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High School Women's Choir - Who are altos, who are sopranos

I am midway through the first year where I've had an all women's high school choir. It is an entry level choir class, so most of my singers are high school freshmen, with a few older high schoolers in the class who just signed up. It is non-auditioned, but most of the freshmen have had experience singing in middle-school choir.  I made a critical error at the beginning of the year by not properly "voicing" this choir.  I took them at their word as to whether they were altos or sopranos. Therefore I have some singers who are singing soprano that should be singing alto and vice versa. We just completed our seasonal concert and are ending our first semester. I would like to now correct my early error and put these young ladies in the appropriate voice part.
What is the best method for doing this and what are the range/tessitura differences for Sopranos and Altos and within those, S1, S2, A1 and A2?
Replies (10): Threaded | Chronological
on December 5, 2012 12:55pm
Hi, Tina, and let me commend you for wanting to do this.  But please let me suggest that you think about what you actually want to accomplish before jumping into anything.
First of all, every human voice is individual and different.  We put them into little boxes labeled, 2nd soprano, 1st alto, and so on, for OUR convenience, not necessarily for THEIRS!!  So looking for cut and dried range and tessitura differences is doing them no favor.  The more relevant question is, what do you want THEM to be learning and to be doing?
(And of course there's the constant fact that every singer has at least 3 different voices:  the one she has now; the one her voice teacher knows she COULD have if she practiced; and the one her choir director needs in the choir!  Voice teachers, for perfectly good reasons, want every singer to be singing the part that fits their voices perfectly, but that would end up with all sopranos and no altos, and the music isn't written for that!!  So the only way to make an ensemble work that way is to audition to EXCLUDE singers rather than to include them, and that isn't business we're all in!)
So you're actually dealing with 3 different factors here:  (a) the actual usable (and comfortable) RANGE of notes each individual can produce; (b) the tessitura in which she can stay without straining or harming her voice (and THANK YOU for including this important factor!); and (c) the actual vocal quality--whether it's rich, thin, heavy, light, or whatever.  And  you can add to this the facts that there are VERY few true altos at age 14, while some singers have never learned to bridge into their head voices.
OK, when I auditioned incoming high school students for my college show ensemble, I certainly did ask them what voice part they'd sung before, but I also did not trust that to be an accurate designation.  I had girls who had sung alto in high school simply because they could read music (which my wife also suffered from in high school, and didn't even know she WAS a soprano until she got with a college voice teacher!), and others who had sung soprano because they had been the only ones who COULD, but who definitely belonged on 1st alto.
The physiological separators are simple (but nothing else is!).  The differenc betwen 1st and 2nd sopranos is usually that the 1sts have learned to bridge the upper passaggio in their voices around an F5, and the seconds have not.  In 14 years of auditioning for that ensemble I found exactly ONE VOICE that was a legitimate 2nd soprano, and while she had a very usable high C her vocal quality was somewhere between a true 1st soprano and a mezzo without actually being either.  And if you have girls who cannot bridge into head voice, you don't want to put them on parts that will force them to strain up too high in chest.  (And "too high" starts around G4, since the lower passaggio should kick in somewhere between Eb4 and F4.)
When I ranked my women for my show enemble, I didn't divide them into "sections."  I ranked them individually, from highest to lowest, and then gave them a chart telling them which part they should sing when the women's line divided into 2 parts, 3 parts, or 4 parts.  (Then in rehearsal I would modify that to account for anyone who would be off stage for a costume change or waiting for an entrance cue.)  But I was also VERY picky about the voices I put on 1st soprano, since that can make or destroy the sound of an ensemble.  So I insisted that they blend and not compete with each other.
And I have one additional suggestion which you might or might not be ABLE to implement, and which you may or may not be comfortable with.  Instead of dividing your singers into permanent little "part boxes," divide them into more-or-less equal GROUPS, and alternate which group sings soprano and which sings alto.  (That won't work for music with extreme ranges, but it will work for some music.)  I was able to do that one year because I had the voices in a smaller vocal group that weren't limited vocally or physiologically, and my sopranos HAD to learn to read music and to sing harmony parts rather than always having nothing but the melody.  And one of them, who had ALWAYS been a 1st soprano, later got into studio backup singing, and thanked me for forcing her to learn to sing harmony parts!!!
