Tone Matters

“Could you please rephrase that in your normal voice?”

I don’t know how many times this sentence has left my mouth as a mom to young kids. Turns out (for all you solo quarantiners who haven’t experienced the joy of constant chaos), whining gets old. Fast. So does yelling at your sister or screaming at your brother. If you are a parent, you know exactly what I am talking about: the constant teaching of appropriate tone when speaking with others.

In fact, if you’re reading this article you have probably fought this same battle but on a different playground: the choral rehearsal. As teachers in the choral art, we are constantly teaching “appropriate tone” to achieve the sound we imagine in our heads.

But what if we’re wrong?

What if our definition of appropriate tone leaves out colors some voices carry, timbres created by distinct vocal tracts, or lilting pronunciations of a singer whose first language isn’t English?  The truth is our ideal sound- the sound we are taught to strive for that resides only in our mind- is centered in our experience. Take a moment to think about that. YOUR ideal choral sound is centered in YOUR experience. So, what is your experience? Did your experience as a choral singer immerse you in lots of colors or a single palette? Did your experience point to one group or a couple of groups as “the gold standard” while minimizing the contributions of ensembles whose sound was different? Did your experience center all cultures or did it center whiteness? Did your experience uphold and support all kinds of choral leaders or was it always someone who looked like you?

After the murder of George Floyd, I was heavily impacted by signing the Black Voices Matter pledge. As I read these simple, effective ways I could work to de-center whiteness in my choral rehearsals, I was struck by all the questions I listed above. I started to examine my own experiences and challenged myself to find models of great choral music-making that didn’t reflect my experience. I enrolled in a course about decentering whiteness in the music classroom because I felt I had so much to learn. I took steps to relearn what “good choirs” are.

I have a long way to go. So do we all.

Perhaps I was ready to face these questions because I have been the singer whose voice had to mold into something it wasn’t in order to fit someone else’s box. I’m a soprano. I did my Masters of Music work in Cambridge, England. The “premier conductors” I worked with had all trained boy sopranos. They had all been boy sopranos. They wanted me to sound like a boy soprano. As a 29-year-old woman, I really, really, really tried. Truthfully, I sacrificed a lot of the voice I had carefully cultivated and grown in order to try and dutifully fulfill what I thought was my side of the bargain. I was a trained musician with years of experience; what are our singers, who rely on us, sacrificing in order to uphold their end of the bargain?

I know what I am implying here is a hard sell. I know about the pyramid of sound. I know about the scientific, acoustical need for more robust bass sound to support the trebles. I know in ACDA-MN we celebrate our choral legacy as an important leg of our organization and that this legacy centers a specific sound. But Minnesota and the world are not so small anymore.

I leave you with this challenge: Make space for your singers.

Maybe your singers are all Euro-centric descendants who prefer to keep things in a nice, tidy pyramid. Maybe your singers are all of Color and prefer to keep things spicy and hot in all ranges of the voice.

Likely, your singers are a mix of these and more. They are relying on YOU to show them how to find THEIR voice. Because they rely on you, I implore you to do this work. Examine your influences. Deconstruct your ideal sound and question choral norms. Discover, support, and uphold choral traditions that aren’t reflected in your experience.

I had my ideal sound wrong for a long time. You see, it was based on what was in my head- not based on who was in my choirs. As I work to redefine “good tone” (see Dwight Jilek’s amazing article on objectivity in tone), I know I’ll make mistakes. I’ll get things wrong. I’m also excited! I can’t wait to learn more about my singers’ musical experiences. I can’t wait for them to teach me.

I’m ready for all of my singers to know that their “normal voice” is the one I’m interested in cultivating. The beauty and expressiveness that their unique vocal tract can create is the one I celebrate. Once they know that their voice matters, they’ll know exactly what I’m asking for when I request: “Could you please rephrase that in your normal voice?”