When I write music with Russian words, I provide the text both in Cyrillic and transliterated into Latin letters. I use the BGN/PCGN romanization system (sometimes referred to as the British Standard), with a few exceptions to make it simpler for English speakers. If you are able, I strongly encourage working with a Russian coach and learning the pronunciation of the Cyrillic words. However, here are some tips for using the transliteration if you need it.
The most common mistake I hear non-native singers make is the pronunciation of vowels. It is important to note that most Russian vowels are pronounced in different ways depending on their position in the word. I have marked stressed syllables in bold to help you determine which sound to use.
- a is like the [a] in father when stressed, but more like the [ə] sound in away when unstressed.
- e is like the [jɛ] in yes when stressed, but more like the [i] in bee when unstressed. At the beginning of a word, I render it as Ye to distinguish it from э.
- o is like the [o] in core when stressed, but more like [ə] when unstressed. Therefore, говорю should be pronounced gəvərju, with no long [o] sound. (I am also okay with [a] for unstressed o, if you prefer a more open sound.)
- э is like the [ɛ] in ebb, and it generally appears at the beginning of words. While it is rendered as e, it differs from the letter e in that it has no [j] sound before it.
- я sounds like the [ja] in yard when stressed, but more like [jə] at the end of a word (in both cases, I render it as ya). At the beginning of a word it is like yip, and I render it as yi; in other positions it is like the [i] in bee and I render it as i.
- ы, rendered as y, is somewhat like the [ɪ] sound in hill, and that approximation is probably adequate for singing. This is often a very difficult letter for students of Russian to pronounce in speech, and even more so in singing. However, I will not write anything where you have to hold this vowel for too long!
Some other letters that might need clarification:
- ж, rendered as zh, is like the [ʒ] in measure, or the French je.
- р, rendered as r, should be flipped like a Spanish or Italian r.
- x, rendered as h, is like the German [x] in Bach. I have seen this letter rendered as kh, but it is much closer to the English h sound than to k.
- ь, or soft sign, is rendered as an apostrophe and indicates that the preceding consonant is palatalized. A Russian coach could work with you on this sound, but for the purposes of singing I consider it a fairly minor concern.