One of the most common questions beginning singers ask is, “what type of voice do I have, soprano or alto? Tenor or bass?” It’s easy to understand the urgency of this question, as new singers are anxious to learn about the unique strengths of their instrument, plus they want to be able to choose roles and songs that will fit with their voice type. Much to their dismay, I usually answer this question by saying that it’s not as important as they think, and that I don’t like using strict labels in vocal instruction. I explain that voice type is a convention used mostly in choral and opera music, and modern singers would be smarter to focus their attention on creating a versatile, consistent, flexible voice that can sing a wide variety of music, rather than stick themselves into a box and sing material written exclusively for their type.
It’s not that voice classification isn’t REAL - it is. Voices usually have qualities that can be stereotyped into a classification, it’s just that type doesn’t matter as much as people think it does. Singers may naturally sound better in a particular part of their range or with a specific genre of music, but that doesn’t mean they can’t explore outside of those. With practice and an open mind, singers can sound fantastic on many different kinds of pieces.
Voice types in choral music
Choral ensembles are the main circumstance under which voice classification is used, simply because choir directors need to be able to organize large numbers of people quickly and evenly. Choir directors are generally not looking out for the singer’s best interest as a soloist; rather, they are seeking to create a well-balanced sound as a group. It is not uncommon for a young singer to audition for a choir and be placed into an alto section even though their voice has capacity to sing well into soprano range, if the alto section is lacking participants. There’s nothing wrong with a soprano voice singing in the alto section, or vice versa, so long as the singer understands that this classification doesn’t define their voice as a whole. In fact, I encourage singers to occasionally ask their directors if they can trade voice parts for awhile, in order to challenge themselves with new sightreading demands and exercise a new part of their range.
Voice types are easily misclassified
Voice classification is a highly complex science. As an instructor, or director, it usually takes many meetings with a singer to fully understand the nuances and unique qualities of their voice. If a singer pushes their instructor to make a quick decision, it could very well be inaccurate. That singer may go on to start choosing a narrow selection of songs and roles for themselves based on that initial conversation without ever exploring repetoire in other parts of their range. Vocal study is always best to remain a constant exploration, even after years of practice. For more information on expanding your vocal range, click here.
Versatility is key
Besides the dangers of misclassification, smart singers shouldn’t want to define themselves into a niche; instead, they should work on creating a strong and versatile voice that can sing many different types of music. It’s difficult to make a living as a performer, and the more performing opportunities you can create for yourself, the better chances you have at making money. If you can sing rock, pop, musical theatre, classical, sacred, and folk music, think of all the types of events you could work, including weddings, church events, musicals, opera, lounge and jazz gigs, and more! These genres of music will demand that your voice is strong and flexible all the way from the bottom to the top of your range, and a good vocal instructor will help you achieve tone consistency rather than allowing you to ignore weak parts of your voice. For more information on selecting the best songs for your voice, click here. For help building a versatile and well-conditioned voice, pick up a copy of our Vocal Exercises eBook, which offers practical exercises aimed at building range, agility, optimal resonation, and more.
The psychological aspect
A final reason that voice classification can be dangerous is due to the psychological impact that it sometimes has on singers, especially less experienced ones. If an authority figure describes a label, the singer may unconsciously decide that they “can’t” reach notes in their range outside of that label, which can cause severe tension issues when singing. Because the voice is unique in that it’s the only musical instrument that lives inside the human body, the vocal mechanism is particularly sensitive to mind-body connection and thoughts will often be all it takes to create a vocal technique such as a breathing pattern or opening a resonating space. This tremendous mental power can also be used against singers, if they for some reason have decided to believe that their voice “is” a certain way, and “can’t” be another way. This is true of voice type and also of vocal genres. I’ve heard some singers say that they just “can’t” sing classical music (or jazz, or whatever), and they allow that thought to limit their repetoire, when the truth is that they can sing whatever type of song they want if they work at it.
The bottom line
In summary, find a vocal instructor who encourages you to keep an open mind about who you are and how your instrument works, and will coach you on a wide variety of songs and genres. Never stop challenging your instrument! For more information on vocal lessons, click here.
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