“So, What Am I?” The Voice Classification Conundrum

Weekly Teaching Tip – Mar. 27, 2017
by Earl Harville

I teach a hilarious pair of siblings on Saturday mornings….. at 9 and 9:30 AM. (An ungodly hour for a weekend, but I digress). The fifteen year sister is a choir geek (in a good way) who prefers a more legit sound and whose flesh crawls when we have to use bratty or very bright vowels to work on vocal fold closure. Her 11 year old brother has a ringier and more intense voice and enjoys singing pop more than she does. She often humorously says that she hopes he doesn’t eventually become a tenor because ‘they are annoying’ and basses are ‘cooler’. When it comes to her own voice, she obsesses a bit about into what fach she actually fits. Because she is more of a classical kid, this issue almost seems like life or death for her. Her beloved former high school choir director thought that she may be a slowly developing lyric soprano but that seems to give her a complex and she feels she is not as good a singer because she doesn’t have the consistency around her third bridge. Poor thing….

This young lady is not alone. I find that my teenage female students, especially the choir kids, are more concerned about their classification than their male counterparts or the adult clients I teach. That doesn’t mean the others aren’t concerned or confused by the topic, though. They have often been misinformed and many have been miscast in terms of voice part. I explain to students in their first couple of lessons that I will not be making a concrete determination immediately.

First of all, I find it necessary to clarify what goes into classifying voices. Range is but one element in identifying the singer’s vocal fach. Alone, it does NOT tell us all we need to know. The location of the bridges and registration events is also extremely important. When I was an undergrad voice major, this topic was seldom broached. Also crucial is the student’s tessitura- where in the vocal compass he or she seems most comfortable. Lastly, the timbre of the instrument must be taken into consideration. If we do not entertain all those elements, we are much more likely to inaccurately classify the client’s voice.

Students must also be reminded that what we teachers hear when they first walk into our studios is not fully indicative of what the voice is fully capable of producing. If a singer comes into us without much previous training, they may have been working under some incorrect assumptions about their abilities. Let’s say a gentleman comes in with relative ease getting through his first bridge and had been placed in the tenor section of choirs. He may have not bothered to explore his lower range because he bought into a tenor identity. Once he starts lessons and is vocalized over a period of weeks, the bottom of the range emerges and in conjunction with the elements of timbre, tessitura, and location registration events, his teacher discovers that he is a baritone after all. During my study with Randy Buescher, he stressed the importance of not rushing into classifying too soon because we often miss the mark when we rush to judgement hastily.

I tell my students that unless they are going to be focused on classical singing or musical theatre to a lesser degree, the fach isn’t something to obsess over. For those who will be performing in pop, rock, gospel, R&B, and country, nobody cares that much about which category he or she fits in. It’s more important to know the range of one’s voice and where the tessitura sits. The keys of songs can always be set to suit the artist’s most flattering area of the compass. The better the singer’s vocal balance and range development, the more places they can go in the music without limitation. That may even be a bigger deal for background singers than for the solo artist. I was deemed a bass-baritone while I was an undergraduate because we discovered how much low range I actually possessed and my teacher at the time didn’t really hear the higher end. My next teacher thought I was more a ‘high B flat’ baritone. I got to graduate school and my conductor placed me in the first tenor section. It was at that point that I began training with Randy Buescher who thought that I was either a lyric baritone or a latent tenor with a freakish lower end. Then there was the whole countertenor thing. Eventually, since I was really not aiming for an operatic career, Randy said just sing what you are able to sing. Period. That is what I encourage my students to think on as well.

Lastly, I stress to clients that one voice type is no better than any other. A soprano is not a better singer because she is a soprano- she simply has shorter, thinner folds than her contralto counterparts. It has been my observation that the medium voice types- baritones and mezzos- are the most numerous and actually may have the upper hand. They often can access much of the lower range of basses and altos but can also develop much of the higher extension of tenor and soprano voices with the proper training. Beyonce’ Knowles is a great example of that for the ladies and that gives my mezzo-sopranos added pride in their medium-ness.

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