Monday, March 18, 2019

Why altos are often timid and nervous

Over the years I have noticed that the least confident part of my community choirs is often the alto section.

photo by simpleinsomnia

I can only speak from my own experience, but I’ve heard others tell similar stories. Why might this be?

I have been lucky in the past to have really strong tops in my choirs. I’ve also been blessed with loud and confident female tenor sections.

But the altos are often lacking in confidence, sing quietly and hesitantly, and seem nervous all the time.

I’m sure you have plenty of examples of amazingly strong alto sections, but I can only speak from my experience.

Why might this be? Why are the altos often timid?

I have a few theories. Here are four of them.

1. alto is the default part for women

When singers join a choir for the first time, they usually don’t know which part they should sing. Unless the musical director range tests each new singer and places them accordingly, new singers are left to their own devices.

Putting aside technical terms like ‘soprano’ and ‘tenor’ we are left to describe parts as ‘high’ or ‘low’. That can sound extreme to a new singer. If they’re not familiar with the capabilities of their own voice, it can be scary to go to either of those limits.

So many new singers opt for the alto section. It’s not too high and not too low (it’s “just right” – which is why I sometimes refer to it as “the Goldilocks part”).

It may be temporary while they’re waiting to see what they’re range actually is. However, they can end up staying there due to inertia, even though they might be better off as a high or a low singer.

But I can’t sing that high!

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

Everybody has a place in the choir


How might we avoid the alto section being filled with singers who are there, not by choice, but by default? One way is to range test singers when they first join your choir. Then you can be confident that they are placed in the correct part from the start.

This can be problematic with community choirs which might have a smaller range in the song arrangements they use. It can be that most of the women in the choir are quite capable of singing any part (I actually encourage my singers to switch parts now and then). In which case you might want to place singers more by how they blend with others in their section. Or even make sure you mix confident singers with those less experienced.

2. sopranos always get the tune

This is a common myth. And even if it were true, it’s only relevant if it’s a song where singers know the song in advance. If you’re learning a song from the world music repertoire, for example, nobody will know the tune, and sometimes it’s not clear which part the tune is any way. Also, if you choose songs that have been really well-arranged, every part will have its own ‘tune’.

Fit the song arrangement to your singers and not the other way round


Choose your song arrangements carefully. Rotate through songs where the tune is given to a different part – even the basses from time to time! Make sure you include songs where the sopranos are clearly singing a harmony.

3. the alto part is tricky and boring

The alto line in a traditional SATB arrangement is often thought to consist of just one or two notes. There is not much of a melody and it’s not obvious when it goes up and down. It’s rather boring to sing, and quite tricky when some of the notes clash with the other parts.

Like sopranos always having the tune, this is also a stereotype. Many songs from Eastern Europe, for example, have the tune in the alto line, whilst the soprano part follows the same pattern a third above. Alternatively, the sopranos can have the tune whilst the altos follow the same pattern a third below. Both parts work very closely with each other, neither one being more boring than the other.


Choose your song arrangements carefully. Make sure you have a variety in your repertoire and don’t always give the ‘boring’ parts to the altos.

4. doubt breeds doubt

If singers have joined the alto section because they’re new to choral singing or they’re not sure where their voice fits in, they will bring a lot of insecurity with them. If you’re unlucky, most of the alto section will be in the same boat.

This will result in a lot of hesitant singing with singers constantly worrying and being on the edge of “getting it wrong”. All it takes is for one singer to do something different from the rest or make a mistake then doubt spreads like wildfire and before you know it all the altos have stopped singing.

Handy hints for hesitant singers

How to be a confident singer

Singers, don’t be afraid to make mistakes – it’s the only way to learn

How to draw out the reticent singers in your choir


Whichever part it is, if it’s full of equally nervous singers, things are bound to go wrong. One idea is to mix your singers up as much as possible. I often do three-part songs which have only two parts for women and one for the men. None of the parts have large ranges so I can sprinkle the altos equally through both parts. I can also mix sopranos with female tenors and so on. I try not to label the two parts with words like ‘high’ and ‘low’. You could use “tune and harmony” or “A and B”.

It’s also worthwhile to try unison singing from time to time (see Sing something simple (and see if your singing is as good as you think) ). It helps enormously with blend, allows you to mix experienced singers with those less confident, and enables you to do range tests on the sly.

it’s not just the altos

Although the problems outlined above often afflict the alto section, the solutions are equally applicable to any part which is particularly nervous and/ or thin on the ground. It may be that your choir has just a handful of sopranos, but loads of altos. In which case, it may be the sopranos who are having problems. See Is one of your choir sections thin on the ground? 10 ways to find more singers to fill the gaps

Any many, many choirs have small male bass sections with only two or three singers. Most of what I’ve written about the altos can apply to them. See also Why basses can’t remember their part.

Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.

Chris Rowbury




Monthly Music Roundup:

Chris Rowbury


Get more posts like this delivered straight to your inbox!

Click to subscribe by email.


found this helpful?

I provide this content free of charge, because I like to be helpful. If you have found it useful, you may like to ...

... to say thank you.





Monthly Music Round-up: