Saturday, 27 April 2013

Diagnosing voices

One of the biggest challenges for a singing teacher is to identify what a voice "is". This is not an optional extra: correctly identifying the voice type is essential if the teacher is to set appropriate repertoire and give appropriate technical advice. Bass voices simply don't behave in the same way as tenors and should not be treated as if they do. I was frankly horrified to hear another singing teacher commenting that these days no-one really bothered with vocal classification any more. She might not, but I do. I teach too many people who have had vocal problems because they were not singing in the right way, or singing the right repertoire, for their voice type. Not diagnosing the voice type is in my view a dereliction of duty.

The traditional choral classifications of soprano, contralto, tenor and bass are utterly inadequate as voice descriptors. They are only a basic indicator of vocal pitch (what we call "tessitura") and range, and need extensive qualification. Mezzo-sopranos and baritones both sit between two classifications and people with these voice types often find it difficult to know which part to sing in a choir. And even if a voice can be clearly identified as belonging to one of the choral classifications, that says very little about the sort of repertoire that will be suitable. A light soprano is arguably further removed from a potential Tosca than a lyric mezzo-soprano - but she is still a soprano, whereas the mezzo may well be classified as a contralto.

The German "fach" system of voice classification can be helpful, especially for sopranos (there are more different sorts of soprano than any other voice type and the repertoire differs wildly). But even this is flawed, and if the classifications are used too rigidly it can result in people being forced to sing repertoire that is unsuitable for them. For example, I am a lyric mezzo-soprano, but because the top of my voice is enormous (I can do 80 decibels without much effort) the lighter end of the lyric mezzo repertoire doesn't suit me, whereas some of the dramatic repertoire does. In the soprano fach system I would be "spinto" (Jugendlich dramatischer), which sits between lyric and dramatic: but for some reason there is no equivalent in the mezzo fach system.

Any vocal classification system can only be a guide. Fundamentally, it is the teacher's judgement as to what technical advice and repertoire is suitable for a particular voice. And we get it wrong. I frequently have to reclassify voices: so many times people are told, or choose to believe, that their voice is low when it is actually high, or vice versa. Even when they get vocal tessitura right they may get the scale wrong: I've written before about the problems caused by teachers setting repertoire that is too light for their student's voice.  The problem is that for many people, the type of voice they have is related to their identity: they "see" themselves as "a soprano" or "a tenor", and it can be as devastating for them to hear that they are something else as it would be to tell them that their hair is red when they've always thought it was brown.  When someone's incorrect perception of their voice type is very bound up with their emotional identity, I tread carefully: if their self-image is so mistaken in that respect it is likely to be in others too. I am not a counsellor or psychotherapist, and sometimes people need more help than I can give.

Diagnosing a voice is done on two primary criteria: the tessitura of the voice - where it "lies", pitch-wise - and the timbre. Of these the first is more important than the second, especially in a young singer or where there are vocal problems that interfere with the tone quality. However, extreme physical tension and poor breathing habits can make a voice appear higher than it is, and an over-dark vocal quality can give the impression of a lower voice. I am currently teaching two people who presented as - respectively - a higher and lower voice than they have turned out to be.  One is a light lyric mezzo-soprano who when she started was so tense that she had no low notes at all and could only produce a small high squeaky sound: she sang soprano at the time, of course, but now she is learning to relax she is finding singing lower more comfortable and we are beginning to hear the richness and warmth of her mezzo voice. The other is a really rather good dramatic tenor who told me he was a deep bass and produced the darkest and most muffled tone quality I have ever heard.

It isn't always easy to diagnose a voice correctly, and there are a number of common mistakes. The first is to confuse tessitura with range. One of my students was originally trained as a high soprano. At the age of 17 she sang to a choral director who said he thought she would be a mezzo as an adult. She went back and told her teacher, who said "Oh, don't be ridiculous. You have a good top C", and carried on training her as a soprano. But as the years went on, her voice began to rebel: she lost her high notes and was eventually forced to drop down to alto in choir. The trouble was, she had never sung low and had no idea how to use the low part of her voice. She ended up with her voice fragmented and was forced to leave the choir. When she finally came to me for lessons, I confirmed that her voice was indeed a very good mezzo-soprano - but by that time significant damage had already been done, and it has taken literally years to stitch her voice back together and re-establish her confidence. It is tragic to see someone with a lovely voice and real musical ability forced to stop singing because of wrong diagnosis and bad training.

