An Open Letter to Large-voiced Singers


Dear Singer,

So, you have been blessed with a large voice and, most likely, a finer and more complex instrument than many of your colleagues.  Congratulations… and my condolences.  There are both positives and negatives to having a truly large instrument and I want to explain some circumstances you might have already experienced and help get you ready for those to come.

First, it will take much longer for your voice to develop compared to your colleagues.  It isn’t your fault – it is simply the nature of your instrument.  The light lyric-coloratura soprano sitting at the end of the row in your college chorus will have her mature instrument at around age 28.  Yours will probably take until you are 35 – 40 and even longer for Wagnerians.  That is a huge difference!  What does that mean in concrete terms?  It means that you probably won’t be the star singer in college, because it will take longer for your voice to come together.  It might be difficult for you to find a teacher who really understands larger voices, can help you build a solid technique and open up your voice to the point the true instrument can be heard.  Because of that, you might be misunderstood and told by the people around you that you aren’t talented.

Don’t believe those people!  They just don’t understand your unique voice and its requisite  developmental path.  Keep your head high and hope in your heart, while you look to the future and prepare yourself.

Because of the difficulty in finding appropriate training and the longer development time needed for large-voiced singers, the competition and apprenticeship path is often not open to you.  That is geared towards your smaller-voiced colleagues whose voices can come together more quickly and sound more mature early on.  That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try.  By all means, do the auditions.  But don’t be upset if you don’t get anything.  You simply need more time and the right training.  There are bigger opportunities for you later on.

One of the most important things that large-voiced singers need to be aware of is that you have to be in it for the long-haul.  Yes, a very few people get lucky when they are young, but most large-voiced singers have to work, study and practice for a number of years until their voices are fully ready to perform the roles they were designed to sing.  That makes what you do to earn money of paramount importance.  I remember being told to do temporary work in an office as an assistant after finishing school.  It was supposed to give me flexibility and nights off to study, practice, perform, etc.  In reality, it didn’t give me much flexibility at all and it certainly didn’t make me enough money to pay for voice lessons, coachings, and everything else I needed.  Nowadays, temp assistant jobs are limited and much more stressful than they used to be.  There are many career options available both on-line and off-line that offer both flexibility and significantly more money.  Take the time to do research, get career counseling before you leave school and do some non-music training to get fully prepared.  This is crucial!  You need to make enough money for your voice training doing something that you can get some enjoyment out of at the same time.  If you hate your job, it will affect your emotional state and end up affecting your singing.

Finding the right teacher for you is another crucial part of the process.  Your teacher needs to help you sing better and set you on a path to complete vocal development for your unique instrument, not just fix a few issues and call it a day.  In order to sing seriously on a professional level, all of the elements required in the classical singing voice have to be present with no obtrusive issues masking them in any way.  This requires a teacher who understands all of the necessary elements and how to train them in a large voice like the one you possess.  Also, a voice teacher should not be more concerned about his or her life, reputation or own singing career during your voice lesson than working with you.  That is your time and it should be spent on teaching you a healthy technique.  There is the old idea that a singer should give a new voice teacher six months to see if the technique works or not.  Actually, an excellent voice teacher who understands larger voices can make positive changes quite quickly with a willing student, as long as that student is grasping the concepts during the lessons and practicing them regularly at home.  If you are not seeing any improvement at all after two to three months, contemplate looking for other options.  You really don’t have six months to waste on poor teaching.

I have said this before and I will say it again – negativity and emotional abuse have no place in the voice teaching studio!!  Most singers, including myself, can relate horror stories of terrible things voice teachers have said to them, but please don’t feel that you have to put up with it for appropriate vocal training.  There is always another teacher who can help you and also be supportive.  The damage done by teachers abusing their students is sometimes irreparable.  Don’t let yourself become a victim.

