Problems with Vocal Classifications at a Young Age

I had not planned on addressing this problem, but it is a huge problem.   Most singers’ first exposure to singing is in a chorus and many solo voices have been messed up singing in choruses.  Why?

Statistically in any vocal studio (per Estelle Liebling) 75% of the females walking through the door are lyric sopranos.  You may have a few very light coloraturas, a c0uple of real mezzos, more than likely no real altos – they come around perhaps once every seven years if then.  And dramatic sopranos come around one in every 10,000 singers.

Among the men the largest number will fall into the lyric baritone to undeveloped tenor (without top notes).  Real basses very rare.  And the high leggiera tenor (who does not cop out singing falsetto)  is also very rare.

So how are these statistics impacted by the choral experience?  Most choral directors with the exception of a handful of top-flight professionals are voice majors who did not have interesting enough voices to sing as soloists – so they teach.  Frequently, they have a minimum of vocal training.

A normal chorus: If you are lucky you will have a 40 voice choir.  Of that 40 voice choir – 25 will be women.  Of the women all of them will be high sopranos. Of the 15 men one will likely have low notes like a bass.  One will have high notes like a tenor and the rest will be between those extremes.

Add to the above the fact that most church sopranos will only be able carry the main tune on first hearing and clearly those sopranos who are stuck singing second soprano or alto will be the best musicians.  The high soprano section (because there are still too many sopranos in it) will be made to sing as softly as they can in a very high tessitura – and they will not know how to support this sound – so they will squeeze and shut the sound off of the breath.

The high sopranos highjacked into the alto section will be stuck in the bottom octave of their voice (if they are lucky) and lower (if they are unlucky) and they will likely sing an unsupported belt voice that will cut through but most likely will demolish their natural first octave.

The tenors:  Those singing high tenor will squeeze their upper sound.  They will either beep into pure falsetto (if they are lucky) or they will clamp their mouths into a bright grin to get the higher tessitura while not supporting the sound.  Eventually whatever top notes they had will disappear.  Their voices will be out of alignment.

What of the bass/baritone:  They won’t support.  If they have any falsetto they will make the top notes of their range (which in choral writing isn’t often) weakly, and they will be able to sing/speak the rest of the lower range with an easy pressure – and they will survive the choral experience pretty much intact.  Mind you there will be no low basses so the pianist will have to double the accompaniment to compensate.

The above is how it is 85% of the time.  If you have a bona fide solo voice and a less-than-finished technique when entering a chorus, your technique in short order will fall apart and you will lose the connection to the breath.

I blew the bottom out of my voice singing alto because I could read music as a kid, and I have been recovering ever since.  I have conducted workshops, and I have found the finest high sopranos in the alto section after vocalizing the chorus.  One such singer came to me after the session and said, “I am always hoarse after singing in choir in the alto section. What to I do?”

My answer:  If in a college chorus, if you do not need the choral credit, drop out of the chorus immediately.  If you need the choral credit, lip synch and don’t sing until you are finished fulfilling the credit.  If you are in an amateur chorus, get out immediately, and find a good voice teacher and become the soloist that you were meant to be.

It is sad to say, but the above has been true since I was a young girl, and it’s still true today.  And some of the finest organists, pianists and instrumentalists have the strangest concept of how to make a good supported singing tone so they are the worst culprits in teaching choruses – and the majority of them are men.  And their attitudes toward the choir members: They’re just amateur singers!

I know I sound like a curmudgeon here, but singing well, and spreading the joy of singing to amateurs so they also sing well is of primary importance to me.  Singing well is the ultimate joy – better than good sex!


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