Do Americans Sound Too American?

One thing that is heard pretty often in choral rehearsals here in the Midwest is, “You sound too much like Midwesterners.” And by that, the director means too much unrolled “R” sound, too throaty, too nasal, too twangy, too bright, or too anything that sounds like John Mellencamp. To go further, some directors will say it sounds “too American,” period.

The recommended alternative? They say it must sound British. And it never hit me until now: Is that really fair, for American singers to sound like something other than themselves?

Ok, so not everything we sing is written in English, or in an American dialect of English. Fair enough. But if you’re going to sing an arrangement of Shenandoah, for instance, tell me what makes more sense…

  • Door #1: Chanticleer. Super-clean, tall vowels, no twang. “You rollin’ riv-AH.” Toward the British ideal, though this is an American ensemble. Lovely and spacious, though I feel like I’m going to church rather than out into the wide Missouri (not Missourah*). Try the same arrangement with a choir from across the pond:
  • Door #2: The Choir of New College, Oxford. As British as you can get, with that sweet-n-sour boy soprano/Knabenchor flavor. All the R’s are kept delicately rolled. But here’s the thing–these kids ARE Brits. No one’s telling them to sing more American, even though this song is straight out of Appalachia and Ozark nation. In other words, they won’t sing like this:
  • Door #3. Bruce Springsteen. The Boss specifically wanted a “raw” sound, sort of like Bob Dylan, and he certainly achieves this with the band. This is the other end of the spectrum, the old-man-with-a-banjo-on-a-front-porch sound. But no one is holding up this as an ideal in choir rehearsals. Granted, this is Bruce’s own arrangement, his own concoction, and it’s built to suit. But this kind of angle on authenticity will not fly in the choral rehearsal hall.

No, you’re not going to see a British choir, or any European choir that values its musical heritage, trying to sing an American song like Bob Dylan. Not gonna happen. And it’s perfectly okay. Because it’s not authentic to them. I remember hearing a Russian group sing “Thank You for the Music” by ABBA and they couldn’t help but sing “Sank you.” But no one faulted them for it; they sounded great because they approached the music honestly, as themselves.

But American choirs are having to stretch their vowels and eliminate the letter “R” from their vocabulary in an effort to unify sound in a way that hearkens back to the European Old World, especially when we’re touring there–God help you if you don’t roll an “R” properly when you’re singing in Florence.

We’re constantly trying to sound like something other than ourselves. We even put our national anthem through this treatment!

Is this a problem? Are there exceptions? I’d love to know.


[UPDATE: I woke up today realizing that in the Shenandoah song, it SHOULD be pronounced “Missourah” — so that it can rhyme more properly with “rivah”!  I’m gonna start advocating for this, I think.]

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