We live in a world that loves labels. We love organizing, compartmentalizing, sorting, or really, anything that gives us some semblance of structure in an unpredictable world. The musical world is not exempt from this. The issue of voice labeling is something we discussed in my studies in Salt Lake City this summer. I have even heard the term "vocal diagnosis" used, as if voice typing is some kind of diagnosis by exclusion.
"Since your breaks lie here, here, and here, and you're more comfortable in this part of the range, that makes you a ___________."
My next question is: Does it matter?
Why does it really matter if someone needs to be labelled as a soprano? mezzo? tenor? baritone? bass? a dramatic soprano? or a lyric tenor with a warm lower range? Perhaps it gives us a sense of identity. Maybe a label automatically filters out the types of roles and repertoire that are inappropriate for our vocal abilities. More likely, it is a singers response to the musical construct society has created since certain roles and voice parts need to be filled. Singers need to label themselves in order to occupy these positions. I understand that. In some cases, it's how the business works, a kind of demand-and-supply type of approach. A composer writes music for a mixed SATB choir, well, there needs to be SATB voice parts to sing that piece.
However, I feel like the issue of voice labeling can create a sense of identity displacement in a vulnerable population of voice users. Of course, many careers are built from the fact that a singer's vocal abilities casts them into different character roles, such as a "Carmen" or "Turandot". But what about singers who are in the grey? Whose voices seem to straddle many different genres? Where they're in the opera chorus one day, singing medieval chant the next, and then experimenting with ingressive phonation in a contemporary piece. What should we call these vocal chameleons?
I remember struggling, in the days of my preteen voice training, to combat an excessive breathiness that only maturation would help remedy. I dreamt of the prospect of finally finding out if I would be a soprano or mezzo once my voice finally matured, as if the label would signal my coming-of-age moment as a singer. Well, I'm at the stage at which my voice is no longer in its preteen state and I'm still not so sure. But I also realized that, frankly, I don't care. For me, this is a healthier mental approach to working with an
instrument that is always changing. In general, I think voice training benefits
from an adaptive and not a prescriptive approach. I prefer not to view it not as a vocal diagnosis but a constant process of vocal experimentation and discovery. My main concern is that I have command of an instrument that can perform a variety of repertoire. Also, that I'm monitoring my vocal health and making sure nothing pathological is developing while singing. The thing about choral singing is that, regardless of your voice part, compositions demand a wide vocal range as well as diversity of vocal colors. Choristers are not type cast into iconic roles. We must be able to play a wide range of parts as per the wishes of the composer and the conductor's interpretation of that vision. No two instruments are built the same, thus, it is incorrect for them to be treated as such.
This doesn't mean I won't circle a voice part when I see "S A T B" listed on a choral application. I understand I need to fit within the musical construct. If we must have a label to belong in this musical world then we must label ourselves. However, I don't feel like this proclamation needs to dictate the mental performance range of a singer. We should not be so consumed with what we call ourselves as singers, but rather, what we can do as vocal artists to effectively communicate music. After all, labels aside, isn't that what we are all here to do?