Are we blinded by SATB?

When a new singing pupil stands before me for the first time, the first question I ask, almost invariably, is ‘so what voice part are you?’ And every time I kick myself. After all, how much do I really learn from knowing which part this person sings in a choir – soprano, alto, tenor or bass? In truth, the only thing I’ve learned from asking this question of so many pupils is that an awful lot of people are singing the wrong part. The age-old case of the ‘lazy tenor’ springs to mind – the man possessed of a natural tenor voice but not the inclination to put in the work required to sing tenor properly. You’ll find him comfortably ensconced in the bass line. The number of self-proclaimed altos, who, when they don’t know what notes they’re singing, can stray well into soprano register with no discomfort whatsoever, is surprising. And let’s not forget that it can work both ways: is there anything more unpleasant than listening to the ‘soprano’ who should be sat with the altos, or the ‘tenor’ who, lazy or not, should embrace his baritone?

one of many nonsense vocal charts available online

The problem, however, is with the process of labelling voices, and this is why I kick myself every time I ask a new student ‘so what voice part are you?’ The answer, for the purposes of proper singing technique, is – or should be – irrelevant. Take Dame Emma Kirkby. She is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished sopranos of her generation, yet this hardly qualifies her to sing the role of Wagner’s Brunhilde. Her voice is her own. She is not a soprano, she is Emma Kirkby.

This is a straight-forward enough policy to adopt as a one-to-one singing teacher, but rather harder as a choral conductor. Soprano, alto, tenor and bass labels are useful for choral composers and directors – indeed, that is (or should be) their sole purpose. The unfortunate fact, however, is that we are too wedded to this system. What kind of anarchy do we fear might ensue as a result of individual voices stepping beyond the confines of the doctrinal SATB? It takes a brave conductor, when the range allows and balance requires, to bump a baritone to the tenor line or a tenor to the alto, yet how many tenor lines remain comfortably within baritone range, and how many alto lines growl away well below middle-C? The question is of course not only one of range but of tonal colour: a baritone singing the tenor line will naturally produce a different sound to his tenor comrades; one that is likely to be broader (and possibly louder), while a tenor singing the alto line may have a similar effect. But let’s not forget how much repertoire – especially early music – was not written with SATB voices in mind at all. Those gravelly alto lines were written for men, remember. The issue is a complex one, but must eventually boil down to intelligent and creative leadership from the director’s podium.

Perhaps choral conductors – myself included – should spend less time looking at their scores and more time listening to their choirs. It might just open up a whole new world of sound; one in which every voice is allowed to shine.

Peter Wagstaff, 6 May 2019