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Determining the Right Voice Type

January 6, 2012

Basia Bulat, Photo by John BensonOne of the many crucial things a young singer must learn when developing good vocal technique, is "Sing your voice." This means knowing your fach (rhymes with Bach) and understanding its strengths and limitations. The fach system is a set of voice categories originating from the traditional choral divisions of soprano, alto, baritone, and bass. Over the years, more specific categories have emerged, (some verging on the ridiculous, such as "baritenor" and "soprezzo"). The general fach categories are soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, and bass. To preserve and strengthen the voice, trained singers know what music is appropriate to their own fach and avoid music that is not.

It is essential that an experienced voice teacher determine a singer’s fach. Singers cannot hear themselves accurately and will usually assume their voices are lower than they are. Fachs are determined not only by range, but by the timbre or tone color of the voice — but only when these qualities naturally emerge after an adequate amount of training and maturity. The singer’s fach can then be further refined to include lyric or dramatic descriptions such as lyric soprano or dramatic baritone. A lyric voice tends to be higher, lighter, and brighter compared to a dramatic voice, which is darker, larger, and richer in tone color.

For beginners, it's important to note that singers do not mature vocally until approximately age 25 and true voice categorization should not be attempted until that process has ended. Technical issues can also disguise the proper fach: A common example is the soprano with an overused and abused chest voice who might have considerable difficulty singing above the staff. These young singers often have the unfortunate experience of being placed in improper sections during their high school choir years and, as a result, never fully establish an upper range.

Young singers should understand that their voices are unique as their fingerprints. Styles and popular culture may dictate which sound is “in,” but no amount of training will change the essence of your true voice. Trust your teacher and accept your natural sound, for that is where the fundamental beauty in your voice is.

Sarah Sloan is a classical singer and voice teacher in the East Bay. You can find her blog at www.sarahsloan.net.