Female tenors - more
Original message posted to Choralist:
I came across an archive from your site about a discussion of female tenors.
The discussion ranged from opinions that women who sing tenor were
"acceptable" to opinions that they are women with forced or damaged vocal
Since the discussion was a few years of ago, I was wondering how opinions
now stood. Do people on the list still believe that women who sing tenor
are either impossible or aberrations (I've seen people -- not on this list
-- use the word "freaks")? What about men who sing alto? Why are folks so
invested in maintaining gender distinctions in vocal range, particularly in
the middle range, one octave above and below middle-C?
Finally, if women tenors do exist, then why do we worry whether they sound
like men, when they, in fact, are not men? Why set the measure or standard
of tonality by one gender only?
I have conducted two choirs, one in an Episcopal church in
Brooklyn and the other (currently) a company choir here at Oxford
University Press, that had females singers in lower parts.
The church choir had had a female bass for many years when I
arrived. During my tenure, a woman joined us who thought she
was an alto because she had always been told she was an alto,
but she felt a lot of strain and compensated by singing in the lower
octave without realizing what she was doing. Once I heard this, I
asked her a few questions and quickly realized she was a natural
tenor and simply reassigned her to that section, where she worked
out just fine. No one turned a hair at any of this: both were simply
accepted as a practical music decisions, and that was that.
Both of these singers now sing in the Oxford University Press
Choir, along with three other female tenors, two of whom came in
as self-identified tenors and one of whom had the same
experience described above and had to be reassigned. Again,
the only reaction I've ever heard comes from people outside the
group who are sometimes surprised to hear that we've got a
female bass--and especially to learn that she has the lowest
working range in the entire section (low D-flat on a good day)--but
they think it's interesting, admirable, even cool.
We just went to England to sing a concert with the OUP choir
based in Oxford, which was a roaring success, particularly in
being completely, spontaneously collegial. No one commented on
our female tenors and bass or even seemed to notice. We just
had a great time making music together and getting to know one
With best wishes,
Senior Editor and Manager
Oxford University Press
I was not part of the previous discussion and there seems to me no need
for it. If a tenor part is not going below e but goes beyond f'
I usually ask one or more deep altos to support the tenor and vice versa:
high tenors to support low alto parts. I have never heard any qualms
about it, it is entirely new to me that there should be
any problems. I can see large problems for a female heroic tenor in an opera,
some problems for female tenors to be admitted to an all-men chorus,
but certainly no problems in a mixed choir. To avoid too much strain on
the voices I have preferred in some cases an SAAB version over the classical
SATB and could not say that the homogeneity of the sound would have suffered.
But then my choirs wear normal clothes and are usually not fully visible when
singing on the gallery. When the singers wear gowns and tuxedos, one has to
take also the optical appearance into consideration...
Prof. Dr. Christof Biebricher
I conduct a community adult women's chorus with a considerable range of
abilities and training within each section. My second altos warm up down to
the C below middle C every week.
Based on my experience with them at tryouts, I would say they represent a mix
1) Singers with wide ranges who have sung low alto or tenor parts before,
because their previous conductors needed more people, especially good
readers, on those parts. Now they are comfortable there and want to stay
2) Singers with wide ranges who have never learned to use their head voice,
and still don't feel happy when I make them do it.
3) Singers whose natural range is indeed very low. These are the people who
grew up singing Girl Scout camp songs an octave below everyone else. We don't
have anyone who can match Ysaye Barnwell, but we have sung the D below
C in concert, and routinely sing E's and E-flats.
Singers in categories 1) and 2) are shocked at their auditions, when I ask
whether they'd prefer to sing first or second soprano. I feel bad about
putting them in second alto, but they like it there and do not want to move.
I do try to encourage them to use the full range of their voices in warmups,
and I program some unison pieces, canons, etc. so they don't rumble down
there all the time.
As a section, my second altos are my wild women. The tallest and the
shortest members of the chorus are in that section. They are also,
disproportionately, the chorus knitters. Go figure.
Women's Voices Chorus
The original objection to women singing tenor came from the
evidence that many (if not most) females who sing tenor are doing
so because they were not taught how to properly use the other
registers of their voice. In nearly 40 years of working with choirs at
many different levels of expertise, I found that to be true. If the
singers were young enough that they could be retrained to allow
the mid-range to be the range they considered "normal", I did that
as much as their time and commitment allowed. In other cases,
the time and emotional upheaval to change were far too demanding
to ask the singer to do it.
For me, the major issue, other than the singer's vocal health is the
very fact which you pointed out: that female voices in chest voice
do not have the same timbre as male voices in the upper middle
and head registers do. Therefore, in a group which is large enough
that individual timbres become part of the greater whole, the issue
is not as important as it is in a smaller ensemble where there may
be three singers on a part. Even then, the issue is one of timbre
preference. I prefer not to mix the timbres when the group is small
and individual voices are a greater percent of the whole. I have the
same opinion about males singing alto.
