On Arranging for Female Voices, Part 2: Vocal Behaviour

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In my previous post about the differences in arranging for male and female voicings, I reflected on how little opportunity you get for genuinely tight voicings for ensembles working in lower registers. One of the things that brought this into focus for me recently was a conversation about a specific arrangement written in the women’s key, explaining why I didn’t feel it would work transposed down for a men’s group. The closely-voiced chords that bring spritz and joy in the higher register would become cloudy and unclear lower down.

Today’s subject has also provided a reason to decline to transpose particular arrangements down for men, though I’ve tended to remain somewhat veiled in my explanations for the decision. ‘It wouldn’t work well in the lower key’ is a kinder thing to say than, ‘I don’t think men will be able to sing that’.

So, what is it that I doubt men’s capacities to perform effectively? And why do I harbour that doubt?

In a word: twiddles. And the experience of teaching a particular twiddly warm-up exercise I’d used loads of times with women to a men’s group and finding them completely unable to do it.

You might, quite reasonably, consider one data point as insufficient to argue that an entire sex cannot do something, but it’s a data point that arrived into a much larger context, that of the kind of things male and female voices have been expected to sing in repertoire for centuries.

Go back to Handel’s day, and you’ll find that all voices, whether solo or in choral ensembles, are given lines replete with semiquaver passagework. But by the turn of the 19th century, you see increasingly gender-differentiated ways of writing for voices. Female roles are assigned the runs and roulades of coloratura, while male roles become declamatory in style (when in action-mode) or lyrical (when in love).

There’s all kinds of interesting stuff going on at the same time with shifts in both constructions of gender and musical aesthetics, which can help make sense of these stylistic changes, but it took me an entire PhD thesis to cover that, so you’ll have to make do with this summary for today’s purposes.

So, all this shows that it’s not that men are congenitally incapable of singing twiddles. Human biology has not changed a huge amount since Handel’s time, and consistent application, working up through simpler versions to acquire the skills, has enabled those guys who once couldn’t sing my twiddly warm-up to do a nice job of it these days. It’s rather that the kind of music people are routinely asked to sing shapes what they are routinely capable of singing.

(You may ask: why do I want to train guys to sing twiddles if they’ll never need them in repertoire? It’s less for the twiddles themselves than for that laryngeal freedom you have to develop to sing them: once people are twiddling fluently, you know they’ve stopped clamping the muscles around the vocal mechanism and so are likely to run into less difficulty in things like negotiating the passaggio. You get an extra bloom on the tone, too.)

There is also an argument that absolute pitch makes a difference to this, that the natural has an impact as well as the cultural. Larger instruments find twiddles more laborious than smaller instruments as the movements needed to change pitch are smaller and thus easier to do at speed the smaller your kit: compare the experience of listening to passagework in a double-bass concerto versus a violin concerto. Even within one’s own voice, trills are easier in higher registers. I notice that most of the twiddly bits that appear in my charts tend to appear as filigree at the top of the texture.

But the difference in size between a male larynx and a female one is much more subtle than between a double-bass and a violin, and the existence of virtuosic bass arias in the 18th century tells us that the biology has much less impact than usage here. Some people are bigger than others, but the extent to which they end up heavily muscled or nimble and flexible depends more on whether they train as a rugby player or a dancer.

So the reason I don’t usually write twiddly music for men, and why I decline to make twiddly music written for women available in the men’s key, is based in the pragmatics of our wider musical culture and the way it has shaped us as musicians. One might make exceptions for individuals where you know their voices, but certainly when writing for choruses one has to generalise about typical vocal capabilities. And the job of an arranger is after all to make the singers look good, so always best to draw on the skills you know people have already developed rather than those they probably haven’t had the chance to.

I'd be interested to know how you define "wider musical culture". I'm a big fan of Corsican polyphony which has lots of twiddles! And Georgian sounds of course, Trallalero and other European traditions. That's my wider musical culture.

I was thinking of Western/European classical and commercial popular repertoire primarily.

Your examples from folk/vernacular traditions are good grist to the argument of this being about culture rather than nature!

I'd be interested to know if you experience a difference by genders in the ease with which your workshop participants handle them...

I do find, as you pointed out, that singing in higher registers makes the twiddling much easier. And in the folk traditions I mentioned, the lower voices tend to be drones and not have twiddles, or at least very simple ones. Tenors (male) and sopranos seem to find it easiest.

I find it equally difficult to get men and women to twiddle! Part of it - at least with the repertoire I use - is the unfamiliarity and lack of role models in their own singing experience.

I have always been drawn to Bulgarian singing, but the highly ornamented stuff tends to be sung by women. I once asked a Bulgarian for some examples of male ensembles, and the songs were much less interesting!

It seems that Corsican and Georgian are the two main European traditions which have developed ornamentation for men's voices over time.

Really interesting comments, thank you Chris!

Thanks for an interesting read! Could you give examples of twiddly warm up exercises and a song or two?

Sorry for the delay in replying Sheryl, life stuff interrupted.

Anyway, this video includes the specific twiddly exercise I referred in the post, comes for the first time at about 1:15: https://youtu.be/b48oBHv92d0

And examples of my arrangements with twiddles in would include One Day Like This (the extra descants just at the end), and Candyman, which picks up Aguilera's approach to vocal embellishments all the way through.

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