Diction from the accompanist’s perspective: views from Bernard Tan
We chat to Bernard Tan, award-winning collaborative pianist, vocal coach and répétiteur. Bernard joins us as a coach on this year’s Veneto Opera Summer School.
How important is it for you as an accompanist to have a good knowledge of diction?
Just as flour is the foundation of pasta, text is the foundation of vocal music. Delivering the text well in vocal music is fundamental, also for the accompanist. A good knowledge of diction is really important for accompanists – perhaps as important as understanding the meaning of the text itself. Understanding the sounds and rhythm of a language and how it works phonetically enables the accompanist to listen to and collaborate much more effectively with the singer, and also to play according to the style and character of the piece.
Can you give some examples of this from Italian repertoire you’ve worked on?
An example that immediately comes to mind is the beginning of Tosca’s aria Vissi d’arte, where the orchestra’s part is so simple that the accompanist will need an understanding of Italian diction to know when to place the chords precisely with the singer. There is also the ending of the beautiful song O del mio amato ben by Donaudy where the final chord would be the warmest one when the accompanist understands that the word ben has a beautiful stopped b at the beginning.
Which aspects of Italian diction are most important for you?
The long and short consonant sounds of the language are definitely the most important aspect. Consonant lengths really matter to accompanists because all the notes we play are percussive, and there is no way to ‘hide’ misplaced notes. We always aim to place our notes on the vowel, so we need to understand the length of the consonants in order to judge when to place the notes or chords with the singer.
Just as a knowledge of diction helps the accompanist collaborate better with the singer, a good level of diction from the singer will help the accompanist to be more sensitive and musical.
From your perspective, why does the singer need good diction?
Just as a knowledge of diction helps the accompanist collaborate better with the singer, a good level of diction from the singer will help the accompanist to be more sensitive and musical. Good diction not only produces clearer text, but is also an expressive tool for more beautiful singing. This directly influences the accompanist because when a singer knows how to use diction in expression, the accompanist will naturally follow the expression created by the singer. In some cases, in the instrumental introduction of a piece, the accompanist will create the expression for the piece based on the text, and then the singer will continue this, making it a heart-warming collaboration.
In your experience, what are the aspects of Italian diction that singers most need to focus on?
The thing that I see many singers struggle with is pronouncing the stop consonants. This is true for native speakers of many languages because stop consonants are not in our nature. For English speakers, producing a correct t consonant in Italian is also often difficult, but it is important to address this because t is one of the key consonants for a more authentic Italian sound.
How have you found working with the Melofonetica Method?
I started working with Matteo and getting to know the Melofonetica Method in 2016. The method has hugely enhanced my approach to Italian repertoire and has made me a better coach. It has helped me to understand the structure of the Italian language in music, and to be so much more sensitive to texts. As a result, I’m able to give much more effective suggestions when I coach singers in Italian repertoire.