The bottom line, however, in every case, must be: what solution is
in the best interest of each singer and making general, irrefutable
policies is NOT the answer.
Music Program Chair, Choral Director
Des Moines Area Community College
> Why are folks so
> invested in maintaining gender distinctions in vocal range, particularly in
> the middle range, one octave above and below middle-C?
This is apparently not an issue in much sub-Saharan African music; you
can see the descendant of this "element of style" in American gospel and
some pop music. You can find evidence that voice parts are often found
doubled "at pitch": i.e. 3-part SAA + TTB, an added "bass" part below (I
am told, so you'd have to research this to confirm) not being
indigenous, but a stylistic element introduced by missionaries. So You
top S+T1 (at same pitch level)
mid A1+T2 (ditto)
low A2+Bt (ditto)
[bass B (often divisi)]
using "European terms" there, but NOT intending "European balances,"
The 3 parts (or 4 parts) being roughly equal in the long run.
The top three parts move by "planing" (as in the "music theory" term),
much as you hear in mush American pop music (go study some "big band"
charts to see how saxophone harmony is handled) and often in gospel.
> Finally, if women tenors do exist, then why do we worry whether they sound
> like men, when they, in fact, are not men? Why set the measure or standard
> of tonality by one gender only?
One of the finest choral tenors I know is female, and you would not be
able to distinguish her from a "good blending" male tenor voice. More
importantly, she is a great blend voice, is dead on target in
intonation, and actually studies her music outside of rehearsal--coming
to rehearsals fully prepared. She has, in her most recent choral
experience, extended her range upwards without losing the lower notes,
thanks to a fine director/vocal teacher. Often such a "low" female
voice has an upper limit of A or Bb, but she now has a (functional) D
and Eb in the upper treble staff.
I think it is less purely a "gender" issue as traditions of vocal
pedagogy, and outside of that people relating low range with "damage"
(judging by vocal "color" or problems like a "raspy" sound), as often
smoking tobacco lowers anyone's range unnaturally--and tobacco make NO
distinctions of gender with its victims.
Because of some stylistic conventions I've experienced (like most of the
music of F. Melius Christiansen, Russian a cappella music, and some
arrangements of Moses Hogan), I have been naturally willing to accept
and write for female ranges which are much lower than some people (vocal
teachers and choral directors) are willing to accept for what they
consider an "undamaged" female voice. In fact, one of these people
insisted that "all women can sing soprano unless their voice is a
damaged voice." While this is individual is a respected choral musician
and voice teacher, my experience differs greatly from that. The other
"choral" claim is that female choral parts "that low" just "don't
balance"; my experience differs there as well, given a chorus that is
set up for performing that kind of writing.
For my own preferences, I do not extend an Alto 2 part below an F below
the treble staff, but the tessitura will be generally "low" for that
entire part. (See Gresham/Bradbury, "The Young Galileo," SSAA
(original) version, Lux Nova Press.) I know Moses Hogan has written A2
parts as low as Eb, and John Noel Wheeler has written in one instance an
A2 part that goes to D below (see Wheeler/Southwell: "A Child My
Choice," SSAA, Lux Nova Press) which was for a specific chorus that had
that capability. I have heard there are women's choruses that are quite
capable of that, and others which avoid such ranges like the plague; one
"alto" I know complains about alto parts which descend below Bb below
middle C; and have others complain about writing altos below an A. I
think one of the things you will find which enhances the "prejudice" is
that sometimes the "altos" in choruses, especially pro groups, are
actually "mezzos" by training and inclination, not true "contraltos,"
which, as classical solo voices, are much rarer. I've seen solos for
true "contraltos" go down to F below middle C (I recall a Hindemith
opera, possibly "Mathis der Maler," possibly "The Harmony of the World"
where this is called for). But the trend from a "classical" perspective
in solo voice (and this is really where the "prejudice" arises in
pedagogy) has been the higher the voice, the more money and flattery.
That goes for male voices as well, and it is indeed said on occasion
that the "tenor" voice is itself entirely "unnatural." Male altos (as
Alistair Hume, one of the founding members (alto) of the King's Singers
once said to me, are often men who are otherwise baritones, not tenors,
who sing in that trained high "alternative" voice; I personally think
that has to do with where the "lift" ("break") is in what are considered
the respective "normal" baritone and tenor ranges.