The second common mistake is scale. Generally we err on the side of "too light" when setting repertoire for young singers, because serious damage can be done by attempting repertoire too heavy for them. But that is not true of adults. For them, the scale of the voice must be respected in setting repertoire. I'm currently teaching a spinto soprano. Her previous teacher is a light soprano who teaches everyone to sing like her, which completely confused this student and left her with very restricted high notes. She sang Mimi's first aria from La Boheme, which she found comfortable. But she struggled to give enough weight to the high notes, so we tried Musetta's aria from the same opera. It was a disaster. She couldn't sing it at all:  it just didn't work. Bemused, we tried Mimi's second aria....which like the first was fine except for the restricted high notes. The problem was Musetta. Now, in the fach system, Mimi is a spinto and Musetta a lyric. So Musetta is just too light for my student. She needs bigger stuff to feel comfortable, and we have to resolve the technical problems and mental hang-ups that are restricting her high notes. She's currently singing Casta Diva from Bellini's Norma. That's more like it.

And the third mistake is timbre - the "sound" of the voice. Typically, bigger voices tend to have darker tone qualities. So many times I have seen spinto and dramatic sopranos singing mezzo or even contralto because they have a dark tone quality, when the voice clearly wants to be higher. I once had a 14-year-old girl  referred to me by another teacher, who said it was a very unusual tone quality and she thought she was probably a contralto although something didn't quite add up. It really didn't. Yes, this girl did indeed have a very dark tone quality. But her voice did not want to go down. It went up - into an enormous dramatic soprano with a comfortable (and deafening) top C. It is a truly extraordinary instrument and I am still very sad that she has chosen not to pursue a singing career.

I could add lots more examples. I've spent much of my teaching career rediagnosing and retraining voices, to the point where "Go to Frances for lessons and she'll turn you into something else" has become a standing joke among my Rochester Cathedral choral colleagues.  But my final case study is myself - and it shows how prevalent mis-diagnosis is, and how damaging.

I've always known that my voice prefers to be in the middle. But because the best part of my voice is my high notes, many people believe that I have a high voice. I spent twenty years fighting with vocal coaches, choral directors and adjudicators who insisted that I was a spinto or dramatic soprano. I even had two singing teachers who attempted (unsuccessfully) to train me as a soprano. One of them went on to become the Head of Vocal Studies at my alma mater, the Royal College of Music - after setting me on a path that eventually led to vocal damage severe enough to require surgery. I despair. Surely a top conservatoire professor should be able to diagnose a voice correctly?

The ultimate guide to voice diagnosis is, of course, the Coppola Rules. If it hurts to sing, or singing is difficult.....something is WRONG. A throat constantly tightening up and breathing forced into the shoulders when singing is often a sign that the tessitura is too high. Lack of resonance and uncomfortable breaks appearing in the middle of the voice can be a sign that the tessitura is too low. Hoarseness after singing indicates wrong repertoire. Singing should feel easy and comfortable and the voice should "flow". If it doesn't, don't struggle - get help. And if your teacher won't listen, find a different one. You only have one voice. Don't risk it.


  1. Thank you for your words. They encourage me to keep searching, to keep trying. I bet you are an excellent teacher.

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  3. Hi,
    Your article help-me a lot. I think that my fears have embasement.
    I was classified as mezzo-soprano (or higher) in the first Choir, but the Conductor did put me in the Soprano's naipe.
    Now, I am part of another choir. The Conductor has classified me as a mezzo, but I am singing with mezzos and (or) altos naipe...(female naipes in my choir: Soprano I, Soprano II, Mezzo, Contraltos) I feel unconfortable to sign low pitches. I have no confidence to sing high pitches as per in the last year I was practising and learning to the middle-high pitches.
    Another trouble... I just can't put attention on mezzos and altos melody. I trying to fight, but I just hear Sopranos voice and notes in the choir plays. It is very embarrassing and much frustranting.

  4. How can you tell if your voice is damaged? I was put into a choir with a lot of weaker singers in order to help 'buff up the group' according to the teacher. Because my choir had very few true sopranos, our songs were mostly limited to lower ranges. I was often forced to belt and sing well below my tessitura and as a result, my voice tires quickly even when singing in my comfortable range. I used to easily and smoothly flow between my transition points and had no issues singing lightly, even though I naturally have a heavier + darker tone.
    Could I have vocal damage? Thanks!

  5. I was quickly classed a soprano in late middle school thanks to my high tessitura for the most part. However, my drama teacher frequently put me as an alto due to my dark and heavy sound, even at my highest notes. During solo & ensemble events, various judges and college choir professors noted that I was/would grow into a 'beautiful soprano'.
    However, sometimes I wonder if I'm actually a mezzo. I am very comfortable in two parts of my range- just below my speaking voice and very high.

    How can I tell? I have no real access to any professional vocal instructors and I'm worried my voice has begun to be damaged through years of bouncing between high soprano pieces and low alto (once, even tenor!) pieces. I'm going into college and auditioning for the advanced choir, as the other choirs do not fit in my schedule, and do not want to end up doing more damage to my voice in the long run.