Voice Parts and Identity

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sopranoThere is an interesting and subtle distinction between two statements that, at a functional level mean pretty much the same thing:

I sing soprano
I am a soprano

Both statements will have the same effect when putting together a choir, but they make quite different assumptions about the nature of voice parts: activity versus identity.

Voice part assignment is one of those things that sometimes seems to happen smoothly and transparently, but at other times it becomes vexed. There are periodic discussions in the forums on ChoralNet, for instance, about differences of opinion between choir directors and voice teachers, parents or students about the appropriate part assignment. With younger singers, especially, the voice is something of a moving target – range and quality are in the process of development, and yet may also be affected by the classification decisions people make in the meantime.

What I find interesting is that the classification, which purports to be a statement of natural attributes, is always a negotiation between the physical apparatus and all kinds of other cultural values. The outer limits of range will be determined by the size of larynx, for sure, but most people don’t sing out to their outer limits as a matter of course. So, the decisions about parts are also influenced by a number of other factors:

  • Timbre Perceived qualities of brightness/darkness/lightness/heaviness. This is a complex product of the physical shape of a singer’s vocal and resonant apparatus, how they’ve learned to use the voice as a singer (whether through formal training or informal imitation) and other cultural habits such as spoken accent.
  • Personality This is likewise a product of both inherent attributes and learned behaviours, and is filtered through the cultural assumptions of the person making the classification on the basis of their observations in certain specific circumstances.

These singer-based factors are then mapped onto cultural knowledge about musical behaviours:

  • Character types in solo repertoire Opera in particular has strong traditions of the kinds of timbres and ranges associated with different character types, and therefore different types of vocal behaviour. Fioritura is not generally the province of altos. Musical theatre may not draw the boundaries in the same places, nor fill the categories with the same content, but likewise has quite clear traditions of voice type.
  • Part behaviour in ensemble repertoireBass lines work differently from melody lines. Barbershop baritone lines behave differently from classical alto lines (though they may inhabit the same vocal range). The expressive worlds of a genre’s typical vocal lines seems to suit different people.

Now, there is no doubt that people who feel they are singing in the ‘wrong’ part feel miserable. They are physically uncomfortable, but also feel they are singing with a voice that isn’t their own. So all the effort that goes into getting it right is well-placed.

But I also think that framing the voice assignment in terms of action rather than identity gives people more room to manoeuvre, and space to change over time. Indeed, those school choir directors who require their students to learn some repertoire in a different part from their usual one are doing the developing voices a real favour. It opens up other possibilities, and thus gives young singers a wider fund of experience to draw on for the days when they are taking a greater role in choosing their own vocal identities. And if they never ever wish to change from the first voice type they are assigned to, at least they grow up with a greater sense of musical empathy for the rest of the ensemble.

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