(In sum: I think the "prejudice" comes from vocal pedagogy, not choral
traditions; American vocal pedagogy is not attuned to producing choral
singers (who can blend and sing in tune), but soloists (come hell or
P.S.: Are you interested in choral literature which has "low" women's
parts? (i.e., possibly the two pieces I mentioned above by myself and
Lux Nova Press
I am sure that many of us have opinions on this topic. Based on some
negative personal experiences in my life, I do not have women sing tenor in
my choirs, and I am particularly opposed to adolescent women singing in that
extreme part of their range exclusively while their voice is in a
developmental stage. I would encourage older women who insist on singing
tenor to consider voice therapy and conditioning to develop more agility and
range, rather than limiting them to only singing in an extreme part of their
range as well. There is such wonderful medical help available these days
that it would be a shame for any female singer to not explore all that could
possibly be available to her with a little conditioning, therapy, and maybe
in some cases medical intervention. You might want to e-mail Leon Thurman at
the Voice Center of Fairview in Minneapolis. He can give you some answers
that are based on what is best for long-term enjoyable use of the vocal
folds, and on current medical research.
Director of Vocal Music
Blaine High School
Hello Theresa - as a choral singer and a madrigal group director for many
years, the issue of tenor gender isn't really important. The important thing
is sound. If you have a mixed chorus the vocal quality of a male tenor is
much more important than if you have a women's group and women are singing in
the octave below C. The men's sound is much richer and more penetrating than
a woman's sound in the same range. It's a question of esthetics.
That's my view.
Hi, Theresa. The problem here is oversimplification, which then gets built
into our educational system and our thinking. Most adult women are suited
to singing soprano, mezzo, or alto. Most adult men are suited to singing
tenor, baritone, or bass. But most is not all.
Remember the good old bell-shaped curve? That's a valid and useful
representation of the occurence in the general population of ANY
characteristic. Plug in the figures for vocal range, differentiate by
gender, and you'll get a bi-modal curve--actually two superimposed curves
representing adult males and adult females. And at the top of each of
those curves there will be about 2% of the population whose vocal range is
distinctly higher than the average, and at the bottom there will be about
2% of the population whose range is distinctly lower.
But--and here's the important point--those two curves will overlap by at
least 1/3. Some women have a true vocal range that we would label tenor.
They aren't pushing their voices where they shouldn't go, their voices
aren't damaged, and they aren't freaks. Heck, the gal who sang the low
part in the Pointer Sisters is a better bass than most high school male
basses!! We have a woman in our community Chorale who is not a
tenor--that's a gendered word--but whose natural vocal range is the tenor
range. The present conductor is a little squeamish about placing her with
with male tenors simply for looks (talk about gendered!!), although he's a
terrific conductor in most other ways.
I will say that I learned, in the two years I conducted a Sweet Adelines
barbershop chorus, that the majority of the basses were, indeed, heavy
smokers, and had been for many years, so vocal range CAN be affected by
poor health habits, but that does not mean that an unusual vocal range
IMPLIES poor health habits.
And some men have a true vocal range that we would label alto or soprano.
In fact, our older son auditioned for Chanticleer as an alto (he's a
wonderful countertenor), and in fact was hired and is now touring with them
as a soprano. The a cappella doo wop style brings both low basses and male
sopranos out of the woodwork by giving them an opportunity to use their
voices without being made fun of.
Unfortunately, many choral directors have been trained in a gendered
mindset, by voice teachers who recognize different types of voices but will
never in their entire careers work with a Maria Carey, a Pointer Sister, a
Wayne Newton or Smokey Robinson, or a southern gospel quartet bass singer.
(Opera is SUCH a tiny part of the opportunities open to singers, and it is
SO overemphasized by almost every college voice teacher I've ever known.
John & Susie Howell
Virginia Tech Department of Music
Blacksburg, Virginia, U.S.A.
I really do not believe in having women sing tenor. At the current time, I
have a woman who sings baritone.....because she had a condition which made
her go through puberty like a man (with the voice change and everything).
She is one of the best baritones I have. I cannot remember the name of the
condition, but one famous person who has it is Jamie Lee Curtis. These
women have to take female hormones to prevent facial hair and excessive body
hair to grow. This woman had a hysterectomy when she was 12.......
Yes this is an aberration. I have had many questions about it.
But....she cannot sing alto without singing in falsetto....
I have women tenors in both of my adult choirs. I don't allow it in my
school choirs. The reason:
In every instance I have experienced the women involved are singing
tenor in a forced "chest" voice which over the years they have managed
to develop and use with some strength and agility. However, their
range is invariably limited, their tonal quality is usually forced.
Whenever coached to switch to an upper register they are surprised to
learn that they actually have an alto or soprano range. Most however,
prefer to stay where they have been comfortable for many years and I
accept that, not due to musical reasons, but due to sensitivity to their
Most of these female tenors have some innate talent (probably why they
got pushed to sing tenor when they were young, somebody needed a tenor)
which could have really flourished had they not been so unfortunately
restricted. This by the way, often happens with altos, the good
musicians who read music get asked to sing alto, they get stuck there
and never develop their full vocal range.
The male alto is a physiological being (except those that do it through
falsetto). I have never encountered a true female tenor. Most, a some
early age, got asked to 'help out' and ended up staying their.
Most high school students should not be singing true 'alto' parts
consistently, especially that found in SSAA literature. It is too low
for them at that age. I have all my girls alternate parts, Soprano through
alto, so that they all develop their full potential in range.
