Each phrase you sing can be mangled, gracefully brought to a close, or made totally thrilling by your cut-offs. Rather than an afterthought, your cut-off is the final impression of each phrase and each song that you present to an audience.
If you have final consonant cut-off, in particular, you must make choices for its placement. You must also decide how loudly to sing it and how long to sustain it. Different choices will get you different results so you’ll have to play around with them to see what works best in every situation.
These suggestions apply to solo classical singing, musical theater, and choral singing. Pop music is usually more lax in this area.
Where do I put them?
It’s best to think about the actual notes as notation for vowels. The consonants inhabit a separate rhythmic world. In that world, ending consonants should happen on the rest that immediately follows the note.
If there is no rest, then simply write one in (see picture for examples). Usually an eighth rest will give you enough time to clearly enunciate the consonant and get a quick breath. If you rest isn’t long enough, or is awkwardly placed, then again write in whatever rest you need. Purists may argue with me on this, but I feel that cut-offs should not be complicated…just clear.
In general, cut-off consonants should be fast. There’s no need to linger over “s” or “f” unless you are gong for comedic effects.
An exception is the rolled “r”. Depending on the situation, a proudly rolled “r” can be more effective than a flipped “r”. But even too much of that can turn into a gag.
Nothing says “Look at how well I prepared!” –in the bad way– than a very short, deliberate, but LOUD cut-off consonant. Remember, the audience is interested in your character or the character of the piece, and inappropriately loud cut-offs (“k” and “t” are particular offenders) can draw attention to your music preparation, which very few people are interested in.
Make it clean and clear and as mellow as it can be while still being intelligible.
Exceptions include angry scenes or scenes where cut-offs can imply subtext. British comedy is full of examples (You need look no further than Harry Potter movies).
To explode or not to explode?
In English, we stop most of our final consonants. Say “cut”, and you’ll feel the “t” stop before it totally explodes outward like the beginning of “top”. In conversation, this is fine, but in performance where your voice must compete with whole orchestras, some explosion is necessary.
In general, to explode final consonants in songs is generally a good idea, provided it’s not too exaggerated. You run the risk of sounding pretentious or ridiculous if you go too far, but the benefits can be clear diction and more exciting cut-offs.
What about voiced consonants?
With voiced consonants (meaning that your voice is still active; like “v” vs. “f”) you have a few more options than unvoiced
When the final consonant is ideally exploded (like “thud”) then a gentle “uh” should follow the consonant sound sound. Too much, and you’ll sound ridiculous.
In some settings, it may be appropriate to close to sustain voiced consonants (like “n” “m” “ng”) for an extended period of time. This can be quite effective in choral settings or if you are doing a decrescendo on a final note. Do it too much, and you’ll sound cheesy, but it can be a very good effect if you are trying to fade into nothingness.
Do you have any suggestions for how to cut-off? Please, reveal it in the comments.
Interesting. In her masterclass, Dawn Upshaw emphasized the use of beginning consonants for clarity and expression. But ending consonants are important too — we have all heard songs where we thought the words were one thing based on the beginning consonant and the vowel, but they turned out to be something else. Maybe it is helpful to focus on the front sides of words sometimes, and the back sides at other times!
By the way, I have been meaning to tell you something for a while. In the Q&A one of the young singers asked how to make it, make connections, make money, make a name for yourself as a young singer. (I paraphrase) Dawn’s main answer: make opportunities for yourself. Create performances, reach out to others, and someone will notice. I thought of you and I’m proud to say you do this. Even our Aspen concert, though it was not well-attended, was an effort to do this. It will pay off!
Reminds me I need to order a copy of that MC. She is phenomenal.
Ian Sidden says
Thanks for that, Phoebe. :)
Dawn Upshaw is right, and I will probably write something about beginning consonants in the near future. A lot of the same rules apply but backwards.
BTW if you do get a recording of that master class, I would loooooovvvvee to see it.