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Voice part classification help

I'm starting my first year at an all-girl high school where the choral program needs...rebuilding, almost from scratch. A few of my singers already have an idea of whether to sing soprano or alto, but many of them have no idea.

What are the best ways you've found to determine in which voice part singers should be placed? Thanks!

Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on September 19, 2011 4:39pm
First you need to take them up and down the scale 5 notes up and 5 back down.  Start on middle C-up to G and back.  Then go up a half step and repeat the 5-note scale, tec..  Keep going until the highest note is an A an octave and a half above middle C.  Those divas and the ones who got up to a high G are definitely your sopranos.  Then explain to them that most altos are really mezzo sopranos.  Assure them it's OK for the head voice upper notes--that go into a passagio at about A above middle C to the C above middle C, and then into the head voice--to sound airey.  That's often the case in young women's voices.  Those airey notes will mature as they go through high school.  Then do the 5 notes scale up and down again to about an F above the octave above middle C.  Those that can still sing high notes, but very airy are also your Sopranos.  Those than can only get to about an E over an octave above middle C are probably your altos.  Start with 2 part treble music or 3 part music that are often sung as a round within the music, or pick music that is mostly 2-part, but a few times goes into 3-part harmony.  Take some of the altos and sopranoes  to form the Soprano II's.  Remember, there should be more Soprano II's than altos or sopranos, because they have the difficult task of hearing and holding the middle harmony part.  Sometimes, students who are sopranos, but also have note-reading skills, make the best Soprano II's.  I just retired from teaching 35 years and this little exercise always helped me get the students placed vocally the first couple of days of school.  The 5 note up and down scale can be done on Scoo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo-bee-doo, or even the numbers 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1.  This worked for me!  Good luck.
on September 20, 2011 7:21am
Star Spangled Banner in Ab. If their voices are breathy and weak on "Oh Say..." they may be Sopranos. If "...And the rocket's red glare" gives them trouble, or is airy and weak, they may be Altos.
on September 20, 2011 8:50am
In addition to Denise's ideas (above) I seek to find thier passaggio.  If it appears around B and C (a 7th and 8va above middle C) then mezzo (or "alto" if you like), if around E and F (a 3rd and 4th, 1 8va above middle C) then Soprano.
In addition I consider size of voice and where they are in thier physical development.  I place lighter voices on top and fuller voices on the bottom and often younger voices in the middle (second soprano) which will aid in developing thier ear and reading ability (this in the context of SSA literature).
I find about 10% of the 45, 8th to 12th grade voices I work with capable of singing any part and will employ them where either the choir needs help or they need development (preferably both).  Some of these young ladies also become my "roving linebacker(s)", i.e. moving parts throughout the repertoire as needed for balance.
You will find the singers range to be similar, with some excpetions.  "When all else fails" or you are uncertain, seek the tessitura that sounds the most natural and healthy for the singer and do your best not to "label thier voice", instead, "assign them a part" (I hope the sematics come across!).
Scott Dean
Director of Music and Worship
First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue, WA 
on September 20, 2011 9:40am
I agree with Mr. Dean that assigning a part is better than classifying their voice.  I do things a little bit differently.  I keep an index card  for each student.  After the 5 years that I have them, they have a rough record of how their voice has evolved.  I try to equalize the number of strong independent singers on each part.  I then make sure each group sings a Soprano part, and and Alto part.  It takes some planning, because you don't want kids singing below their range.  I choose a song that doesn't go to low for the "sopranos" to sing alto.  It is very rare that I tell someone what voice part their voice is.  The kids tend to enjoy being able to sing harmony and melody.  I believe it is better for them as well.  Those are my humble thoughts from a former band director.
Glenn Obergefell
Director of Choirs
Riverside HS, Painesville, Ohio
on September 20, 2011 10:59am
I sing with a women's group. While we are all assigned a designated part of either alto or soprano, our conductor is very comfortable switching us around. I'm usually a low alto, but have sung everything up to 1st soprano. It's all based on voice colour, and balancing the parts. I think that this technique would work with your girls. Good Luck.
on September 20, 2011 6:03pm
Nick:  You've gotten good suggestions.  It's best to treat "classification" as a temporary thing, as others have said.  Voices change as they mature, choir directors need to fill sections, and voice teachers may have specific ideas that have little to do with choral performance.