This is NOT a gender issue, but a vocal health issue.
Dr. Robert P. Eaton
Algonquin Regional High School, Northborough, MA
I am a high school choir director, and until recently have directed a
community choir. In that community choir I have come across two female
tenors. At the high school level I would really be amazed to find a female
that sings in tenor range. The only instance would be a hormonal anomaly.
Even given the fact that a particular woman might have more testosterone
than usual, it would most likely not manifest itself until after initial
puberty and into the twenties. But, I'm sure there are exceptions out
The two tenors that I had in my community choir admittedly had their ranges
because of environmental reasons. One, in her fifties, stated that she had
smoked for thirty years. In college she sang second soprano, and hasn't
sung since. In my mind her drop in range was due to both her smoking and
the fact she was not singing after her early twenties. The scale does lean
towards the smoking damage, however. Her raspy tone makes that quite
The other female tenor I had was a forest-fire-fighter. Although she
claims that her low voice is from being out west in a lot of Forrest fires,
her tone is quite clear and very beautiful. I think her claim might be
plausible, however given the fact that she has beautiful tone I would tend
to think it was more than smoke inhalation damage. She does have pronounced
cartilage on her larynx (a quasi-Adam's Apple, if you will), which would
lead me to suspect Nature was involved. I would consider this an
abnormality, but only in the clinical sense. Many people become defensive
when discussing abnormalities because of the derogatory connotations that
came with it in the first half of the last century. However, most people
have some type of abnormality. I, for instance, have an extra vertebrae!
Hope this helps on your mission. Thanks.
Director of Choral Activities
Staples Motley Schools
In my group I use female tenors for two purposes:
1)to help the high notes. If the part is too low for the women they
sing it in their own range; and
2)one of my tenors is 90 years old and has trouble following the music
sometimes. His daughter sits next to him, singing tenor, and helps him find
Without the two women I still have 5-6 decent men. The women are there for
I was with you all the way until you asked "Why set the measure or standard
of tonality by one gender only?"
Now you could make a case that tonal distinctions shouldn't matter or that they
come out in the wash. But I can think of situations where tone DOES matter:
1. I know of a choral piece where the altos sing an exposed F above middle C
and the effect is really haunting. Were a tenor (even a high tenor) to sing it
(and I've heard it attempted) it would lose that quality because of the
extra thickness (or thinness if falsetto is employed) and (though not always)
a hint of strain.
2. A good orchestrator has something very specific in mind when s/he writes
a part for Trombone rather than say French Horn or Euphonium or Trumpet, even
though the note might be common to all of them. And can you imagine the
first notes of 'Rite of Spring' being done on Oboe rather than the high reaches
of the Bassoon? Not nearly as effective.
All that being said, I don't think women should be barred from singing Tenor
(and most of us are short of Tenors anyway) or
made to feel like freaks (good God!), but as music is currently written, it is
is a compromise. Now, if there are folks out there who are blessed with
a critical mass of both male and female Tenors, music could be written to take
advantage of the added tonal palette. Perhaps a new commission is in
This is a mute point. My background was singing
with the Roger Wagner Chorale and L.A. Master
Chorale for 10+ years. That said,
Dr. Wagner consistently used Altos (who had
extended lower ranges) to sing the tenor
parts. And in fact, when touring the small
group of the Roger Wagner Chorale he
had the Altos ALWAYS double the tenor line
whenever the Alto part rested.
His Philosophy was 2 fold:
1. The Alto (tenors) sound "sweetened" the tenor
2. He had more power in the entire ensemble
using each section to sing wherever they could.
You have to be open to "creativity" in order
to get a "signature sound" for your ensemble.
I don't believe there is EVER an absolute way
to accomplish a particular musical solution.
You have to be willing to experiment with the
sound and use your ears. New paradigms often
lead to creative new concepts!
My experience is that women who sing tenor don't blend well with men
who are singing tenor, since they are at the bottom of their range
and the men at the top of theirs. The same goes for male altos and
females, who rarely sing together.
It's also true that many women (and men) sing in a voice part too low
for them after wrecking their top range with poor vocal technique or
other abuse. It's not doing them a favor to allow them to do this;
but there may also be some women whose range is naturally that low.
Allen H Simon
Soli Deo Gloria
I have always thought that the combined sound of good contraltos and
countertenors is one of the most fantastic things that can happen to the
ears! The richness of the female sound combined with the brilliance and
headiness of the male sound is just fantastic.
It seems, unfortunately, that women tenors are rarer, but I would certainly
have no qualms about having a woman sing tenor if she is of sufficient
standard to be in the choir, but happens to have a lower vocal range. I have
a woman tenor in my village choir, and she rounds out the sometimes rather
brash sound of my male tenors.
I'd be interested to hear what others have to say.
