The Alto's Lament
"I'm a soprano," she said to me after she did a pitch-perfect imitation of John Denver. Even though she could sing siren vocalises up to mid-soprano range, soprano was not her home on the range.
We all want to reach the unreachable stars. I want Linda Ronstadt's strong rock belt. Coloraturas want to be Billie Holiday. Baritones want to get the girl (but that's what tenors are for). Basses secretly want to be tenors too (oh come on, admit it). Altos want to sing the soaring descants -- but more than that, they want to sing melody. We can fake a different voice for a little while, but reality always sets in. As Joan Cusack said to Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, "I sing and dance around in my underwear sometimes, but that doesn't make me Madonna. Never will."
What is your natural voice? It is not too far away from your speaking range. It includes what you can sing first thing in the morning. It is not effortless, but it is not difficult, either. It's not the husky deep voice you have in allergy season, and it's not refined by cigarettes and beer. It changes as you age. If you can siren the note comfortably, you can probably sustain it for singing. It may be a sound you imitate from the radio, what you hear your family singing at home, or what you have been told by previous teachers or coaches. . . .or not.
I have taught high sopranos how to belt and have taught natural belters how to sing opera, but my job is to help each singer claim their natural voice. A voice teacher can help you discover your natural range (which is often bigger than you imagine), but it takes courage to accept limitations. It may mean saying goodbye to one dream and embracing another, which is what my brave John Denver soprano is doing right now.
Buoyed by her brief forays into the soprano range, she had signed up immediately for rehearsals, where her limited experience and the music's high tessitura strained her voice immediately. "But I'm so afraid of not being able to hold my part in anything except soprano," she admitted, blinking back tears.
"I must sing soprano because I can only hear and follow the melody line," she said. "I used to be able to harmonize as a kid, but I can't anymore. So, I have to sing soprano, even though it hurts and I can only hit half of the notes." As it turned out, her ability to harmonize was compromised by the same vocal technique issues which limited her range. Over time, she had unwittingly sung herself into a frustrating vocal straitjacket.
Her vocal identity was as fragile as a butterfly's wing. "We can still work on expanding your range to hit higher notes," I offered, "but maybe at the same time we can practice harmonizing." I began playing two note and three note chords, and she sang every note she heard -- accurately. She smiled. "I guess I still know how to find more than the melody," she said. The lesson that started in tears ended with laughter.
She howled with happy recognition at "The Alto's Lament," the knowing rant by Goldrich and Heisler. It comforted her to know that even professional altos get melody envy. Coloraturas turn green too . . .in fact, I wrote a song about it.
Our job now is to work within her current wide range, which is about an octave below where she would like it to be. We vocalize where she is comfortable, and we balance her head and chest registers as much as possible. We sing softly to avoid strain. We look for repertoire that encourages a balanced technique. We practice harmonizing. We make progress.
She will never be Madonna. She'll never be John Denver, either. She'll be ... herself, and that will be plenty good enough.