We singers don’t make it easy for non-laryngeal obsessed humans to enter our world. Consider the following sentence:
“At the moment I’m a lyric mezzo, as that’s the most comfortable tessitura, but because my passaggio sits quite high and I have a freak stratospheric extension, I’m probably going to transition up in the next few years.”
A singer would react to this in varying ways. Some might correct the pronunciation of passaggio. Some might offer technical advice based on one semester’s worth of pedagogical study. Some might launch into competition over who has the largest range, who has the most promising voice, who has developed more vocally. But nearly every university aged singer has heard a sentence like this and even worse, most will have said something like this at some stage. Guilty as charged.
To a normal human, the statement may as well have been in Dutch (see what I did there?). The jargon we drown ourselves in when discussing vocal technique is bad enough, but at least it’s scientific. You could probably discuss with someone who has an understanding of science and anatomy how the position of the tongue and soft palate influences the strength of overtones emanating from a given fundamental pitch and how in turn this shapes the timbre of the sound and perception of pitch accuracy. Whether they’d care or not is another matter. But when it comes to voice types, singer language is whole new level of incomprehensible. So in order to invite my non-vocal friends and family into the crazy, neurotic world of a classical singer, I have decided to try to provide an understandable overview of how singers classify their voices and why.
B’s Helpful Guide to Voice Types
First thing’s first. Does the person possess talent?
Then we divide according to gender.
After that, singers are grouped into general categories according to range i.e. how high and low they can sing.
B’s helpful tip: click on the photos for youtube examples! (I’m pretty proud of this!)
This is sometimes not as straightforward as you might think. Two singers might have then same notes in their ranges but place themselves in different categories. It all depends on where an individual’s voice sits most comfortably. This can also change with age, hormonal changes and vocal development.
Within these broad categories are further sub-divisions that determine a singer’s voice type or Fach. Yep, we really do have to have pretentious words for everything. Your voice type determines what repertoire is most appropriate for you, and often the type of characters you will portray. Because I’m a soprano and therefore too vain and self-obsessed to pay attention to anyone else, I’m going to illustrate some of the possible soprano voice types.
Soubrette– Naïve peasant/Saucy maid
Coloratura* – Fairy/Mythical being/Exotic priestess
Lyric/lyric coloratura* – Damsel in distress. Likely to die of tuberculosis.
Spinto– Damsel in serious distress. Likely to commit suicide and/or homicide.
Dramatic– Historical figure/Queen
Dramatic coloratura* – Nutcase
Wagnerian– Someone you do not want to get in a fight with.
*coloratura means you can sing the fast twiddly bits.
This is only a sample. There are some truly wacky options out there, my personal favourite being the Falcon. What makes it even more confusing is that a voice can often straddle a few categories. Basically, the Fach system is like sizing in clothes stores. As a broad guideline it is super useful, but when you get down to the detail, it’s much better to give up on defining yourself by a number and buy the clothes that fit, because no matter how many size 8 pants you have at home, nothing is going to make that pair look good.
B’s helpful tip: it’s an analogy, but please do take the fashion advice.
But how does one determine one’s Fach? Well, like clothing again, it has to do with size and weight.
And now I’ll give you exactly 30 seconds to work the inevitable fat opera singer jokes out of your system.
I’m talking about vocal size and weight, not the size of my thighs, thank you very much. Size can largely be considered as relating to volume, and weight as relating to agility and tone colour. Let’s move away from the clothing analogy and into the natural realm.
A small, light voice is like a canary. A ginormous, heavy voice is like a mammoth. So the scale of voices goes something like this:
In Australia, I was always given the impression that size and weight worked in tandem. The lighter the voice, the smaller it would be. So, being in possession of a light voice, I naturally assumed it would be considered small as well, and certainly this assumption was never contradicted. However, the teachers that I sang for during my consultations and audition for The Hague were all in agreement, I have a light voice certainly, but they did not consider it small. And when they said that, the whole world made sense and I knew I wanted to be taught by these people who instinctively understood my voice. While size and weight are linked, they are not totally co-dependent.
So here we have it. A new institution and new way of thinking. I have a light, largish voice. I proclaim my voice type to be giant canary.
B is for Big Bird!