As your voice develops over time, you might end up singing in several different fachs.  I myself started college as a coloratura, making my way steadily down through all of the soprano fachs to full lyric soprano.  Then I skipped down to lyric mezzo for around a year and a half (much to my larynx’s delight) and back up to spinto soprano, where I stayed for a few years before taking on dramatic soprano repertoire. While it is ideal to have your fach identified very early and be able to sing that repertoire, it often isn’t practical or even what is best for your voice.  Much of the repertoire for truly large voices should be sung only when the instrument is more developed and closer to its final form.  The larger repertoire is difficult and if you are simply not ready, you end up building in all sorts of bad habits and muscle memory into pieces you need to sing later on.

While it is difficult singing a different fach than you know you should, don’t let it discourage you.  It is all part of the process.  Take advantage of the chance to sing in other fachs!  It can actually be a wonderful opportunity to learn the art song, operatic and oratorio repertoire from the inside, really get to understand how other voices work and have the great joy of singing music by a wider range of composers.  Smart singers who know more than just about singing are often the ones that succeed.  Having experience singing Bellini, Rossini, Bach, Mozart, etc., will not only make you a more well-rounded musician, but also inform your vocal technique in new ways.  The most important things are to sing any music with your voice versus your idea (or other people’s ideas) of how it should sound and find music with a comfortable tessitura for you.  Tessituras that are too high or too low cause vocal strain and should be avoided.

One of the strange things about having a larger voice is that there are sometimes elements of the real fach that show up in the voice young, but sound a little unusual when the voice is undeveloped and don’t seem to fit.  These can manifest as a metallic sound, a type of buzz in the voice, an unusual color, etc.  I always had a strange metallic sound in my voice, which seemed inappropriate and extraneous when I was young and singing lyric repertoire, but is an integral part of my dramatic instrument and makes perfect sense in context.  Be aware that you might have one of these elements and give yourself time for the rest of your voice to develop around it.

When you are ready to branch into the bigger repertoire, do so advisedly and with a teacher with good ears to help you.  Don’t start with the hardest piece you can find!  Pick less challenging pieces that are easier and with a slightly lower tessitura or even start with just one section of a piece at a time.  It is more important that you work good vocal technique into a piece you will be singing long-term, so it is worth putting off harder pieces until you are ready.  I have heard poor young women struggling technically through “Dich theure Halle” from Tannhauser with its very high tessitura when they would have been much better off singing “Du bist der Lenz”, which has a more comfortable tessitura and is much, much easier to sing.

Once you start singing your real repertoire, pleaseremember one, incredibly crucial concept – big voices don’t need to push to be heard!!  If you really and truly dohave a large voice, you will be heard just fine when you sing lyrically and easily.  In fact, your voice will be biggerwhen you sing openly and easily with energized, flexible breath resistance than it will be if you push.  Sing the larger repertoire with your voice.  If your technique is coming together or almost there, it should feel comfortable for you.  That is key!  If it is the right music for your voice, you won’t need to push or do anything extra.  Your voice will be more than enough.  This is true in particular for Wagner.  For the right voices, much of what Wagner wrote is actually quite easy and comfortable to sing – not too high, not too low, appropriate tessituras, not too terribly angular.  The challenge lies in other areas, e.g. maintaining stamina for whole roles, singing lyrically, not pushing, etc.

It is of course important to get performance experience, both when you are waiting to turn into your real fach and once it has happened.  Find a teacher and coaches you can trust and listen to their advice on what roles would work for you, while paying attention to your own instincts.  After all, you have to do the singing and you need to protect your own vocal health.  Once you have an idea of appropriate roles for your stage of development, prepare the arias, audition with confidence and don’t apologize.  If you get the role, that’s great.  If not, just keep trying and you’ll get another role.  Workshops are a wonderful way to get some experience, as well.  In rehearsal situations with other singers, be aware that they might be jealous of your larger instrument and they probably won’t understand your voice.  Don’t let it affect your confidence or your vocal technique.  You are there to learn and develop as a performer.  Be as professional and kind as possible, reach out to them and recognize their merits as singers.   Do what you can to make it a positive experience for both you and your colleagues.  A great way to get singing opportunities is through other singers, so you want show what a good colleague you are.

