I was once an adolescent girl toting a beat up Gibson SG into rock clubs I wasn’t old enough to be in just so I could have a chance to be on a stage with my band. I was not unique in any particular way: just another pre-teen barking into a distorted microphone with aspirations of rock fame. I held the musicians I was inspired by at the time in such a degree of esteem so as they were hardly mortal. I wanted to be able to create the sounds they made, to be looked at the way I gaped up at the stage while getting trampled by sweat laden concert-goers.
By the time I reached high school, my avid interest in music and composition lead an advisor to encourage me to train harder and join the more disciplined music department of my school, forgoing the self-taught methods I’d gotten by with prior to then. The curriculum of the voice program was split seasonally, so I was allayed by the administrator that I’d only have to endure a semester of classical before the course would switch tracks to more popular music. I relented, saying I’d give it a try, but intended to drop the course if it didn’t suit me.
Upon hearing me sing the first few times, the coach perceived tendencies in my voice I was unaware of; I was not a rock singer – I was a soprano. I’d been forcing myself to sing low the previous few years in proximity to a pocket of the deep range my speaking voice sits in. An amateur, I presumed I should sing in the most developed, comfortable area of my voice, completely unconscious of the massive amount of untraversed range that perched in my stratosphere. I coached for four years with two instructors and one ensemble, all the while continuing to write my own music. Through one of my trainers, I had an offer to continue to sing in a competitive classical voice program on the Amalfi Coast in Italy, but the moment singing opera pivoted from solely a skill to a potential profession, I turned my back on it. It was not something I yearned to do; I simply could do it.
However, all those years of vocal weight lifting transformed my sound into something that could not be attenuated. To the majority of listeners, I will always be a classical singer performing folk music – even though I never was a classical singer. To an average contemporary audience, anything above C5 is perceived as “shrill”, no matter the timbre of the vocalist. The melodies of my pieces comfortably reach a sixth above that without breaching tessitura. So, I have condemned myself to being unlistenable to most, yet still release albums. The higher I sing, the deeper I entrench myself into a solitary niche – or grave.
What does it mean to be a soprano in pop music of 2017? You’ll be unmarketable to a commercial audience. Furthermore, even with exemplary diction, most listeners will not be able to comprehend what you’re saying. As a willful lyricist, that is what demoralizes me. I am risibly exacting with the engineers I’ve worked with, sometimes requesting to punch in a single consonant in order to carve out one word: all to make my music more approachable. I could sing lower, but since I ceased training at the juncture I did, I’ve compelled my passaggio further and further down, so as to almost never veer into my calloused chest voice. It remains for the most part uncharted, aside from dialogue. At a young age, if you are capable of hitting the highest note in the chorale, you are continually coaxed to in order to dilate your range and strengthen those muscles. Invariably, there comes a point when a vocalist’s chest voice becomes sonically quite differentiated from their head, causing training to circle back and work on smoothing that transition. It can take a lifetime for that breach to be fluently mended. In my case, it remains a dark, back stairwell I’ve left in shambles on a buffer of denial. However, it just might be the passageway sopranos need to explore if we wish to really reach our listeners.