainly not a musician. My ‘qualification’ is that, aged 14, I heard the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau on the radio singing Schubert’s Die Schoene Mullerin. I had just started to learn German at school, but I recognised a few words and something about this wonderful voice made me fall in love with the language.

When I started my first teaching job, I was not very confident. So I dug out Die Schoene Muellerin (because that had been my first love), set the words to learn for homework, then played the tape and got my students to sing along. It was wonderful. I had the whole class making a caterwauling sound.

But can caterwauling get you through your GCSEs?

The more I taught through poetry and music, the more convinced I became that it worked. We did a fair amount of formal grammar in the first year, and listened to huge amounts of Lieder, cabaret and opera in the second.

At 14 or 15, if you’re bright, you don’t want to be fed a diet of cartoons and feeble jokes in a book that is 250 pages long and only goes as far as the present tense. Intelligent young people want intelligent material and if you have these great phrases resonating inside you, you learn a lot about tenses, prepositions and cases. It’s linguistically memorable in a way that perhaps a newspaper article isn’t, and given that you like it, it’s just a gift.

Did you find singing improved your students’ pronunciation too?

If you’re learning a new language, you’re going to find unfamiliar sounds that your mouth won’t have made before – the ‘a’ sound in ‘cat’ in English, for example, is very unfamiliar to German speakers.

It’s easy to get away with that when you speak, but when you sing, you have to rest on those vowels. Singing forces you to open your mouth and chew on the words. You have to get hold of consonants and pre-voice some sounds. You have to project, and that forces you to take risks and be expressive. All that carries through when you speak the language.

Can someone who’s ‘not a singer’ teach professionals how to sing?

The trouble is, you can know the translation of a piece and sing it very beautifully but if you don’t actually understand the words, there’s no urgency – it’s a block of sound. Even with celebrated singers, sometimes the diction is nigh on perfect but there’s something lacking.

I come to it from the text and try to convince those singers to love the language and feel as if it’s alive. I’ll ask them to recite it as a poem, encourage them to find out about the text or the composer, and to put away the score. You can’t be a great singer unless the sound you make is your own, and to make something your own, you have to understand and believe the words that are coming out of your mouth.

Is there anything else language learners can learn from a song?

History, philosophy, linguistics – something political like Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera or Hanns Eisler’s Brecht songs will bring in all sorts of themes about the First and Second World War and the mood in Germany at the time, for example.

A song or a poem can be a window into one country or language, like a borehole into another world, and that in itself gives so much depth to the language you’re learning. I would also invite singers I knew to give concerts in the school hall. They acquired a bit of a reputation, not just among students but among the singers too. Perhaps it had something to do with the hall and the young people right up close. How often does that happen in a concert hall?

I take my classes to see concerts and it’s wonderful to see how they’re hooked on the performance, the language and the music.

Does all this work for learning any language?

Of course – you could read pop music as a poem too and as long as it’s simple and goes straight to the heart, you’ll find yourself learning it. In English, I think someone like A. E. Housman could be useful – short stanzas, simple diction and he writes about love a lot.

And what do your students think of your teaching methods?

Maybe they thought I was a bit mad -- but I’m still convinced that, if a student sees that you are profoundly moved by something, they’re more likely to see the possibility that they’ll be moved by it too.

I once took a class to see Peter Schreier singing Die Schoene Muellerin and there was the chance to go backstage afterwards. One of my students called out: ‘Mr Schreier, do you know ‘Ich grolle nicht’? Our class know it.’

The song isn’t actually from Die Schoene Muellerin — it’s not even by Schubert — but Schreier did know it and he called his accompanist. We went back into the hall and our whole class lined up on stage and we murdered ‘Ich grolle nicht’.

Schreier sat in the front row with a bunch of his friends. He didn’t laugh; he just applauded. It was utterly wonderful.

Richard Stokes is a Professor of Lieder at the UK’s Royal Academy of Music. He has coached top young singers on their pronunciation, including Kathleen Ferrier Award-winner Gareth John, soprano Mary Bevan and the renowned tenor Ian Bostridge.

He has published a number of volumes on German, Italian, French, Spanish and English music and writes programme notes for some of the world’s greatest concert venues, including London’s Wigmore Hall and the Royal Opera House, and sits on juries for international song competitions – among them the upcoming Das Lied 2015 in Berlin, known as one of the most high-calibre competitions of young singers.

Prior to this, Professor Stokes worked for more than 30 years as a teacher of German and French at Bedales School and was head of German at Westminster School -- independent schools that top exam league tables every year.

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