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Who Am I...What Am I?
By Daniel K. Robinson
(April 2009)

Who Am I...What Am I? These two questions are ever present for the developing artist...and great artists are always developing. Simply, the question of identity is ever present in the life and psyche of the artist. If we are truly honest, these two questions come with a great deal of insecurity and the need to obtain significance from both within ourselves and from others. “Can I call myself a singer?”, “Do people actually like my singing?” & “Am I wasting my time with this singing thing?” are all regular questions in the singing teacher’s studio and they all find themselves birthed out of a sense of needing to know where the individual is placed within their community. Another prevalent question I am often asked by beginner students is, “What is my vocal range?” This question often has the sub-text of, “...can I sing higher than the next guy or gal?” In a world that trains us to build comparisons with each other during our primary school years, such a comparison is not unusual, but it is rarely helpful to the developing singer. Firstly, singers should never be rated according to their ‘highest singable note’. Hopefully a singer will utilise 30+ notes as a part of their voice. Focusing on ‘high notes’ rarely produces great singers...it’s just produces ‘high notes’. Secondly, what your voice does today, may not be what it performs tomorrow. There are so many factors that influence the voice, all of which have the ability to add or subtract to your overall performance. Leon Thurman in “Bodymind & Voice” (2000) writes, “Suppose a young person auditions for a choir when they are just ending a cold or flu during which they coughed a lot. Suppose another young singer has been smoking for one to two years, and another frequently drinks caffeinated beverages and rarely drinks water. And another was yelling recently for a sports team...these [singers] will have swollen and/or stiffened vocal folds, and their singing pitch range capabilities will be limited. In other words, they will not be able to sing as high as they are capable of singing, but they are likely to be able to sing lower than their actual anatomical dimensions would enable them to sing.” This leads us back to one of the previous questions, “What is my vocal range?” Some students arrive in my studio with a preconceived vocal identity which is meant to ‘label’ or ‘classify’ their voice. Many of us are familiar with the traditional choral groupings of singers into Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass (SATB). Whilst this traditional classification has proved helpful in grouping singers, it has not always lead to healthy outcomes for those singers. Again,

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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Djarts Voice Coaching ~ www.djarts.com.au

Thurman is helpful here. “Once singers’ voices are labelled, often in their preteen or teen years, the label becomes integrated with their self-identity. When asked about their voice classification, singers never say, “I sing the part marked (‘soprano, alto, tenor, or bass).” They say, “I am a (‘soprano, alto, tenor, or bass).” What if they aren’t what they’ve been told?...Are there conditions in a singer’s voice that can lead us to believe that she or he is one particular classification when in fact they more appropriately another? Thurman, later in his Chapter on ‘Classifying Voices’ goes on to qualify, “The essential benefit of voice classification is the selection of music that does not tax a singer’s voice beyond it’s capabilities for skilled, expressive singing, and beyond its current level of conditioning… The keys to voice classification that do not create the possibility of vocal skill limitations, or a possible predisposition to voice disorders, are: 1. learning physically and acoustically efficient voice skills and developing considerable fundamental skills before making a firm decision on voice classification; 2. developing optimal conditioning, particularly, in the larynx muscles and vocal fold tissues.” It is important to develop a ‘vocal identity’ and this may involve understanding the ‘outer limits’ of your vocal apparatus, i.e. your lowest and highest singable notes. It may also involve the ‘classification’ of your voice into one of the 6 main vocal classes (soprano, mezzo-soprano, alto, tenor, baritone or bass). But these identifiers needn’t be set in stone, especially for the beginner to intermediate singer. We must always allow for extrinsic factors such as diet, social occurrences (yelling at the footy) and general wellbeing, not to mention aging, to implicate themselves upon the performance, or lack thereof, of our voices. What we should avoid at all costs, is the process of comparisons. You have a unique voice with unique qualities and attributes. Who are you? You are a singer. What are you? You are a unique individual voice, learning, growing and developing.

References: Thurman, Leon & Graham Welch (2000). Bodymind and Voice: Foundations of Voice Education. Iowa, USA: The VoiceCare Network & National Centre for Voice and Speech.

© Daniel K. Robinson - 2010

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