Getting professional performance experience for larger-voiced singers can be more difficult than for smaller-voice singers.  As mentioned before, for most of you, the competition-YAP route simply doesn’t work, because your voice either won’t be developed enough or you won’t have met the right teacher to help you open up your voice completely.  There is no one, right way to move forward when you are blessed with a larger-voice.  So, you will have to find your own path towards a professional career.  Below are a few ideas for you to try.

One suggestion is to look for competitions for older singers.  There aren’t many of them, but there are a few around.  Those can certainly help give you some exposure and lead to other opportunities.  You can also sing for composer societies to find supportive audiences, exposure and financial assistance.  But this industry is built on connections and making connections wherever you go will be extremely important for you.  Work with coaches you like and feel comfortable with as you are developing your voice and musicianship.  Once you feel that enough of your voice is together to really display your unique talent, ask everyone you respect for recommendations of people for whom you should sing.  You never know when someone has an old friend who is positioned to hear you and promote your career.

When you feel ready, sing for as many professional coaches as you can.  Some will be difficult, but just ignore them and their comments.  If a situation is abusive, don’t return for more.  Ask the rest for an assessment on what you need to work on and how to move forward.  Coaches often know other people in the industry – agents, music and stage directors, conductors, etc. – and you want to get them on your side and have them recommend you.  If you hear the same feedback being repeated over and over again, take heed and let your voice teacher know.  Even a teacher with great ears can sometimes miss a small technical aspect that those with fresher ears can pick up.  BUT, and this is a big but, don’t take every coach’s comments as gospel.  It isn’t.  Coaches have difficult jobs, bless their hearts!  They have to be fabulous pianists and musicians, learn an extensive amount of the vocal repertoire, play all of that music extremely well, know multiple languages and deal with neurotic singers day after day.  It is too much to ask for them to understand the technical aspects of the voice as well and often, they simply don’t.  And, as with your other colleagues, a number of coaches are going to be less likely to understand your larger voice than a smaller-voiced singer, meaning that any technical issues you have might get magnified all out of proportion by a coach.  If you get negative feedback, be polite, thank the coach and say that you will discuss it with your voice teacher.  Just always remember that coaches are people, too, and they have good days and bad days.  Try not to take anything they say to you personally, even though that is always easier said than done.

As you continue on and become a polished performer, vocally and otherwise, start working with coaches at opera companies.  It might be worth waiting for this step, because some people will always judge your voice based on the first time they heard you.  Coaches with companies are more likely to understand your larger voice and appreciate its special attributes.  Develop your relationships and see over time if you can manage to wrangle an audition.  Once you do even a small role at a company, you have professional experience on your resume and can apply more confidently for other roles.  It is on stage in performance that your large voice will finally truly shine and able to be fully appreciated for its size, richness and wonderful complexity.

Always, always keep learning music, including whole roles.  It is very helpful to know a whole role and be ready to sing it at a moment’s notice.  If you have a relationship with a coach at a smaller company and know a role in an opera in their current season, you can see if it is possible to volunteer to be a cover and sit in on rehearsals.  This can be another way to get a chance at performing and adding to your resume.  There are also many other ways to get started with your performing career, so keep an open mind and see what opportunities come your way.

In conclusion, hang in there, larger-voiced singers!  Developing your voice to its maximum potential and starting a career isn’t an easy, stress-free path strewn with rose petals and accolades.  You need to be prepared for years of study, work and sacrifice, but the world needs your special talent, your focus and your dedication.  So much of the best, most moving, most ravishingly beautiful operatic repertoire absolutely has to be sung by larger voices to sound whole and true to the composer’s wishes.  The smaller and medium-sized voices currently singing those roles leave the audiences unsatisfied.  Only you can really and truly sing these roles wonderfully!  By keeping the faith and continuing on your path, you will be taking up the torch carried by the greatest opera singers of the past and ensuring that the world’s most exciting and wonderful music is performed at its very best – with the voices that should be singing it.


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