World Choir Games Flanders 2023

How to deal with song lyrics 3: foreign words and beyond the first verse

  • [this is a version of a post which first appeared on my blog From the Front of the Choir]


    Last week I looked at how you get beyond the written word if you've been learning lyrics from sheets of paper.



    This week I want to look at songs which are not in English, and also the difficulty with songs which haev several verses.


    foreign vs. English words

    Foreign lyrics can seem daunting at first, but once people get used to seeing strange syllables, they don’t pose too much of a problem. In fact, foreign lyrics can be easier to learn than English ones!


    If a language is unknown, there is no alternative but to learn the lyrics syllable by syllable. But if you know a language well (like English) or are somewhat familiar with it (French, Spanish, etc.) it can a make life more difficult.


    When you learn English words, you internalise the meaning as you go. When you come to sing it, you may remember the rough meaning, but not the exact words. So you paraphrase, substituting your own words for the proper lyrics. The problem is, not everyone does this in the same way, and your words might not even fit the tune!


    With foreign words, even if you know the meaning of the song, you can’t simply make up your own version. You are much more likely to accurately remember each syllable.


    It may be hard at first, but you have to make sure that the foreign words don’t slow you down. This can be a problem if the words are written down. The whole song can slow down as you stumble over the strange lyrics.


    A classic example of this is when we sing the Polish Christmas song Lulajze Jezuniu. We spent some time learning the song using the words of the first verse and the chorus is the same each time. When we come to the second verse in performance, everything slows down and gets much quieter until we get to the familiar chorus when it all picks up again!


    The secret is to soldier on regardless. When you’re learning you will stumble over the odd syllable here and there, but just gloss over it and keep the same speed and energy up so that the song flows. Eventually you will make the correction as the words become more familiar.


    See also How to sing a song in a foreign language.


    there will always be an audience member who understands

    My experience is that there will always be at least one audience member fluent in one of the foreign languages that you sing at a concert. You need to respect the foreign words and find a way of bringing life to them and pronouncing them as accurately as you can.


    This is why I will never teach a foreign song that has been passed down by ear without finding and checking the original lyrics. It would be an insult to the culture that the song comes from.

    If you get your choir to behave as if every word they sing is going to be understood by at least one audience member, it will lift the whole performance.


    We have had a Japanese woman in tears as we sang in Japanese about cherry blossom (‘Sakura’); two young Bulgarian women who joined in with a song that they didn’t know, but picked up the words quickly (‘Štomi e milo’); and a person who heard one of our CDs and assumed that we came from the countries where the songs came from!


    beyond the first verse

    When I begin to teach a song, I usually use the words to the first verse when teaching the tune and harmonies. We often spend a few weeks on this until it’s locked into the brain properly.


    But then we realise there are loads more verses to learn – and most often in a strange foreign language! These are always much harder to learn than the first verse. (This is the same problem that I mentioned last week in individual verses where we always end up singing the first lines more than the last lines.)


    In subsequent verses the syllables often fit into the tune in a different way, sometimes the rhythm is even slightly different. No matter how often we sing the other verses, we never seem to nail them as well as we did the first verse.


    After Verse 1, people are just reading off the page and trying to fit words to a tune in a fairly abstract way rather than learning tune and lyrics together as we did in the first verse. If I ask people to go home and learn the words, it’s with a different part of their brain so it never seems to flow as well as Verse 1.


    I’ve tried teaching new songs line by line (with all the harmonies), and doing the first line of every verse before we move onto line two. The trouble with this is that we never seem to get an overall picture of the whole song, and it ends up being bitty and also a bit of an overload to deal with so many foreign words.


    I’ve tried moving straight onto Verse 2 as soon as we’re beginning to master Verse 1, but that somehow seems to push all knowledge of Verse 1 out of people’s brains in order to make sense of Verse 2! I’ve even resorted to adding one new verse each year – which does seem to work, but takes a very long time to finish the song!


    I have yet to find a solution to this, so any advice will be greatly appreciated!


    making changes later on

    After a song has bedded in for a long time, what happens when we try to change lyrics or add new verses?


    Because of the problems of learning verses beyond Verse 1, I often chicken out and just sing the first verse in performance. After a few concerts, this becomes limiting. It’s a lovely song and we want to repeat it more often. Also there may be people in the audience who understand the language and want to hear the rest of the story!


    But now that we have repeated the song so many times with the same words, it is very, very difficult to add new lyrics.


    One way to help this might be to change the arrangement at the same time so that the whole song is refreshed.



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