As far as procedures for evaluating voices, you should get plenty of advice from those who work regularly with this age group.  Just remember that voices are CHANGING in this age group, and that girls go through a voice change at puberty just as boys do, although it's much less dramatic.  So don't voice them once and assume that it will stay the same for all time.  It ain't necessarily so!
All the best,
Applauded by an audience of 6
on December 6, 2012 6:16am
Thank you for your thorough response! You have addressed issues I have had floating around in my head that I have had trouble verbalizing.
on December 6, 2012 8:57am
I don't give them voice parts.  I try to divide up my strongest singers equally between each section.  Then each song they sing a different part.  When there is a piece with a very high or low part, I then divide them up a little differently.  If someone asked my students what voice part they are, they might say I don't know.
Good luck
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on December 6, 2012 10:52am
I'd like to join the chorus of people that are advocating for having singers of this age (whether in mixed or treble ensembles) change parts.  There are a lot of good reasons for this, and I'll just mention a couple. 
1.  As a college professor, I hear too many singers who have pigeonholed themselves as "altos" too soon.  Those singers often fail to develop the upper extension, and they limit themselves.  Similarly, a lot of girls who get labeled sopranos never fully develop their middle and lower registers.
2.  This is the biggie:  we all know sopranos who couldn't sing a harmony if their lives depended on it--because they've never had to.  By the same token, we know altos who never sing with a sense of melody, because they're more used to singing "filler" parts (no slam on alto parts here, but they're often not too interesting melodically).  In music well-chosen, with appropriate registers for the voices, it should be no problem to have people switch fairly often so that everyone develops a full range of skills.
Good luck!
Applauded by an audience of 2
on December 7, 2012 5:41am
Hey David, good thoughts.  I'd like to bridge yours with John's, who back many threads ago, when I and another church choir director were bemoaning the fact on this site that we couldn't find alto section leaders for our respective choirs, suggested that maybe college profs were to blame, in that they were pushing their women to be sopranos - any variety of that - rather than suggesting those who could and should be altos to do so (because the music's not so interesting, because you can't get gigs as an alto, because you don't get to have poofy hair, bigger dresses, and more bling - no, no, that last wasn't something that John suggested - that's just my warped sense of humor!).  In a very real sense, the two of you have hit some notions that are essential, and ride on each other - the idea that just because you're a soprano, you ALWAYS sing melody and to hell with harmony (really?  I drive my sopranos nuts precisely because I try to have them sing pieces where somebody else - usually the tenors (rah, tenors!) - have the melody.  They're getting the hang of it, finally, but boy, it's always a major hauling and schlepping exercise!  Now, unfortunately, with SATB music in general (and I caution - IN GENERAL) - the poor altos get short shrift - BUT I do emphasize with them that they are singing their own melody, rather than thinking of it as a harmony - and so they do better at the idea of carrying their own melodic line forward in the music.  Doesn't mean it makes their music more interesting, but at least they look THROUGH their line, rather than chopping it up into little bits.
If we were honest with ourselves, we'd also say the same for the baritone-tenor shift.  Clearly there are guys who have no business singing B2 - no matter how hard you try, you just can't get them notes dangling below the staff - BUT - there are baritones who are probably equally capable of getting the lower-hanging fruit in T2 parts as well.  My son is a good example; he sings B1 in his college choir, but I have him as the tenor section leader in my group, because not only is he the best reader in the group, but most of the stuff we do only gets up to G4 - if it gets there (more often it's F4 as the max high note).  He has far more flexibility and usefulness as a singer in a choir if he can also hit the T2 stuff - and his professor has in fact had him "switch-hit" between the B1 and T2 parts if needed - and because he KNOWS that my son can do it.  This is a degree of flexibility that we should perhaps be looking for not only in high school and college choirs, but in other arenas as well.  Okay, 'nuff said - except I think you two guys are right on the mark!
Chantez bien!