Musical Assistant, Osnabrueck Cathedral
Women can sing any part they want. The danger comes when they limit
themselves to a part which does not encompass their entire range. MY niece
sang only alto from the time she was in middle school. She now cannot sing
above a B. This is because she sang in an area which did not allow for the
real voice to be cultivated. The counter-tenor is a whole different ball of
wax. Don't forget that the male once was in the soprano range. These notes
can be saved if a careful mentor is in charge of that voice.
I agree with most of your claims. I was unaware that the levels of
testosterone would have to be so high to affect a change.
I can see your point with the abnormality issue. I can see why you would
object to a word which over the years has brought negative connotations to
it. However, as a choral director I must in my mind establish an idea of
what is "usual" so that when I discover something unusual, like a 16 year
old male whose voice has not changed, or a female tenor, I know that I must
use a different approach. Is it so off-base to say that the average female
sings alto or soprano? I place no moral value on that, nor on singing high.
In fact, that is a pet-peeve of mine. Why would I pressure my students or
singers to sing high, when the alto line is equally important as the soprano
line, and likewise with bass and tenor?
(note: at about this point, Theresa sent in the following summary to Choralist)
I want to thank you all for your replies regarding my query about gendered
vocal parts. I received around 20 replies (and counting), which leaves me
thinking that this is a provocative topic.
The replies that I received were contradictory in nature. For every one
reply that was positive about women singing tenor, I received one that was
negative -- some extremely negative -- about the issue. I am guessing that
those who responded very negatively simply would not allow a woman to sing
tenor, despite likely allowing Baritones to sing the part when they are
short a few male tenor voices.
Issues of tonality arose. I do believe that women tenors might sound
different from men tenors; however, I am not certain that all women tenors,
as a rule, sound more different than some men tenors sound from each other.
This is an empirical question and would need to be measured not simply by
taste or assumption.
My concern is more so with the "tenor" (pun intended) of some of the
replies, which were strident in their refusal to acknowledge that some women
simply do sing in the tenor range. When people appeal to arguments such as
"damaged voices," they inherently introduce a kind of medical model into
their musical worldview, which necessarily leads them to seeing some singers
as normal and some as "abnormal." If, coincidentally, only women end up
seeming abnormal, then you have a problem with the model you are using.
While it might be true (maybe) that some women's voices are lower due to
medical conditions, such as polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), one would
need to determine the veracity of these kinds of claims. I asked a
respected endocrinologist once whether PCOS would cause a lower voice, and
his reply was that exposure to testosterone in a woman would have to be
extremely high over a very long duration in order to effect even a moderate
change in voice -- perhaps a whole note change, but certainly not an entire
In terms of "forcing" voices at young ages, I agree that this could alter a
range. However, the explanation begs the question of whether these young
girls were having difficulty from the start with singing in a higher range.
Why would someone want to sing lower when they could sing higher, given the
incredible amount of social attractiveness and approval for higher-range
singers? I'm not sure of the answer here, but the explanation seems
suspicious, especially if it is used as a global explanation for all women
who sing tenor.
One only has to note the particular shortage of tenors that choirs tend to
have to wonder whether tenor is a true range at all or, in fact, a kind of
cross-over range that includes both male and female voices. This, of
course, would not address why some women can sing a beautiful bass.
I do agree that physiology makes its mark on a person's voice, but the
conclusion that the person's voice is _abnormal_ based on physiological
difference is questionable and introduces a kind of mentality in vocal
coaching and choral direction that is judgmental and imperious. There is a
kind of psychological impact that such negativity can have on singers. In
fact, an entire choir can contract and breed this kind of attitude, which,
to me, seems unhealthy and elitist, if not, in fact sexist.
One might, alternatively, conclude that a voice _normally_ results from
physiological differences. I am not arguing against the idea that some
people's voices are damaged from smoking, for example, but other arguments
about abnormality based on hormonal or structural differences in the body
leave me cold. A voice is the natural product of physiological difference
and to see it as otherwise is to live in Platonist fantasy, ever seeking the
perfect vocal form.
Just my own two cents worth and, reflecting nobody's opinion but my own, I
I must say that at one time I was fairly biased against women tenors, due
mainly to the fact that too often they were placed there because there were
no men to cover the part. That plus the fact that the majority of the ones
that I encountered were singing the part simply because they didn't want to
work enough to extend their range upward. (This, of course, is true of some
"baritones" without the lower end, and "altos" who don't want to work above
their chest voice, which seems to be more comfortable.)
Then I started listening to two different people (or groups of people) that
changed my mind. I had a wonderful woman tenor in a church choir that I
directed. She was also a tenor in the symphony chorus. I would stack her up
against most male tenors I have ever directed.
At about the same time I was involved in directing a barbershop chorus. We
were doing a concert with the local Sweet Adeline chorus. Their director, a
very fine voice teacher in a local school, sang bass in women's groups. What
was utterly amazing was that she could hold her own with most men on the
bass part, and actually sing lower than some of them.
