Dealing with Vocal Stereotypes

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One of the participants on the course for choir leaders I’m currently running for MusicLeader West Midlands asked an interesting question as we chatted after this week’s session. She took over a long-established choir (with well-entrenched ways of doing things) about a year ago and is gradually inveigling them out of old habits and into new ways of doing things. One of the things on her to-do list is finding ways to help her sopranos produce a sound that is less hard and shrill. We came up with some solutions together during our conversation, but I kept thinking about it afterwards too. So, this post is for Clare.

Now, there are plenty of ways to approach this question vocally. The idea of ‘warm air’ would be useful, as would the imagery of ‘floating’ the tone. You’ll also find lots of voice-part-specific suggestions for vocal trouble-shooting in choral texts such as Donald Neuen’s Choral Concepts.

And this is what I find really fascinating: how particular vocal strengths and weaknesses get stereotypically attached to particular voice parts. I’ve written about this phenomenon at a theoretical level in both my books, but it’s interesting to consider how to use this understanding to help choirs sound better.

We usually approach this from within the problem. We accept that sopranos will tend to be shrill, altos muffled, tenors braying and basses boomy, and work on techniques to mitigate these unfortunate side-effects of the brightness, warmth, projection and resonance that we also value in the parts. But what if we challenged not only the vocal behaviours but also the vocal identities that seem to promote them?

So, one possibility Clare and I talked about is having people swap parts. You need to pick passages that don’t test the extremes of ranges, but there is a large overlap between soprano and alto ranges, and both parts spend a lot of their time in that overlap area. This could work either wholesale (all the sops singing alto and vice versa) or in part (mixing up singers from both parts on both parts). You’d probably want to do the mixed approach first to support the learning of each other’s music. The wholesale swap would then be quite a powerful way both to increase the inter-part empathy and to accustom all singers’ ears to a world in which the alto line had ping and the soprano line had depth.

Duetting pairs of parts, as regular readers of this blog will know, is another of my favourite ways to help singers connect their parts together. It broadens the insight into the musical content in cognitively manageable quantities, and allows people to be less focused on their line and more on the overall music. Audibly different tone colours between sections is after all a sign that people are only really listening to and identifying with people singing their own part.

Another technique I rather like is to make another part responsible for the sound. So, if the sopranos are sounding detached from the texture, the basses need to work harder to keep them integrated. If the altos are getting swamped, the sopranos and tenors need to make more room for their warmth to the middle of the sound. This makes people pay more attention to the overall sound again, and it also takes the pressure off the part you want to ‘fix’. It communicates the artistic result you are after, but stops people beating themselves up about it. You want to avoid a part developing a self-image associated with the stereotypes you are challenging. The minute you hear a soprano saying, ‘Our problem is that we’re too shrill,’ you know that you’ve got two problems to deal with – and changing people’s personal narratives is much harder than changing their vocal technique.

And it follows that even naming the problem can be counter-productive. Naming the desired goal is much more effective. So, instead of asking for less of a hard sound, ask for extra warmth or width or depth. And whenever you hear anything that sounds like what you’re after, thank the singers for it. People like having their egos stroked, and if they spot that best way to get attention and compliments is to produce a rich and silky sound, they’ll be much more motivated to develop it.

I think this notion of how we attach stereotyped expectations to particular voice parts can be widened to the singers themselves.

Many singers have an internalised view of themselves and their voice. Many women think that 'proper' singing has to be in their churchy head voice so will always gravitate to the sopranos. Some women have been told that they have a rich, warm voice, so will gravitate to the low parts.

But these can be stereotyped views and if the singer experimented a little more, they can find that they've not been singing the most suitable part for their voice. As you point out, encouraging people to swap parts can lead to discoveries.

But sometimes these stereotypes can become fixed. I have a women in my choir who has the most gorgeous, rich and resonant low voice, but she won't use it. She thinks that singing shrilly at the extreme top of her range is 'proper' women's singing and she won't be budged!

From the Front of the Choir

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