Applauded by an audience of 3
on December 7, 2012 11:14am
Thanks for more good thoughts, Ron, and you too, David.  In fairness, I don't think that (most) college voice teachers really set out to make all their women students sopranos.  What they are doing, and very properly so, is developing the entire vocal range and especially the registers that may have been neglected in the past.  (Let's not forget that while a good many high school instrumentalists do take private lessons, a majority of singers do NOT, and in fact some teachers feel that they should wait until they've passed through their voice changes.)  And in too many cases it's the head voice that has been neglected and needs to be developed.  Which then becomes a problem for their choir directors, who may NEED singers who are comfortable in their chest register while their voice teachers may have forbidden them from using it.  Of course the ultimate goal should be to develop the ENTIRE voice, but many college singers are still "in process," and may graduate and go out into the world before they get close to that goal.
The fact is that choir directors need altos, while too many voice teachers will not admit that any female voice can be lower than mezzo-soprano!  Especially in music that was originally conceived for and written for male altos, which is virtually ALL choral music from the 15th through the first part of the 19th centuries!!  Our modern SATB choir is not the same instrument they were writing for, and sometimes the music suffers in translation.
But I agree that while some voices SHOULD specialize in a range and style that they are uniquely well suited for, the average singer needs to be as flexible and adaptable as possible, and I've personally always welcomed voices that can be moved around, while taking advantage of voices that are more specialized.  But there are also expectations not of RANGE but of voice QUALITY, and a baritone voice (in operatic terms) is NOT a tenor voice (in choral terms) even if the range is compatible.  But it's the middle voices that often CAN be the switch-hitters, and I'm always happy to take advantage of that. 
My late wife (who had to sing alto in high school because she could read music and pull the other girls along with her!) was a fine soprano with a very useable Queeny's high F6, but she could read as well as any instrumentalist and was deadly accurate on any inner part, just with a lighter voice quality.  And when I've been able to, I've always tried to have one descant soprano who could float up to a high C6 or D6 with no strain.  (In fact I figured that over the course of a season with my show ensemble my descant soprano hit the high Ds in "The Lion Sleeps Tonight" 84 times without a single miss!!!)
All the best,
on December 6, 2012 11:17am
I would be completely honest with them and tell them that you need to voice them... Everyone will be much happier in the end :)
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on December 7, 2012 7:37am
At the Jr and Sr high age, most young women simply need to experience singing a wide range in a healthy way.  Working across the passagio areas.  Unison pieces or canons or rounds can help with this.  I would tell them . . . "If young women only sing alto, they often get weak in the body because they don't have to work physically very hard to produce the notes.  If young women only sing soprano, they often get weak in the mind because they simply listen for the melody and don't have to read the notes and listen for an inner harmony part.  I want you to all be strong in both body and mind."  I would tell that to my choir early in the year as justification for moving them from part to part.  They soon become proud that they can sing either soprano or alto.  As they mature, it becomes more obvious where their strengths are.  Often I had my stronger juniors and seniors in more 'set' parts throughout the year, or at least during the more difficult pieces.    It worked great!
Applauded by an audience of 5
on December 7, 2012 9:12am
As a character in Walt Kelley's  "Pogo" said, "This situation is full of [insurmountable] opportunity!" :)  But, as John, Ron, David, Christie, and Glenn have so astutely described, it is definitely "mountable"!
 Just as society tends to "pidgeon-hole" certain types of people, some folks like to singer-type themselves.    I see your situation as a golden opportunity to teach:
1.  Technique as it relates to range and vocal production.  Barbara Harlow's "You the Singer" has some pages re: this that are practical and humorous; your students might relate.  The siren-sound/"hoo" like a ghost or an owl, with plenty of breath support and throat freedom, usually helps folks open up their ranges in both directions.  I recommend doing the "hoo' exercise with your whole group, then "la-la" or "ta-ta" some short scale passages; "the object of the game is to keep your jaw relaxed and still; make the tongue work."  Then, while others are working on a theory page/memorizing words, have individuals come near the piano  - you give a chord and have them  sing little 5-tone scales for you.   My years of experience have taught me that range is caused, at most, 15% by physical/birth causes, and, at best, 85% by technique-awareness.  I have had folks come into my studio who were convinced they were very range-limited.  Once they learned breath support and opening the throat for a free head tone, they were amazed at how easily they could sing well above and below the staff.  Good technique will also add/solidify lower notes.  If you feel that it might help you and your singers, I recommend getting a voice teacher to come do a workshop.  "Play-shop" ;)  You can request a teacher that is sensitive to the issues of the young voice, and of choral music.  (Obviously, the goal is not to produce a lot of little opera people.  J )
2.  Terms that relate to vocal ranges:  Tessitura, passaggio, breath support, vocal placement, resonance…there may be a glossary in the back of your book.  (Or copy some pages for them - "your music dictionary".  ) Have a contest to see who can look it up/define in their own words, the fastest.
