Jon Silpayamanant with Secondhand in St. Louis singing a song in Azerbaijan (March 10, 2013)

on singing while playing the cello (part 5: singing in multiple languages)…

Jon Silpayamanant with Secondhand in St. Louis singing a song in Azerbaijan (March 10, 2013)
Jon Silpayamanant with Secondhand in St. Louis at 2720 Cherokee singing a song in Azerbaijan (March 10, 2013)

One of the questions I often get after shows is how I manage to sing in so many languages. Even for those who do regularly sing this can seem like a herculean task, but really it isn’t. Singing while playing doesn’t come naturally to me and I’ve never had the type of training that most singer/songwriter types do so I had to learn things as I go. The benefit to this is that it is really no more difficult for me to learn lyrics in English than it is in any other language–they are all equally difficult for me to do.

This applies to Conlangauges (Constructed Languages) too–doesn’t matter if it’s Ewok, Shyriiwook, Klingon, or any other. It’s simply about the choreography of the mouth (my next post will talk about Music as Choreography) which is really no different than the choreography of any other part of the body. You move or you manipulate your body in various ways to make a sound. Sometimes that sound comes from your body (e.g. your voice), and sometimes that sounds comes from some external device that your body is interacting with (e.g. musical instrument) — either way, it’s the movement of the body which creates the sound (unless we’re talking about Alvin lucier’s Brainwave Music).  Getting hung up on the end result can seriously compromise the understanding that it is all just a series of physical movements.

Obviously, there are issues of mispronunciation as I’ve stated elsewhere, but this is no different than mispronouncing [instrumental] musical style.  In the end it is still an issue of getting outside of our idiosyncratic musical boxes–in other words, we should get ourselves to learn from something outside of our comfort zones so that we can grow as musicians.

The biggest trick is memorization–unless you’re very careful about the pronunciation you risk having far too many similar sounding phonemes which can easily get garbled in your mind.  Having clear distinctions between sounds and words in different languages is crucial for memorization and in the end can also help you to start picking out words and phrases when you hear it outside of your singing activities.  obviously fluency in the language comes with studying the actual language, but fluency in reproducing it comes simply with studying the pronunciation and diction of it.  It’s a lesson that classically trained singers learn regularly since they are often trained in singing Italian, German, French, and English.


  • See the rest of the posts in this series as well as the dancing while playing the cello series at this link.


  1. Delighted to see this analogy — I’ve always made the same one in my head, of moving from one entire sound system to another in my mind when speaking a language, and the same thing absolutely goes for music — there is no one “noise” that makes something classical, blues, pop, anything. There is no one letter than makes French sound like French. (Not even the “r,” a good hallmark letter for any language.)

    I’ve always had a hard time explaining to people how language “accents” work for reasons related to this. If you try to explain to people what a foreign word sounds like, they will invariably get lost trying to uproot it and put it back down in their own sound system, thus killing it. Try explaining how to say the word “llwyd” in Welsh to someone who doesn’t speak it. “What’s that? SSSS-lloooied? Floyd? What is it REALLY?” is always the response as they distort the word, trying to shoehorn it into an alien sound system. It’s really, really hard to get people to understand that no, it’s not “floyd” or “sloyd” with a cute Welsh accent in top of it. The fundamental form of the word is really “llwyd” with — and this is the hardest part to grasp — no accent at all. There is no such thing as an “accent.” An accent is merely the delta between two sound systems … which is meaningless because when you’re speaking a given language, who CARES what the delta is between that sound system and your own? You’re not IN your own anymore!

    I guess that’s like a classical musician trying to grasp fiddle bow techniques in terms of classical ones. Much like the double-l sound in English, the flddle chop may not exist in the classical system. It has to be appreciated in its root system, not as a deviation from an alien one.

    Big ramble there. 🙂


    • It’s all choreography. I think we tend to create emotional bonds to doing actions in particular ways *hence why we have idiosyncratic ways of doing things* and that’s part of the evolution of the wiring in our brains. But that wiring is never static–we’re so used to thinking that it’s next to impossible to learn a new skill (I go through this with my students all the time) and that focus on the end result just gets in the way of the process of getting there!


      • Emotional and brain bonds. It’s as if a ballet dancer were mimicking a jazz dancer and, instead of taking up the position that the jazz dancer was taking up, instead took up whichever of the five basic ballet positions were closest. It’s inconceivable that a dancer would do that, but that’s what people do when it comes to sound, to music and language both.

        It’s an emotional bond and almost a neurological bond that needs to be broken to get people to understand that no, that funny noise you just heard is a full and complete noise in and of itself, that the mouth is capable of making far more than just the noises each of us has made since birth. That one leap in awareness is everything. It’s as if people simply refuse to make that leap more than once — they make it once as kids and just lose the ability (or desire) to make it again. People say it’s neurological, but then I don’t know why people like myself (and you) can seem to make multiple leaps, and even seem to get a zap to the pleasure centers in making them.

        Like what you said with dance, it’s just a series of movements and the body is capable of an infinite number of them. So is the mouth, and so are the hands when manipulating an instrument. We’ve just given some of these movement names.


      • “We’ve just given some of these movement names.”

        So right! –and i think this is one of those crucial pieces in the puzzle. We tend to remember/memorize things more easily when it’s given a name! Having that linguistic tie to a movement, sound, phoneme, whatever–it increases the ability to remember and recall it. In essence we’re building more than one particular neural connection when learning something if we can also give a name to it. Not that it’s always feasible to learn both a name AND the physically activity, but getting a solid basis in both at the beginning seems to be a crucial step in any learning process.

        Sure, it is a bit harder as we get older, but if Melodic Intonation Therapy has shown us anything it is that even with devastating aphasias to speech “centers” of the brain, we can relearn to speak by first singing what we want to say–putting a melody to it, then they brain makes new speech connections and the neural pathways for the ability to speak has bypassed the damaged lesions!

        With no lesions, there’s even less reason why we can’t easily learn something novel!


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