‘Goofy English’ assists Tabernacle Choir in singing in other languages

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    By Mark Montie

    As the Mormon Tabernacle Choir prepares for its Easter concert, the members work to perfect each syllable, each vowel and each sound of Brahms”s Requiem.

    Although it sounds like every other choir practice, this one is different. This time they”re singing the Requiem in its original German.

    With the choir”s system for learning languages, the members can learn to sing complicated pronunciations in any language with little instruction. The system may also be used to benefit students of foreign languages.

    “I actually build the instructions into goofy English,” said Michael McOmber, the choir”s linguist and the creator of this system.

    Instead of presenting pronunciation for each language individually, McOmber”s system uses the same symbols for particular sounds no matter what language they are in.

    All of the symbols are based on English pronunciations.

    For example, the sound written as “?” in German is made by producing an “ee” sound with rounded lips, McOmber said.

    In his system, the same sound is written as “(ee).” The parentheses look like lips and remind the singer how to make the sound, McOmber said.

    This form is used no matter what the language for the particular song is.

    The purpose of the system is to make singing in foreign languages simpler, he said.

    Other languages contain sounds not used in English.

    “In other languages you want a purer vowel sound,” said Ramona Bogardus, a member of the choir since October.

    “Because the choir is internationally known, when we sing in another language we have to be accurate,” said Peggy Cann of Orem, a 10-year member of the choir.

    At the opening ceremony of the 2002 Winter Olympics, the choir sang Beethoven”s “Song of Joy” in German.

    The Germans would know if the pronunciation was off, Cann said.

    Before the pronunciation guide, members of the choir used to use his or her own interpretation of the music, said Cynthia Doxey, a professor in the Religion Department and five-year member of the choir.

    Now everyone has the same pronunciation guide.

    “It helps that there”s a uniformity,” Doxey said.

    Along with pronunciation, the music provides the meaning of the words.

    McOmber said his system cuts down many of the rules for singing foreign languages.

    This is important when the choir is singing in many different languages on a tour, McOmber said.

    On a European tour about 10 years ago, the choir sang in nine different languages.

    Since the choir has been using this system in the last year, Craig Jessop has noticed the members watch him better, McOmber said.

    McOmber”s system is based on one he began developing when he was 18 years old while teaching French at the Missionary Training Center.

    He said he felt bad for the missionaries who were struggling with their testimonies and were now expected to learn a brand new language in two months.

    McOmber has used his system to teach Spanish to junior high students, in lieu of traditional teaching methods.

    “The students were learning twice as fast,” McOmber said.

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