Should women sing tenor?
These days, the way I decide what part to sing is simple; I look at the pieces we will be performing. I pick the part which contains notes I can sing most easily. In fact I've just looked at the pieces for a Choral Evensong event, and I always listen to both tenor and alto parts and try to sing along with them. I am always surprised at how high alto is; it isn't at all natural. I can sing about half the notes, but it's quite an effort and after about ten minutes of pushing myself to sing alto I end up with a sore throat. In contrast the tenor parts contain one or two bottom notes that I can't sing very strongly - I can sing down to E below middle C with ease, and D and C accurately but not strongly, but one of the pieces for summer goes down to B. Ok, I would have to leave that one note to the men unless I actively work at it.
So I make the decision based on what I can sing most easily, reaching the notes without straining, and without getting a sore throat. That means I sing tenor.
I am always cautious when meeting a new choirmaster, but actually I think if there is any prejudice it comes from the other tenors. Sometimes the attitude is "Great! Someone to help us make up the numbers, you're very welcome over here!" but there's always one or two men who consider themselves a serious singer, and they will move up to make room for me but don't actually talk to me at all. In uni there were a handful of tenors and we had a great time, lots of banter and social events and I was fully accepted as one of them. But in the current local group*1, I enjoy the music and singing very much, but I always feel different. I arrive and leave on my own. I don't really socialise. I wonder if they think I am pretentious for singing a man's part. The only people who have ever offered me a lift home from an event are the choirmaster and his wife. Fortunately, his attitude seems to be "sing what you like".
I appreciate that the timbre of a female voice is a bit different to that of men, and in an auditioned choir I would be placed where they want me, but in a casual choir there isn't room for pretention, especially where there are many more women than men turning up to sing. Plus I can sight read quite well, so I am arguably quite useful in "just turn up and sing" situations.
I've heard the argument that women don't naturally sing tenor, and those that do must have forced or damaged their voice somehow. I'm not sure that applies to me. I am not trained at all and have always sung whatever comes most easily. When I sing along with music at home, the only women that sing at a similar pitch are people like kd lang.*2
I would quite like some singing lessons to "find my voice". Singing tutors respond to me by saying "excellent, a contralto!" but unfortunately my range is very limited and I can't sing the top (or even middle) of the contralto range without hurting my voice or getting nothing out. Maybe this is something I could work on, but at the moment I don't know how. I used to get solo parts in school when I had a higher voice, so maybe I'd sound better in other parts of the contralto range, but all I get right now is a sore throat.
Do you sing in a choir? Do you care which sex sings which parts?
*1 Note - this was written in 2008, so the "local group" does not refer to my current choir, for anyone finding this entry in 2009 and beyond!
*2 I have a "singalong" playlist of mp3s - which comprises Aled Jones - San Damiano; kd lang - Barefoot; Embrace - Gravity; Anastacia - Left Outside Alone; The Who - Love, Reign O'er Me; Counting Crows - Have You Seen Me Lately?; Jeff Buckley - Lilac Wine;- and all of those are at my pitch, bar the introduction by Anastacia which I have to sing an octave below, and of course many of the men have beautiful soaring notes too. Any ideas on what I should try adding to that list? kd lang or Jeff Buckley's version of Hallelujah? Anyway, it seems that I prefer to sing along with tenors and lyric baritones.
Update, September 2009: I am now a member of London Forest Choir which I discovered in January and have since enticed two friends to join. I'm having a wonderful time with them and in fact half the tenors are women so I don't feel at all awkward. Lucky me!
On the subject of contralto, which has been raised in the comments below, I note that Wikipedia says "the typical contralto range lies between the F below middle C (F3) to two Fs above middle C (F5)". Speaking personally, I'm just a normal person with no trained voice whatsoever (nor would I recommend hearing my voice outside a choir ;-) and I find I can sing D below as my lowest comfortable note; E below has more power. B just below middle C is the note I feel "centred" on - if I had to sing any note at random, that's probably the note I'd naturally go for and I would say I had broadly an equal range above and below it. However at the top end I find A above middle C a push to reach; if I'm rehearsing something with lots of them, I get a sore throat. Any higher, and I wouldn't get much sound out at all if any. I do seem to have a limited range. I would love to have a higher range - like a dictionary definition contralto - but maybe I need lessons to learn how to achieve this, or maybe it's just not possible for me. I certainly could not manage the alto parts in anything the choir has sung since I joined 9 months ago. I'm so glad they have accepted me as a tenor, as it's the only position where I could make a contribution - and I really enjoy being part of a choir, it is so good for mental health and relaxation!
Please keep the comments coming as I am very much enjoying them and hope they are useful.
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