A chronic mistake that singers, both young and more experienced, tend to make is over-identifying with their vocal fach. When living in the often unclear, transitory, ego-shaking world of sensation required while developing and perfecting vocal technique, fach can seem like a life raft to hold onto for reassurance and emotional survival. Vocal fach can provide more than just a technical goal or specialized repertoire – it can even provide a certain type of personality identification.
The great opera composers provided a template of their own ideas for the personalities of each fach, always with variations and exceptions, of course. In general, the personality types for women are the crazy coloratura soprano, the saucy soubrette, the earnest, yet misunderstood lyric soprano, the doomed spinto soprano, the heroic dramatic soprano, the energetic, spunky coloratura mezzo, the teenage, pants-wearing lyric mezzo, and the bitchy, witchy or motherly dramatic mezzo and contralto. Here are the personality types for men, though they are more flexible due to the larger number of roles for men – the character high lyric tenor, the comedic, leading man high lyric tenor, the intense, youthful lyric tenor, the brave, doomed spinto tenor, the heroic dramatic tenor, the brotherly high lyric baritone, the comedic lyric baritone, the spurned, tortured dramatic baritones, the fatherly bass-baritone, the comedic bass, the fatherly, priestly dramatic bass, and the evil, conniving dramatic bass.
Interestingly enough, I have seen singers from the time I was in college up to colleagues and students now aligning themselves with their vocal fach, becoming emotionally attached and taking on the identity of that fach. For some this can be somewhat helpful, but for most it is not. Many young singers have their fach misdiagnosed, because a voice teacher misses clues about the true instrument or there are too many vocal issues hiding the real voice. That means the singer can work on repertoire and believe him or herself to be a certain fach, making an emotional investment, only to have to change fachs later on. This can be very confusing for singer. Knowing your true fach is almost like knowing where your home is, the place you can feel most comfortable and at your best. Over-identification with vocal fach at a young age can definitely become a problem. It is more important that young singers focus on listening to and absorbing the repertoire, both live and recorded, learning all they can about technique and making sure to find the right teacher who can help them reach their highest potential. The better your technique, the easier it will be to determine your true fach.
I have a lot of personal experience with this issue. I had bad vocal instruction for my first few years of college and my naturally open, resonant voice became completely shut down, tight and barely phonated as a result. It was believed by these teachers that basically all of their female students were high sopranos with only the exception of a handful who were clearly mezzos. There was no variation allowed and no possibility of being a different voice type. As a baby dramatic soprano, this attitude was unhelpful in the extreme. With an easy top, it was decided I was a coloratura soprano and I had to sing high Cs in chorus. Half a year later with my voice improving slightly, I became a soubrette. Soon, with properly phonating vocal cords, I was a high lyric soprano. Not long after that, I was getting closer to a midweight lyric soprano. At that point, I realized that my voice was still quite shut down and that my first teacher, besides being emotionally abusive in my voice lessons, was not giving me the right information. I changed to another teacher, Ronda Plessinger, who did me a tremendous favor by having me sing as a lyric mezzo for a year. By singing in a lower tessitura, my larynx finally had a chance to relax down from the stratosphere and some natural weight and color began to come into my voice. By the time I moved back up to the full lyric soprano repertoire, it had become clear that I was going to develop into a spinto or dramatic soprano. I had been labeled in so many fachs that I would have had an emotional breakdown had a truly identified with each one of them along the way!
It is true that there are sometimes parallels between a singer’s voice type and personality. But this is certainly nowhere close to always being true. It is truly better for singers to keep their eyes on the prize and realize that healthy singing is the real goal. By creating a strong support system and thinking positively, singers can weather any changes in fach and remain emotionally balanced. After all, life is usually much happier than an opera libretto!
A fach is like a pair of shoes. You can put any shoes on your feet that aren’t too incredibly small for them and stumble about for a short time, but you certainly don’t want to walk a mile or run a marathon in ill-fitting shoes. You would hurt your feet and, over time, do permanent damage to them. The same is true of fach. If you can hit all the notes, you can sing the piece in theory, but that doesn’t mean it “fits” your voice. Knowing your true fach helps you determine what pieces have the correct tessitura for your voice and will be the comfortable fit necessary to allow you to do the marathon of operatic performances for the longterm.
