On Voicings for Mixed Barbershop Choruses

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Heavy Medals from BinG!: Leading the world in mixed-chorus barbershopHeavy Medals from BinG!: Leading the world in mixed-chorus barbershop

I had a couple of conversations at the recent LABBS Convention about repertoire for mixed barbershop choruses, and the specific needs/constraints on voice ranges the genre produces. I realised part-way through one of these conversations that the question is more precise and intricate than I had headspace to work through in a mid-contest coffee break, so I have come home to work it out in detail.

The mixed chorus is curiously both more and less flexible than the mixed quartet. In a quartet, the four voices you’ve got available are your absolute constraints: anything out of range for one of them means a chart isn’t usable. In a chorus, you can shuffle people about between parts to an extent, and thus in some ways get more of the benefit of the extended range of having both male and female singers. At the same time, though, the fact that you have both male and female singers on a part means you have to be careful at both top and bottom of the range.

So, let’s figure out the nitty-gritty:

  1. The basses will all be male. Obviously if you have a female bass with an exceptional range, that is a thing to celebrate, but it is not something to plan for. If you keep you bass part within the range that female basses can routinely reach, you are wasting the deeper resonance you can get from having men about the place. People with larger larynxes get to sing lower notes, and in general there’ll be more men in that camp.
  2. The tenors will primarily be female, but you may well get some male tenors happy to sing in a higher key than usual. (I can well remember the terrifying sound of the combined male voices of the Bristol University Music Department students joining their female peers on the ‘Sing choirs of angels’ descant at the university Christmas carol concert. I have never since made assumptions about how high a bloke can sing when he is in the mood).
  3. The middle two, interleaved, parts will likely be mixed, and will occupy the overlap range between male and female voices. It turns out that this is the key area of both opportunity and constraint. You have about a 5th either side of middle C where you get a rich, plangent tone from the mix, with both in their comfortable ranges but sitting in somewhat different registers that combine to give a most wonderful tone.

    As you go down, though, you’ll start to lose first power, then all sound from the women as they reach the physical capacity of tone from their larynx sizes. This may start anywhere from F3; you’ll have lost most beyond D3.

    Conversely, as you go up and women hit their prime, men start having to manage their register shifts. Those who are used to singing a light lead may go up to A4 or beyond in happy melodic mode, but these singers are the exception. I would generally assume F4 or G4 as the highest you can ask for in full voice male lead without strain or complaint. Guys who are used to singing baritone will have more experience of shifting between full-voice to fill out below the lead and the lighter, tenor-like harmonising above, and will thus probably be more adept at extending the range upwards without a great crunching of vocal gears.

The practical upshot of these factors when assessing an arrangement’s suitability is as follows:

  • Take the bass range and put it in a key where its top note is D4. (Or possibly E4 if it’s a rangy part and your basses are fine up there. But D4 will mostly be the right top note to aim for.)
  • Look at where the bari and lead lines lie when transposed into that key. If they both go above G4 and below F3, you’re probably going to struggle for quality at one or other end of the ranges. So long as one doesn’t go below F3 and the other doesn’t go above G4, you should be able to shuffle your singers between the parts to places where they can all use their voices well.

    Interestingly, it varies as to whether it is the baritone or the lead line that lies in the higher tessitura, so this is likely to shift people around between parts from song to song. But since a lot of singers will already be off their usual parts anyway, it will be no further stretch to change within the chorus repertoire.

  • Don’t worry about the tenors. Any male tenors who find the part too high in that key will be an asset on one of the middle parts, and female tenors will be sitting happily in a very normal range for female voices.

Two other thoughts that feel like useful rules-of-thumb:

  1. The range of the melody is the quickest indicator of whether a song is likely to work. Within a 10th, should be fine; wider will take more careful looking at in the context of the singers involved and the lie of the other parts.
  2. Expect good choices to lie in a key about a 3rd above the men’s key and a 3rd below the women’s. Lower than that, you are likely to be wasting the bright ranges of the female voices; higher than that you won’t get the benefit of the deeper male sounds. There’ll be songs that are singable higher or lower, but they may not be getting the best out of the choral instrument.

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