For a year or so, I’ve been having a lovely exchange with a singer on the East Coast. Every so often, he sends me clips he has recorded of his singing – warm-ups, hymns, sections of patriotic songs. He keeps me updated on his vocal progress. Eventually he asks: Do you think I’m a tenor or a baritone? This question often comes up in my voice lessons, especially when someone comes in for a first or trial lesson in my Marin County studio. But the answer, unfortunately, takes time to decipher.
Everyone most likely is familiar with the voice types of a choir: soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Occasionally you will have second sopranos and tenors, even splits between basses and baritones. Opera has other categories, such as mezzo-sopranos, contraltos, bass-baritones and even heldentenors (a hefty, often heroic-sounding Wagnerian voice type). Voice types are based not only on vocal range but on the “color” of the voice. For instance, in opera there are many types of sopranos based on the timbre of the sound. There are also voice categories based on flexibility, such as coloraturas or dramatic sopranos. A coloratura (based on the Italian word “a coloring”) can sing quickly and lightly, zipping through ornamentation easily. Dramatic singers tend to have difficulty with that kind of singing because their voices are heavier and more conducive to held, lyric phrasing. I kid around with my sister, who is a contralto (a very low operatic woman’s voice), that my voice is the David to her Goliath! She kids back that, in terms of range, my voice starts where hers ends! The opera world, especially in Germany (one of the operatic hubs), is very particular about who sings what. This system of classification and specialization based on vocal range, weight and color is called fach, literally “compartment” or “subject of study.” Singer are unlikely to be cast outside of their “fach.”
So, how do we discover voice type? First, we indeed look at range, which can tell us a lot. If a man can sound down to a low C, it’s very likely he is a bass or baritone. The same with a high soprano singing up to a high C (two octaves about middle C). However, when a voice is untrained, the range can be weighted down by unnecessary tensions that can hide the true quality of the voice. For many years, because I came from a family of singers with big, heavy voices, I would imitate that and create a sound that was richer and heftier than my true voice. By doing that, however, I created problems, such as excessive throat and tongue tension. It took years of relaxation, especially in “taming the tongue,” before my true vocal color emerged. A singer’s voice can also sound lighter or thinner than her true color if she isn’t supporting properly or is leaving the speaking quality out of the sound. You notice this often in amateur, non-belt musical theater singing.
Once you are free from vocal interference and you know about easy resonance and good support, what people call “breaks” tend to smooth out and the voice’s essence starts to shine through. However, those tricky bridges do exist, and they can tell us a lot about the voice type. As a soprano, I must pay attention to the bridge between the E and the F natural above middle C. I also have another bridge between B-flat, B and C above middle C. Often altos break about a step or half-step lower in those same areas. (There are also breaks in the “passaggio” or passageway higher up.) So, the bridges can give us a hint about voice type.
And, speaking of the Broadway belt, I am of the general opinion (and this is not based in any in-depth research) that altos have a much easier time with the belt than sopranos. This is probably due to the thicker vocal folds and laryngeal organization in altos that belting requires. I’ve heard a few very good sopranos that can belt and notice they have a high degree of nasality in the sound. Just an observation. I’m open to being scientifically informed on this!
The biggest indicator of voice type, to my ear, is the singer’s vocal texture rather than range. I have a very low extension but that doesn’t mean I am an alto. In classical singing, I find that altos or mezzos have a great warmth and depth to the voice that sopranos, even more dramatic ones, don’t. I find dramatic sopranos, even though they are some of the heftiest voices, have a ringy, at times edgy quality that I don’t hear in many mezzos. Sopranos shimmer and have an ease with the upper register that mezzos don’t. The same with a true tenor. Their vocal texture is hard to miss – think Nicely Nicely Johnson in “Guys and Dolls” or Luciano Pavarotti. These types of voices have no problem singing seamlessly in a consistently high register. True basses have a depth of sound that rattles your bones.
So, I believe what’s key in discovering your voice type is getting rid of all the bugs – shedding excess tensions, supporting correctly, figuring out how your tongue can do its job without overworking and learning how to start the sound so the vocal folds come together just right. It’s like inheriting a very dirty wooden table and deciding to clean it to see what kind of wood it’s made of. The more stuff you get off it, the more the wood shines through. That’s what we do in my singing lessons for adults in my Marin County studio. And in singing lessons for kids, we explore together how to avoid the habits that dirty up that wooden table to begin with.