Tessitura is truly a key determining factor for not only fach, but the repertoire within a fach that you choose to sing. Singing in a tessitura that is too low or too high puts strain on the voice and usually makes the singer manipulate his or her technique as a coping mechanism. While doing this on one or two pieces every so often and then singing your normal tessitura 99.99% of the time shouldn’t hurt you, doing it more consistently can bring on unwanted vocal problems. That is why it is crucial that singers honor their voices and sing repertoire that fits instead of what doesn’t.
Understanding this fact is particularly important, because all singers want to sing repertoire outside of their fach. It is the nature of singers to hear beautiful, stirring repertoire appropriate for other vocal fachs and desire to sing it. After all, we are musicians and appreciate gorgeous music. Instrumentalists also hear repertoire for other instruments, appreciate it and wish they could play it themselves, but realize the folly of attempting that. A bassoon playing repertoire for clarinet and a violin playing repertoire for a cello makes no sense. Even if it ispossible, it would incredibly difficult to do and does no service to the music or the instrument in the least. A bassoon can’t mimic the characteristics or tone quality of a clarinet, just as a violin can’t mimic the colors and depth of tone of a cello. So, instrumentalists know the wisdom of sticking with the repertoire appropriate for their chosen instrument, in order to sound their best.
Vocal fach indicates the instrument as well as the repertoire that that instrument should sing. Singers are born with instruments built into their bodies that are unchangeable. There is nothing that can be done about your instrument – it is what it is. The challenge of every singer is to accept his or her vocal instrument and develop it to its fullest potential without trying to change its innate qualities and limitations. Resistance to this idea is futile (my nod to Star Trek TNG) and will only result in a myriad of self-imposed vocal issues. Therefore, it is crucial for singers to determine their correct vocal fach and to remain within it as it is for instrumentalists to play repertoire suited for their instrument.
Most singers would love the opportunity to sing a different fach for a number of reasons, including the character personalities associated with the various fachs as discussed above, the distinguishing sound of the particular fach, the repertoire and perceived advantages of the various fachs, such as more opportunities available to perform and greater vocal longevity. Often, singers can over-identify with a fach other than their true one, because of one or more of these reasons. It is very tempting to overstep your fach boundaries and do some experimenting with other repertoire.
However, this type of experimenting is a serious misstep. A lyric coloratura soprano singing Carmen sounds out-of-place and inappropriate, as does a dramatic tenor singing Nemorino in Elixir. There are specific expectations of the sound of a certain fach. Experienced singers understand this. When a singer’s voice does not meet those expectations, the music sounds incongruous and wrong. What is very dangerous is that when singers sing music in the wrong fach, they end up consciously or unconsciously altering the voice to meet the different expectations. This could entail a lighter voice adding unhealthy vocal weight in an effort to create a fuller sound or a heavier voice coming off of the support to lighten the voice to sound more lyric.
These alterations of the voice and vocal technique can come quickly or more gradually over a period of time, be encouraged by well-intentioned, but unenlightened teachers and seem like vocal development or growth to the singer and listeners without highly-refined ears. Feeling is honestly the best way for singers to determine if they are heading in the wrong direction vocally. If singing feels uncomfortable, if high notes are difficult, if the voice feels weighted, if fast passages are no longer as easy to sing, if there is vocal fatigue during or after practicing, you need to rethink your vocal technique and perhaps even your fach. Be realistic about your voice and leave any wishful thinking and over-identification with your favorite fach aside. Singers have to be pragmatic. You can only be your best when you honor your innate vocal instrument, sing what is the appropriate for it and not be swayed your own desires. When in doubt about fach, try to sing for the best professionals available to you and ask for their opinion.
There is a common misconception out there that the darker and more colorful the voice, the heavier it is. This is untrue and can lead lighter-voiced singer who over-identify with heavier voices to ruin. Light voices don’t have to sound bright and disembodied. With the correct training, an open oro-pharynx and a relaxed, lowered larynx, many lighter-voiced singers can have wonderful depth, warmth and color combined with a sweet innocence that is heart-catching and very moving for any audience. A high lyric voice can’t also have a dramatic sound – that is a fallacious concept. The vocal cords determine whether or not a voice is lyric, spinto (lyric in most of the voice with some dramatic characteristics at the top) or dramatic. Spinto is the only combination of the two possible. Most likely what these lighter-voiced singers have is a naturally more colorful voice, which should be developed and cherished for what it is, without being pushed into inappropriate repertoire because of fach over-identification with heavier voices.
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