I applaud the procedure for having set, mixed-range groups and placing some strong singers - maybe some readers and strong vocal technicians - in each group, and having them sing soprano some and alto some.  ( I did this in a recent H. S. job, and labeled the groups with colors.  We high-lit the music lightly with [erasable] colored pencils - my master copy had all the colors, which helped me with cueing.  (Red group sang Soprano in "Rockin' Jerusalem" and Alto in "Come Again, Sweet Love" for example.  Blue group did the opposite.) 
Not only does this develop reading and range, but I like that each singer gets a chance, in the choral setting, to practice technique throughout her/his range.  Let's hear it for sopmezzaltos and tenaribasses! ;)  A voice teacher might warm a student up in the private studio, and s/he might practice that - opening up their range.  But the technique required in a rehearsal is generally different; we make adjustments due to balance, blend, and suchlike.  For example, a competent soprano (as well as A.T.B. singers) needs to learn to do about 27 things with an "e-natural" - solo: forte, piano, on various vowels, with various character/style-timbres.  She must do the same in a choral setting, but with a tone that blends with voices around her that may be quite different - all this while negotiating the passage/"passaggio".  (Please don’t use the "b"-word ["break"] with your students; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy! ;)  The more of your singers that learn this versatility, (focusing on basic breath-openness-placement, slightly coloring with lip-shape)  the better - for your chorus, and for their singing-life - whatever that becomes.
(I'd like to add a note:  Second sopranos, and often baritones, are frequently required to sing the middle 3rd in a chord, keeping it pitch-centered, and present.  This is important; it gives the quality of the chord!  I am often dismayed to see choral directors place their "weaker" sopranos in that spot.  [Same phenom w/ tenors/baritones]  The result is that, frequently,  it is off-pitch, or barely audible.  I know many chorally-wise soloists who, though they have the range to sing first, opt for 2nd, to see that it is pitch-centered and fully present.  Downside is that others, including the director, often assume they can't "handle" the higher notes… ;(   
(Stepping off soap-box, now..sorry - I was there too long..but this is an important issue for development and performance.   :)
Best Wishes,
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on December 8, 2012 9:41pm
At the age of the student you are working with, it is entirely appropriate to use music that is equal voicing/tessitura. When I voice my students, especially those in the situation you describe, I will place my students that are struggling to match pitch accurately on the soprano/melody regardless of their "range". Usually their "range" is lower because they don't know yet how to actually use their voice. And their ear is going to gravitate them to the melody. They certainly don't need to be singing harmony when they can't match pitch correctly and indepentely.
My altos will be the students who have the ear to be able to hear the harmonic stucture and sing the harmony part. I do consider the range when they vocalize and look to see where they fit to the tessitura to determine if they should be alto or soprano, as well as soprano 2. The sop 2 have got to have the strongest, most independent ear for that interior part. 
In selecting music, I am careful to not let the overall tessitura of song be too high or too low.
I tell my students that at their age they are not yet true altos or sopranos. Just like they haven't stopped growing physically yet, their voices are still developing as well. And when a student asks to switch parts I ask the reason and we discuss it to see if it is a good move for them.
Check out Lynn Gackle's book "Finding Ophelia's Voice, Opening Ophelia's Heart" (Nurturing the Adolescent Female Voice). She does a great job of discussing this matter with very concrete information. The book is excellent and very easy to read and understand.
As to a methodolgy for voicing, I found an excellent discussion and "how to" in James Jordan's book, "Evoking Sound, The Choral Warm-up" Method, Procedures, Planning and Core Vocal Excercises. Although I don't agree with everything he said concerning how to seat the choir after they are voiced, I found his procedure helpful and a good starting place. I'm still working on this process in my own choirs and teaching and both of these resources have proved extremely valuable to me in trying to figure out what to do and how to do it.
Hope this was of some help to you.
Applauded by an audience of 2
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