Time in a Bottle: say goodbye to the bonsai I

Singing well in any language calls for thoughtful choices. You alter the mood of a song through choosing how you pronounce individual letters in individual words. It’s the butterfly effect.

Listen to Jim Croce singing Time in a BottleWhy do you think he chooses to sing the I as a long, strong diphthong? What effect does his choice have on you as a listener?

Jim draws attention to, and links the words I and time by emphasizing their shared vowel sound. He uses the two words like mirrors to strengthen the emotion of the song: wistful, hopeful but unachievable. We’d all like to capture time in a bottle and spend it with those we love, though we know that’s impossible. The song speaks to us all and we’re drawn closer by the artistry of Jim’s language. Pronouncing the I sound strongly tells the audience that Jim feels the emotion strongly. Pronouncing any sound strongly (or wrongly) attracts the audience’s attention.

If you’re not a native speaker of English, were you surprised to hear Jim pronouncing I as if it had a y added to it? You have to be ready to pronounce the vowel sound in words such as I, lie, night, time, eye, cry etc. with a proper diphthong, when the music demands it. Too many non-native speakers use a stunted, bonsai I. They don’t change the vowel sound to fit the song. Don’t be one of them.  If you sing any vowel sound short, when the music needs it to be long, you sound wrong. It’s as simple as that. Sing along with Jim so that you can practise stretching your into the right shape.  Now you’re ready to sing this or this. Doesn’t that feel good? We knew that it would.

You should be able to expand and contract vowel sounds, like accordion bellows, to fit the music. Here’s James Brown singing another perfect version of I. In the song I Feel Good, which word is the most important: I, feel or good? How would the song’s focus change if he drew attention to the diphthong of I ?

Exuberant feelings are the important thing in James’ song. So he stresses feel and sometimes good. They are the important words. If he had stressed I, the song would have become a song of personal triumph. I feel good gives a different message to I feel good.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Each letter and each sound is a pigment on your palette. Don’t ever take a word, a letter or a sound for granted. Short, ubiquitous words like I or you deserve as much attention as unfamiliar words. Think before you sing.

Don’t assume, by the way, that James Brown’s accent limits him to a short I sound. He’s singing super diphthongs, when it suits the song, here.  When you know exactly what  you’re doing, you can do what you want. If you can only sing I one way, and if that way’s the wrong way, then you have no choice. You’re lost before you begin.

© Sing Better English, 2014

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