Thus I've had singers audition who sang soprano in high school, but ended up as 1st altos for me, and others who sang alto in high school (mainly because they could read music!) but sang 1st soprano for me!  In fact my wife was one of the latter, and didn't know she was a soprano until she got to college and studied with Martha Lipton!  And while I hate to admit it, when I've had to make mid-year replacements for a show ensemble, I've taken the best PERFORMER and sometimes put them on the wrong voice part, knowing that I would correct that the following season.
But in auditions I ALWAYS put a tentative voice part on the sheet, subject to verification later, and I simply judge by some quick vocalizing, the voice quality, and of course the tessitura that seemed most easy and natural.  I use un-healthy vocaleses in auditions because I WANT to discover the register breaks and problems if they're there, although I would never use them in warmups.  But if I vocalised someone up to the Queen's high F, I knew I'd found a real descant soprano!
One year my 8-voice Studio Singers ensemble had four women who could each sing any part in any range.  That year I rotated them differently on every piece.  And I later got a very heartwarming note from one of those women who had always sung 1st soprano and had gone on to start breaking into the recording studio business in NYC, thanking me for forcing her to sightread harmony parts, because she could walk into a studio and do just that!  (She was also my descant soprano on "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," and the year we did it I figured she had hit her high D flawlessly about 88 times!!!)
All the best,
on September 21, 2011 6:48am
From Doscher, "Functional Unity of the Singing Voice": "Probably the least reliable and most dangerous way to classify a voice is by range," and later, "Tessitura and careful monitoring of bridges between registers is the most viable way to classify young voices."
Many singers in their mid-20s are still developing physically, so trying to classify high schoolers is impractical.  If a student is more comfortable singing one part or the other, that's a good place to begin, but expect changes and don't hesitate to have some students sing different parts.  
Singers tend to wrap varying degrees of their identities up in what voice part they sing.  This is unavoidable, but not so healthy.  If you can let them know that their voices will continue to change and mature for another decade and that it's okay not to know yet what "classification" they are, it will help them and you.
on September 21, 2011 11:02am
Hi, Cory.  You wrote, "Many singers in their mid-20s are still developing physically, so trying to classify high schoolers is impractical."  Isn't that just a little absolutist?  The normal bell-curve that describes ALL human characteristics is not repealed for high school singers, and in fact there are already some high sopranos and countertenors, some low contraltos and true basses, in the age range of 14-17.  There are just a huge number of "medium" voices wandering around somewhere in the middle, that don't begin to differentiate until later in life.
But you also wrote, "If a student is more comfortable singing one part or the other, that's a good place to begin, but expect changes and don't hesitate to have some students sing different parts," and that's solid advice that should be framed on the wall of every choir room!  (And you STILL shouldn't ask girls to sing alto just because they can read music!)
All the best,
on September 22, 2011 6:55am
From Doscher again: "The singing voice is considered a young instrument from the time it changes during puberty to the age of 25.  Muscular maturation continues during those years.  For instance, ver few singers develop the extrinsic laryngeal muscles before 21 or 22 years of age....the big voices take until 30 or even 35 years of age to attain full maturity."
Absolutist, maybe, but I'm not making it up.
on September 22, 2011 2:26am
Look here
Great discussion using passigi for basis of vocal typing with approx ranges
Edwin Foster
NJ Conservatory of Music
Mountian Lakes, NJ
on September 22, 2011 7:53am
A helpful tool, and one of the best ways I am aware of to make a determination.  
It's important that the singer trying to find the correct passaggio location is singing with good, relaxed technique.  Even then, it is very easy to (unconciously at times) "make" the change happen rather than letting it happen naturally.  With the locations so close together, it can be difficult for even well-trained singers to discern the correct classification.  I would worry that using this system with young, relatively untrained voices (like high school students) would yield some odd, probably incorrect results.
I'm sticking to my assertation that trying to classify young voices can do more harm than good, particularly emotionally.
on September 26, 2011 11:12am
Thank you all for the great discussion.  I have learned a lot.  Knowing the reasons behind the various suggestions made has helped me to understand why I do what I do.  You have helped me to reinforce what I already believed.  This is very helpful due to the fact that I do not have the amount of vocal training that I would like to have.  Thanks again to you all.
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