Sunday, March 23, 2008

Low ladies

I’ve spoken before about the lack of men in many community choirs (Where are all the male singers?). One of the results of this is that the so-called ‘tenor’ section is mainly populated by women, or ‘low ladies’. This makes several differences to the choir:

  1. any arrangements for the tenor part must be pitched carefully – not too low for the women, but not too high for the few men present
  2. there is a definite difference in sound between men and women singing in the tenor range – whilst the women are towards the bottom of their range, the men are usually high up which gives a more powerful, distinctive sound
  3. it becomes more difficult to give the tenor section their starting note if it includes both women and men
  4. it can be quite strange standing next to a member of the opposite sex singing the same pitch as you – men perceive the women to be very low, whilst women perceive the men to be very high!

Arrranging for mixed tenor parts
For most of my community choirs I make sure that any tenor part doesn’t go much lower than F below middle C, and not much higher than F above middle C. This sometimes rules out great arrangements that really need a male tenor section. In fact, as a general rule, this is the overall range I use for a community choir. The tops (who are usually just high altos) don’t go much above F an octave and a bit above middle C, and the basses (who are usually baritones) don’t go lower than the F an octave and a bit below middle C. Basically, I assume that the men and women have similar ranges but an octave apart.

Where has the power gone?
Often the tenor part is the sexy, jazzy part, the part with the accidentals or different rhythm. I try and persuade people that the tenor is usually the coolest part of any song! In which case it’s really good to hear it punching out through the mix of other voices. Since women are often at the bottom of the range for the tenor part, they usually don’t have sufficient power in their voices, whereas men singing the same part tend to carry more.

Men giving starting notes to women
I took over two community choirs which had previously been run by women. The choir had got used to being given the exact pitch for the top, alto and tenor parts. However, since the bass was usually too low, the conductor would give the starting note an octave up and the men would automatically adjust. It seems to me that men and women make automatic adjustments for the roughly octave difference in their voices. If a woman pitches a note low in her range to a group of men, they assume that they need to sing a note that is also low in their range. They usually make an automatic adjustment and don’t even attempt to match the woman’s pitch exactly.

When I took over, the whole thing switched round: when I sang a note to the women in the choir, they automatically assumed that I wanted them to sing an octave up. However, when it comes to the tenor part, I can usually sing either at pitch, or an octave down. When the tenor part is mixed women and men, I usually give the note an octave down for the women and at pitch for the men. It only gets confusing occasionally!

The perception of men and women’s singing voices
When I’m singing harmony with a woman I can often be singing a part which is actually pitched lower than the part she is singing, but I perceive it to be higher because I’m singing high in my range whereas she’s singing low in hers. It takes a bit of getting used to!

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Chris Rowbury


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