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  • Writer's pictureGenevieve McGahey

Oh goodie! Another take on soprano straight tone in choral singing from a male conductor

I have some have trepidation at wading into this particular fray, but here we are. EMA's decision to publish an irresponsible take on female voices in choral music with no companion perspective from a trained soprano or pedagogue is extremely disheartening. As someone who has come through vocal injury as a young person and dealt with the attendant psychological and physical challenges, I am disappointed to see this narrative dropped so casually in front of so many.

In a recent article published in Early Music America, countertenor and conductor Christopher Lowrey provides an array of thoughts on the question of misogyny in the Anglican choral tradition. Feel free to read the article on your own time: I am not, however, going to give any space here to establishing that, contrary to what he seems to be suggesting, there is a significant amount of misogyny baked into the Anglican choral tradition that we are only now beginning to fully uncover and discuss out in the open (Spoiler alert: there is).

Under the category of unexamined privilege, I must conclude it is easy for Lowrey as a countertenor to state that higher-voiced sopranos should simply be aware that once they are no longer ‘young voices’ or have a ‘supple’ sound (dog whistle for 'small' or 'unobtrusive') they must be prepared that their choral singing career will be over. Unfortunately, this kind of rhetoric remains common and is, frankly, a victim blaming logic.

What goes unmentioned in this article is that a large number of choral conductors operating in both the volunteer and professional spheres have next to no knowledge of vocal technique and are often unwilling to admit to this gap in their education, let alone seek out resources to help them bridge it. Or, perhaps they know their own voice, but if they grew up singing tenor or bass, they are unlikely to understand what the soprano voice is capable of and how best to support it at different stages of development. As a result, they often end up perpetuating harm.

Not only that, but the model of attrition (use up a young voice, replace them with another one) that Lowrey's argument implies should be used in 'traditional' choral music (whatever that means) is not only misogynist in this context but foolish: you end up losing a great deal of musicianship and collective knowledge in the field. Representation matters: what are we saying to young women and women-identifying folk when respected members of the field are given a platform to perpetuate a false narrative that women lose their value as musicians when they reach a certain age? Finally, it becomes next to impossible to build trusting relationships between singers and conductors when you essentially commit to hiring a constant merry-go-round of young voices. That lack of trust not only affects the sound and the level of performance an ensemble is able to achieve (or, in many cases, not achieve), it also perpetuates many of the abusive power dynamics that we have seen go largely unchecked for years in the classical music and choral world specifically.

On a personal note: if I had followed the logic of Lowrey’s argument, I would have likely stopped singing at age 17 when I developed vocal nodes after years singing in an Anglican girls choir. I would have never discovered that I could learn to sing a high C with a variety of different tones and expressive qualities, none of them straight. Perhaps this is also my string player training talking, but I must say, yet again, that sound is created by vibration. Asking sopranos to deny a law of physics and refusing to engage in a clear conversation around aesthetic preferences that admits to this fundamental truth akin to the law of gravity continues to be frustrating.

And finally: how many talented singers are we losing who encounter vocal fatigue or injury and assume that it is their fault? And that the road ends there? Lowrey implying that experiencing vocal fatigue equates to a lack of natural talent rather than framing it as a normal challenge that literally everyone will experience at different points of their career encourages the maintenance of the current veil of silence around vocal injury. We must encourage singers to seek help, be vulnerable, and understand that vocal challenges can be worked through.

I am very fortunate that I have encountered supportive teachers, conductors, soprano role models who helped me to see a path forward. I have thoughts on (and would love to see more discussion) on the concrete pedagogy of helping ‘larger,’ more resonant voices sing healthily and contribute in a choral context as well as what self-proclaimed choral specialists can learn from more traditional bel canto singing technique: that is a topic for a different day. All I will say here is that having experienced and sought out training in both traditions has made me the musician I am today and I consistently draw on both. I am also thrilled to report that, at age 32, my technique and abilities feel more solid than ever. So much for an early expiration date.

One thing I do agree with Lowrey on: this issue is under-discussed. In my experience, many singing teachers are discouraged from engaging in frank conversations around technical modifications that singers can employ to make a healthy sound that prioritizes tuning and blend in a choral context. As someone with a naturally larger voice who has made most of my music career singing professional choral music, I am, according to Lowrey’s view, an oxymoron and shouldn’t exist. The fact that I do, and that I regularly encounter other talented, larger soprano voices who are able to sing healthily for conductors who respect physical limits and listen to their singers, gives me hope.

I’d like to close by once again bringing up the question of repertoire, as many have done and continue to do: why, if we are admitting to an argument that repertoire in the 'traditional' canon does not allow for more female singers to comfortably participate in the choral music world into their older years, are we not looking to modify what is being written? At the very least, why can we not look for and provide more options that respond to the realities of the aging voice? This sounds like a programming challenge for those who are brave and would like to encourage inclusivity rather than continue to push people out. I encourage us all to pay attention and give support to the groups that are already taking up that challenge.

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