There is a difference in timbre between the male and female tenors, but no
more so than between adult and adolescent males. They all blend together to
make a wonderful, rich sound. And good vocal production is good vocal
production, no matter if male or female.
Higher Calling Music Ministry
Female tenors definitely exist, and even some female baritones, I
think. In my personal (and limited) opinion, these women generally
have the capability to sing in a "normal" alto range, but it may
require time and dedication that they do not have. I started singing
late, as a college freshman, and if I had continued to sing as I did
then, I probably would have damaged my voice. For an untrained low
voice like mine, singing tenor (or second alto in a women's chorus,
as I did) would have been much more healthy for the voice than
pushing the chest voice up to the notes in a typical alto range.
In graduate school, I spent five years studying with an excellent
teacher who showed me what a head voice was, and how to use it. I now
sing in a very interesting group. A fifteen-voice mixed chorus that
sings unaccompanied music from the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries. In
this group, the basses are generally basses, and the sopranos
sopranos, but the "altos" and "tenors" are somewhat interchangeable.
I often find myself sharing a line with a male tenor. I can sound
like a tenor when necessary (pushing that chest voice up high), or I
can sound like an alto (using more of a mix down low), and switch
back and forth from one piece to another. I think the gender
distinction here is more a matter of color--I do not sound like a
male tenor, especially up high--rather than range.
These are my personal thoughts--I would love to hear what other
people have said about this topic.
I have just read your posting, Theresa, on "gendered vocal parts" and I am
concerned because you seem to have some things about women's voices a little
confused; at least that is how it came across in your report. I wanted to
reply to the list in case there was more confusion out there.
First of all, you are correct: this is an issue about which some people feel
strongly. I am one of them. You might ask yourself why some people feel so
strongly about what you see as an empirical issue, in order to begin to
understand that there might indeed be some problems in using women's voices
on low parts. From what I read in your report, I could not find an
understanding that there are and have been many cases of vocal damage
resulting from using women's voices consistently in the low range. And so I
decided to reply to you.
First of all, I must say that I am trained in the Western European choral
tradition, which is to say that tuning is very important to me, as is tone,
and the head tone, or the head tone mix is the sound which I desire to hear
from both sexes. The tuning is far superior, and the tone is, too, when pure
heavy mechanism (chest) is avoided.
>From years of vocal research and pedagogical records we know that women do
indeed have a basic range which is not that terribly different from woman to
woman. Generally speaking pitch can be produced for about three octaves, but
singable tone on pitch can be produced for two octaves or a little more. The
head tone mix tends to taper out in most women around middle C; some, like
myself can carry it down to the A or G below. After that, it is not a mix,
and the tone and tuning both take a definite turn for the worse.
Second, the word "alto" means high, not low, and in the development of
four-part choral texture the "alto" part was a men's high part. Only when
choral music left the professional cathedral and became parochial were women
used to fill in, both in the soprano and in the alto part (when there were no
boys available or when women simply desired to be included and they were
So to be truthful, I'm not even totally comfortable with women consistently
on the ALTO part, much less the tenor. I vocalize women as a unit, and
encourage altos to sing descants, and I am careful of what sort of tessitura
they sing. In a Tallis or Byrd SSATB piece, for example, I prefer to put all
of the women on the two soprano parts and divide up the men on the ATB. That
sound is more authentic, and the lower three ranges are really too low for
women to sing beautifully anyway.
Third, there is indeed a very big difference in using a light baritone for a
tenor part and using a woman. Depending upon the tessitura in which a man
has had development, it is true that light baritones and tenors -- especially
second tenors -- are interchangeable. It is good to keep the entire range of
your "swing singers" (those who sing both baritone and tenor on occasion)
healthy and in good shape, so that they can switch to whichever part on which
you need more sound. Not only does this not hurt them, it is actually good
for them to utilize their full ranges in this way. These parts, after all,
were written for their voice ranges.
One conclusion drawn in your report is that women who do not conform to the
centuries-old basic ranges of adult singers, (drawn from the wealth of vocal
pedagogy which we have) should not be considered abnormal. With apologies to
those who are sensitive about political correctness, I must say that without
the words "normal" and "abnormal" it would be very difficult to make any
helpful judgments about anything! I maintain that a woman who cannot sing
above an A 440 has some vocal damage, and a video stroboscopy would no doubt
show issues regarding the ability of the vocal mechanism to produce normal
Assuming, however, that you have a mature (or especially older) woman who
simply desires to sing in her low range, or who might have an "unusual" voice
for some reason and is not interested in any vocal therapy, then I would have
to agree that a woman singing tenor who can achieve satisfaction and success
from the experience should probably be left alone. But I would NEVER
encourage a singer with a normal voice to overuse her low range, especially
on a regular basis. As for young singers, keeping their entire vocal range
healthy and in good shape is always best, letting time and color determine
where they will sing when the voice matures.
