On Women Singing Loudly

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It’s a loud voice,
And though it’s not exactly flat,
She’ll need a little more than that
To earn a living wage
Noel Coward, ‘Don’t Put You Daughter on the Stage’

There is sometimes some cultural discomfort with women singing loudly. It can be seen as over-assertive, sonically pushy, ballsy. In times past this was tangled up with questions about public versus private utterance. Early Romantic writers like ETA Hoffmann and Carl Maria von Weber wrote very rude vignettes of female amateurs who sang operatic repertoire in the home, and idealised instead the perfect femininity of an untrained voice that wouldn’t travel beyond an intimate setting.

Those stereotypes have – thankfully – loosened their stranglehold to the point that they seem almost entirely historical.

But they’re not so completely in the past that we don’t recognise their echoes today. I have been on the receiving end of coaching that sought to fulfil Isobel Baillie’s advice never to sing louder than lovely by radically decreasing volume rather than increasing loveliness.

I started thinking about this when I noticed a pattern in successful women’s quartets of laughing at themselves for always singing loudly. It may arise during coaching when we’re looking at developing the shape of a song with dynamic variety, or it may be part of the quartet’s mythology – the stories they tell about themselves that defines their identity as an ensemble. (Finesse first got together at a time when they had lots of small children, for example, and their stories often involved having to out-sing crying babies and extrovert toddlers!)

But there are certain components in common in these moments. There is the sense that the quartet both recognises that full-blast performance is something they need to move beyond and embraces it as part of who they are. In the laughter, there is a shared history of criticism received that they simultaneously accept and shrug off. No one argues with the idea that subtle, varied performances are better than relentless, full-on ones, but there’s also an implicit understanding of the sense of power you can get from large, resonant, ringing voice.

And successful women’s quartets are powerful. They are powerful vocally – you don’t hear weedy voices in gold-medal quartets – and they are powerful personally. They are intelligent, positive in outlook, ready to laugh, and willing and able to fight their corner. (The reasons I enjoy working with medallist quartets aren’t only musical.)

I don’t know how causality works in this correlation: whether building your vocal power makes you more personally powerful, or vice versa, or whether something else causes both, or whatever. But I am convinced that trying to increase a quartet’s artistry by attempting to reduce vocal power is tantamount to asking them to be less effective as people too. Champion quartets are the ones who successfully resist such attempts, and who realise that if someone says you’re singing too loudly, it means you need to sing with more beauty.

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