In the past five decades, I have created hundreds of performances with children singing in foreign languages. More than two dozen children have come to our opera house in Citta’ della Pieve, Italy to sing in six of our eleven opera premieres. This past summer we created AZA’IO, our first Italian children’s opera, with sixteen children, none of whom had ever studied Italian.
My personal love for language (I sing in 8) began as soon as I could pretend I was French. A non-stop dancer, by age four, after my musical aptitude was confirmed at a local department store evaluation, I was studying piano. By eight I was the recipient of a full scholarship to Settlement Music School and by twelve, voice lessons were added. At sixteen, neighbourhood children were my students and after my career onstage in Italy and my Masters degree in music, when I began receiving commissions for new works, I always tried to include children. I believed that the best way to spread love for opera was to teach children to participate in it.
As far as I know, our company is the only one in the world to regularly include children at the side of professional adult opera singers in world premiere Italian operas.
Tune Up, Tune In, Turn On! That’s my three part system.
Tune Up: Find children who love to sing. Schedule a performance in six weeks! That creates incentive and motivates desire. You are a patient facilitator. Facilitate learning of children alone and together. Kick that language door wide open! Reignite that language gene! Noam Chomsky, famous MIT linguist, says that understanding human language is in our genes. Remind the child! It’s in Your Genes! Remind all of the children! It’s in Your Genes!
Charles Yang, noted linguist, former Yale professor, presently at The University of Pennsylvania, author of “The Infinite Gift: How Children Learn and Unlearn Languages of the World” (I highly recommend this) says that we are born with the ability to speak all languages. In order to learn our first language, we must forget the other languages. Remind the children that all they have to do is remember the Italian that they learned to forget!
Now: Find a native speaker with a positive imagination and good natural Italian inflection. Then: Find the facilitator. In our company, I am the facilitator! I guarantee: if you work first with pronunciation, their ears will become familiar with Italian and that will make vocabulary assimilation easier in the future.
Have the speaker make a tape of each child’s individual part. Give the tape to the child. Then call him/her on the telephone or skype. The facilitator has to have a good ear, but the speaker on the tape must really rock. Must be native Italian! Tell the child all of the steps he/she is going to take and say something funny that makes him/her laugh- or tickle them, or make a silly face. Try to get good at this. It’s important!
The child should repeat the words he hears on the tape after each segment. Determine length of segment by the look on the child’s face. If it is panic, the segment is too long! There was a recent article in Scientific American confirming the latest research. Pronunciation is a great to kick down the door to language learning. New synapses between the auditory process and the articulators are stimulated. You want more synapses. Your children want more synapses.
Convince the child to pretend that he/she is a baby, reentering the language embracement process. Pretend that you are language and have the child embrace you. If that doesn’t work, then try a small animal. Seriously, work on making this process fun. Create games- be lighthearted.
Some children will find “not knowing” what they are saying difficult. Tell them that babies do not know what they are saying, but they eventually do and that will be their experience too. Try to think of a funny way to say this. As the child moves into more positive frames of mind, he/she will release former performance anxieties, especially if you are good at telling jokes! (find good jokes).
Remember The Scrambled Egg Theory: light beating makes tastier eggs. Hard strokes make tough eggs. Gentle, upbeat encouragement brings best results.
Tune into next newsletter for more on teaching Italian through music!