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I currently live in the American South, where every English speaker within a hundred miles speaks with a rhotic accent. Recently, I spent an afternoon with a local choir in practice, and was somewhat perturbed by the instructions given by the director to drop Rs and modify vowels to sound more British — non-rhotic, specifically. I've spent a fair amount of time over the last few years learning some of the finer points of English (especially for second-language learners), so this smacks of trying to teach someone a prestige dialect. Most of my (formal) musical experience has been on the violin, so is there a specific musical reason non-rhotic accents are preferable for singing, or is it just a matter of this person's arbitrary taste based on which dialects currently sound impressive, high-class, and fancy?

Poking around online suggests it may have something to do with certain American vowels constricting airflow slightly; how significant is this effect, and how does this connect to rhoticity?

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It's not arbitrary. American accents in choral singing (especially Southern) produce several disadvantages in tone, tuning and volume. Specifically, the American hard "r" forces the speaker/singer to close the jaw and lift the tongue, both of which reduce the air space within the mouth and the back of the throat, reducing resonance. The result when singing is that volume drops, tone becomes thinner and "wider", and pitch falls off the center as the resonant space and mouth movements push the pitch sharp or flat.

In much the same way, most American spoken vowels drive choral directors crazy when used to sing any language including English. Long E is probably the most difficult to get American singers to pronounce correctly because it's the hardest to achieve with the "tall" mouth position, but if you "widen" the vowel in typical American style, the tone goes thin for much the same reasons as hard Rs. Long A is most often pronounced as a dipthong "ay", closing the vowel to the same wide, thin "ee" as the note progresses. Long I is most often pronounced "eye" with a combination of the problems of A and E. Long O is usually OK, unless you want the "ecclesiastical Latin" pronunciation of "aw" for Church Latin (American singers trend that toward "oh"), while long U is typically squeezed into a flat "ew" sound when a tight, round "ooh" is usually favored.

Your accent or affect in spoken American English and the affect that you use to sing in English (or really any language) are very different, which makes teaching European-style choral singing to Americans that much harder. It's very true that if you were to speak the way you're supposed to sing, you'd sound like a third-generation heir or heiress fresh out of the Ivy Leagues; in other words, a pompous jackass. However, that same accent is critical for a "tall, round" tone that is pleasing to the ear when used for sustained tones.

For American popular music, pure, round vowels aren't as important; you have a mike in your face amplifying and compressing your vocal dynamics to even out the diction issues, and you're trying to sound like an ordinary person, especially in country and southern rock where the "twang" in your voice is a hallmark of the genre. That's not the style in most choral music.

  • It's possible to sing an American "r" well, but it's probably seen as easier to teach people to drop them than to teach them how to sing them well. (In my opinion the problem is at least as much about muscle tension as about resonance.) The problem with that approach, though, is that you can't drop them all. – phoog Apr 26 at 17:05
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It's common for a certain musical style to be associated with a certain accent. Adele ditches her Norf Laaaaaaandan accent for a distinctly American sound when she's belting out her latest soul-tinged ballad. Birmingham (UK)-born Ali Campbell of reggae act UB40 does a half-decent job of sounding like a Jamaican. On the flip side, punk singer Joey Ramone's accent is distinctly Cockney street urchin.

The expectation with a lot of choral singing is for

  • Very open vowel sounds
  • An emphasis on steady vowel sounds. With diphthongs, one part of the sound tends to be de-emphasised to maintain a steady sound.
  • Consonants being de-emphasised both in time and volume

All these aspects would seem counter to the use of an emphasised 'r' sound - and while they might seem to be British traits, they are found in a lot of European choral singing, much of which would have originally been (and often still is) in Latin rather than English. Much may come down to what makes a coherent, resonant sound in a large, highly-reverberant stone building.

It is also partly just down to expectations, and you can probably think of singers and groups who do perfectly well singing a 'foreign' style in their native accents. Likewise, if the vast majority in your choir strongly wish to try to sing with a more local accent, and you have the knowledge and experience to make that work, why not?

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It's a bit old-fashioned, and reasons have to do with placement (our accent has a lot of nasalization of vowels) and airflow restriction (try saying "er" as you normally do, and then the way the Brits do it, and you'll see that you don't restrict the airway as much in the latter).

However, while these reasons may be musical reasons, they are also pretty arbitrary. There's no reason that your singing has to sound like a Hollywood actress fresh out of 1940's diction school, as Celine Dion demonstrates in the example below. In fact, broadcasters, actors and singers were all taught a particular sort of accent back in those days, and the rules your director is mentioning are artifacts of that accent. See this (at 2:12, near the end):

While technically fabulous (much better than Dion from a purely technical standpoint IMO), Kate Smith sounds pretty dated here with "God Bless America":

She sounds dated mainly because of the way she does her vowels and her r's (that "Transatlantic" accent), although she manages it somehow without sounding entirely affectatious. Here's Celine Dion's version:

Compare "Stand beside, her, and guide her" in each, and you'll see that Dion uses more of a rhotic "er" than Smith does and sounds just fine. (She also says "Gaw bless America" and Smith doesn't, but that's something for another discussion. Smith was technically superior to Dion in every way, but that isn't what makes music in the end.)

There are those who would argue that rhotic vowels and er's and all that don't work in ensemble, and I would respond that they do in my experience. There's no reason that you can't make any sound you want in sung music. The issue is more consistency and clarity than anything else. My feeling is that your director has taken a traditional approach to vowels, and it isn't the only valid one.

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    Most of Britain actually is rhotic. The non-rhotic accents are the prestige ones of the south-east. RP and its relatives. – TRiG Apr 21 '16 at 14:54
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    Celine dion is a Canadian. – Neil Meyer Apr 22 '16 at 10:47

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