Monday, April 18, 2016

Neither fish nor fowl – why most singers don’t fit neatly into SATB boxes

You know the situation: one harmony part goes too high for you, but the other option goes way too low.


The fact is that most of us don’t fit neatly into SATB boxes. What are we to do?

Once upon a time we used to sing together and somehow find a place for our voice. We’d even sing harmony parts, happily mixing male and female voices in each part.

Then composed ‘art’ music came along and the Italians divided us into different voice types: soprano (the really high women), alto (women who could sing low), tenor (males with high voices) and bass (men with deep voices) – hence the acronym SATB.

In this way we could sing amazing four-part harmony with the notes spreading over a usefully wide range.

All well and good until us mere mortals try to join in!

We talk about the ‘untrained’ voice or the ‘non-professional’ singer. We refer to the “classically trained” voice or the “professional tenor”. The implication is that if we only studied and trained hard enough, we too could be professional and reach those high tenor and soprano notes, or even the lowest bass and alto notes.

But in many ways these trained voices are ‘unnatural’ or ‘artificial’. ‘Unnatural’ in the same way that ballerinas stand en pointe or body builders have extraordinary musculature or ballroom dancers have extended backs and fixed smiles.

In principle many of us could attain these ‘artificial’ states with a lot of practice, but it’s not what the everyday body or voice is automatically capable of (even though there may be a few individuals who are born able to do these things without effort).

The majority of singers in choirs, especially community and amateur choirs, don’t want to modify their voices in that way, but are happy with the way they are. They may want to improve their technique somewhat (to enable them to have enough breath to sing a whole phrase for instance) or be able to sing using their whole range (we can’t ‘extend’ the range we’re born with, but we can learn to use the whole of what we’ve been given).

This is more like the ‘folk’ voice (see Sing how you speak – the ‘folk’ voice or how to sing like a Bulgarian). The voice that is used in traditional song, the voice of regular people, not highly trained art singers. In which case, it almost certainly won’t fit neatly into the SATB boxes.

Most men have voices at the low end of the baritone range: they can’t reach the really low bass notes or the really high tenor notes. And most women are low mezzo sopranos: they can’t reach the really low alto notes nor the really high soprano notes.

But hey, who cares what these voice types are called (we’ve also got contralto, second bass, countertenor and so on)? We just want to know where to stand and which part to sing. Where do we belong in our choir so we can reach all the notes comfortably?

That brings me to the two big points I want to make.

1. If you can’t reach the notes, it doesn’t mean you can’t sing

This applies especially to beginners, but it can hit us all at some point. We’ve been happily singing our part in the choir when a song comes along where what we’re asked to sing is simply too high or too low. It’s very easy to start to believe that we can’t ‘sing’ because everyone else can reach those notes. Not true! It might mean you’re in the wrong part or that the arrangement doesn’t suit your choir. Either way, it’s not your fault.

If you are a beginner and you find this happens a lot, it may also mean that you just have to be patient as you will be able to reach higher and lower notes the longer you sing with the choir. With all the warm ups, regular singing, and vocal development, you’ll soon be able to master the whole range of your voice.

2. Fit the arrangement to the voices – not the other way round

Too often choir leaders choose off-the-shelf arrangements without considering that the ranges might not fit the particular voices in their choir. Or a composer might arrange something whilst sitting at the piano which – on paper – sounds wonderful, but they’ve forgotten that it will be human beings who will end up singing it. You can read more about this in my post Fit the song arrangement to your singers and not the other way round.

Chris Rowbury



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Chris Rowbury


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