I hope that this description has been helpful and has widened your
perspective of the issues involved in the use of women's voices on low parts.
Marilyn M. Gonzalez
When I lived in Orlando my wife sang in the "Bach Festival Choir" conducted
by Dr. John Sinclair of Rollins College (Winter Park, FL - in the Orlando
metro area). When I attended a rehearsal I was surprised to see a woman
singing tenor. When I inquired about this, since you don't see it very
often, I was told that was the range of her voice. Everyone accepted it and
it was not a big deal. Quite frankly, my church choir could use a few women
on the tenor part as our men are thin is this voice range!
Thanks for your excellent "opinion" on this subject. I agree that there is
nothing wrong with a woman singing the tenor part, as long as that is the
natural range of her voice. After all, there are many men who make a living
out of singing in the alto range. One that immediately comes to mind is
Steven Rickards, a graduate of Indiana University, and now a renown
counter-tenor. I performed a couple of concerts with him and the Miami Bach
Society a few years ago.
More power to everyone singing the part that fits their voice!
Director of Music Ministries
Polk Street United Methodist Church
I think I can shed some light on that. My high school choir sang music that was
good, but fairly simple. I *wanted* to sing alto, because it was a greater
musical challenge to me. Any social approval there may have been for singing
higher was overcome by the personal satisfaction of singing something that was
more difficult. (I don't actually think there was much in the way of social
approval; most of the girls in the high school choir simply refused to try to
sing the high notes and I probably stood out as much for singing the high A's at
12 as I did for singing the alto parts at 14 or 15).
Fortunately, my voice cooperated and I really am an alto. And like many altos, I
briefly flirted with singing tenor when my choir was short of tenors. I quickly
concluded that I couldn't comfortably do it and stopped. Twenty years down the
road I'd have an easier time of it, although that certainly doesn't make me a
Some of the Renaissance music that my choir is currently rehearsing suggests
we're all tenors. The bass line is high, the alto and soprano lines are low.
My current choir has few prejudices. I normally sing first alto and occasionally
second, and I've sung individual soprano or tenor lines when extra voices were
needed for balance or strength in a particular section.
-karen, U of S alumna
Thank you for your very interesting rendering.
I haven't followed the discussion (if there has been any) - but it comes
immediately to my mind that the theory exists that Vivaldi's 4-part works
have been sung in the Venetian "Ospedali" only by female singers, having
all ranges from Soprano to Bass, while the Bass part may have been
transposed up a octave at the very low passages (given that the bass line
is doubled by continuo instruments). Andrew Parrott has made a recording of
some of Vivaldi's pieces, but he transposes tenor and bass line up an
eighth, thus resulting in very doubtful voice crossings (very often the
tenor line lies above the soprano line). I would love to hear music from
the Ospedali just sung by female voices that are able to explore the full
range of the tenor and the most part oft the bass lines.
I know a lot of women whose normal (and not damaged) voices are very likely
to be in the tenor range (if they would sing at all).
I for myself sing often as a countertenor, by the way! ;)
You might be interested to know we discussed this dilemma at the ACDA
Illinois retreat last summer; regarding rules for Illinois All State on the
entrance of girl tenors. It was our opinion that girls should not be entered
for auditions as tenors. Entering and allowing girls to audition as tenors
upsets the equity between boys and girls as well as the typical argument that
women on tenor parts, in general, do not yield the right SATB sound in that
tessitura. Unless a girl has a physiological problem which needs to be
addressed on an individual basis (such as the girl who was actually knocked
in the throat with a hardball) we should not encourage girls singing tenor.
This case was only referred to because of the question of what if law suits!
Thanks for a very well-thought out note. I am a tenor and a conductor with
several women tenors in my choirs. I just worked sectionals last night for
the Faure Requiem with 5 female and 2 male tenors, and I was surprised and
gratified at the blend and quality. I admit, I have a long-term prejudice
against women tenors - I'm not sure where it came from, but I can see I'm
going to have to revisit it, rather than continue to reluctantly accept the
necessity/reality of having women in my tenor sections.
- And the thought about "whether tenor is a true range at all" is very
interesting. Of course, an operatic or otherwise solo tenor (which I am) is
one thing, a choral tenor (which I have also been) another, with such long
periods in a high tessitura, without much "relief" of coming down into the
middle and lower registers... I went through a period when I wasn't sure I
could become a choral conductor because I didn't feel I could ask of my
singers (especially tenors) what was at least exhausting and potentially
damaging vocal effort. I still haven't resolved that question, and it's
mainly for the tenor section (and somewhat for the sopranos).
I believe that I will print and post your comments for my tenors (male and
female) to read. Thanks for your insights.
I just read your post to choralist, which must have followed some
frustrated reading of some quite opinionated people regarding the gender
issue you raised.
Admittedly, I too, was prejudiced about women singing "beyond the range"
of their voices. (That was probably only because I was nearly ruined by
singing parts too low for me.) I have since discovered that some
countertenors really _do_ sing full voice, and that some women's voices
are very healthy in the tenor range.
