I joined a particular community choir for the primary reason that its rehearsals are conducted in English. For the most part.
From time to time, different conductors step in to lead rehearsals for a few months, in preparation for a specific concert. At the present, a diminutive, energetic Chinese woman directs us—a musician so passionate about her work that she bounces around the front of the room, talking ninety miles an hour, as if she’s packed with firecrackers and caffeine. Her English-speaking skills are superb, but when she gets excited or frustrated, her language descends into rapid Chinglish and Cantonese and lots of frantic arm waving.
Within the context of rehearsing a specific passage of a musical work—assuming I’m paying attention—I can usually ascertain what she’s asking of us, regardless of the language employed. Often, she demonstrates the incorrect vs. correct way of singing a phrase, making it obvious what she wants. Exclamations such as, “Ready…go!” and “Sing it again” are spoken in Cantonese, amidst instruction on vocal intonation given in English. The count-off to begin singing a particular measure frequently comes out in Cantonese: yat, yih, saam, sei…
But let’s add a layer of complication to this English/Cantonese mix: we are rehearsing the Brahms Requiem, a work composed in German (the learning of which is so frustrating that the performers wish they were dead). In Chinglish, our conductor trains us on the proper pronunciation of German. She’ll get so deeply involved in the articulation and translation of the German that she begins counting off, eins, zwei, drei… I’ve even heard her say, eins, yih, saam…
However, music itself traditionally employs Italian terminology when instructing the musician how to sing or play a passage. Our director’s Chinglish-German is suddenly interrupted with cries of “Tutti!” or “From the allegro section” or “More legato!”
It gets more complicated. I grew up learning the American-English terms for musical note types: eighth note, sixteenth note, quarter note, etc. Here in formerly-British
Hong Kong, however, people prefer quaver, semiquaver and crotchet, respectively. My translating mind still takes several seconds to recall the meaning of the latter words.
Last week, during our ten-minute break halfway through the rehearsal, I decided to clear my head with a few games of solitaire on my phone. A fellow alto sat down beside me, asking for help with an English book she’s reading:
. Happy to discuss one of my favorite novels, I agreed. She pointed to a sentence in the second chapter, spoken by a character with a heavy accent: “T’ maister’s dahn i’ t’ fowld. Wuthering Heights Goa rahnd by th’ end ut’ laith, if yah went tuh spake tull him.” Dialectical dialogue in nineteenth-century Victorian British literature.
Maybe I’m not a mono-linguist after all.