I'll suggest one resource that might give you some scholarly insight:
the Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barbershop Singing
in America has a women's counterpart, called "Sweet Adelines." This
group has more experience with women singing "outside the box" than any
other group I know of. Try:
Contacting someone at headquarters may lead you to some interesting
I have another thought, or perhaps it's not new at all. I am a mezzo soprano
with a big chest voice (dramatic). I always sing alto in choirs and as a
soloist. In my life directing high school choir, I sing along with all the
parts. My range is from D (or sometimes C) below middle C to Bb above high
C. I sing "higher" than most of my sopranos and I certainly can sing the
tenor lines. However, I would never sing tenor or soprano in a professional
choir or practically any other choir. I would be too loud and dark for most
soprano lines in the choral literature and likewise, not bright enough for
tenor. I do make a terrific alto (1st or 2nd).
If you want a tenor line and no men are available, then you are going to have
to use women, or do the tenor line on cello or some other instrument (in
Renaissance and Baroque wasn't this the practice - use whoever shows up with
(I did love your line about women not being the only ones with damaged
After reading your compilation, I was compelled to reply. I conduct 8
choirs . Three are graded choirs in my boys only school, one is auditioned
in the same school; three are church choirs ... one 50-voice SATB "Senior"
choir, one 37 voice Youth Choir (SATB), one 30 voice Junior choir .... grades
3-6; and one outstanding auditioned 40 voice High school girls choir. I give
you these particulars to set the scene for my reply. Under NO circumstances
would I ask my high School girls (13-19) to sing tenor. They simply do not
have enough experience to handle the bottom end of the range. However, I
could not do without the two women who CHOOSE to help the first tenors in
my Senior choir at church. Neither of them has experienced vocal trauma in
the two decades they have been singing tenor. Does this provide food for
Interesting questions--I've wondered about myself, albeit from a perfectly
practical point of view (I had a female tenor in a large community chorus
and have myself sung a lot of alto parts in renaissance stuff).
One consideration is that if there are exceptionally low male voices
(think of the II Bass lines in a male chorus), doesn't it seem likely that
there are exceptionally female voices? What should they sing in a mixed
choir if they feel the alto parts are too high? Tenor or just not sing at
Contrary to this, I have to admit I have so far not come across an alto
that would so low as not to be able to sing mixed choir alto lines. If there
are problems, they are usually of technical nature, i.e. not finding the
head voice or light register. Thus far, based on the fates of three singers,
their voices have developed better once they have moved into the altos. I
believe part of the problem is singing the same line with men (with the men
singing "in a way" technically an octave higher) - I have found it results
in forcing the voice in the middle of one's voice (and of course, not using
the top part of the voice at all).
As to sound, I do think it is a consideration. In, say, romantic music the
composers have written certain lines knowing they will be taken by
men/women. This, of course, means I would not encourage anyone to use men on
alto lines, either. In renaissance music, I do not think this consideration
is as pressing as many pieces have two lines (alto and tenor) which are
often very difficult for modern choirs, too low for altos and too high for
tenors. I have even tried a blending of the two in these with considerable
Although my view is on the whole rather traditional, I have flirted with
the idea of trying out women on the top part of a male chorus and men on the
lowest line of a female chorus. I actually think this might be a musically
rewarding experiment, although I am sure purists would object with vigor.
Thanks for a stimulating question,
(Mr.) Kari Turunen
Head of Choral Activities, Tampere Conservatory of Music
Remember that women's voices drop in range every decade that they age, as a
result of hormonal changes in the body, including increased levels of
testosterone. To retard this process, women are encouraged to inflect their
voice upward in speech (everyday conversation is the breeding ground for
this lowering of the range). A conscious effort to gently boost pitch in
speaking, continuing to use the head (or Modal) voice in singing, and
utilizing the medium to high range on a daily basis are the best methods for
retaining the range of our youth. Realize that vocal folds are muscles, and
any muscle group will atrophy when not used consistently, and properly. This
type of good vocal hygiene can add many years to the singing life of a
woman, and keep her in the soprano or alto section.
I recently heard a Voice Recital given by Composer/ Voice Teacher, Gordon
Myers, age 75, at Westminister Choir College. I closed my eyes, listening to
the rich, lyric baritone quality he has maintained (imagine, still
concertizing at 75). His is the voice of a 40 year old. I spoke with him
about it afterwards. He told me to sing everyday to keep the tonus of the
vocal tract, inflect the voice upwards in pitch. He was planning to begin
research into the aging, singing voice, I hope he has, I hope to still be
concertizing at 75, as a mezzo-soprano.
Encourage women everywhere to sing everyday and try these simple, yet effect
Ever In Joyful Song,
Dr. Martha A. Boutwell
Associate Professor of Voice and Church Music
Southern Wesleyan University