A question of identity in a Bach chorale

I auditioned for a choir today. The last time I subjected myself to such an ordeal was in 1978, on arriving at university, so I wasn’t entirely comfortable at the prospect – involving singing scales, a pre-prepared extract from the Bach piece in the choir repertoire for this term, and some sight-reading and aural tests. But I wanted to sing in the choir, so I just had to “woman-up” and get on with it. The result was a revelation, which will take some getting used to.

I had put myself forward to audition as an alto, because for the last 45 years that’s what I’ve been. As soon as I started singing in choirs, in the early years of secondary school, I decided I was an alto. The precise reasons for my decision are lost in the mists of my memory but I think they go something like this.

The first was no doubt a desire to set myself apart from my mother. She had sung in the church choir as a younger woman and, with minimal musical training, she had a fine, strong soprano voice. This would blossom when we sang hymns in church, and from time to time around the house, where one of her favourites was “the keel row”. I was never in the business of following exactly in my parents’ footsteps (along the lines of refusing to do geography O-level because my dad was a geography teacher), so if I sang it had to be something slightly different from my mother.

Second, I’ve always liked a challenge. Singing alto – at least in the eyes of my 11-year old self – was more complicated than singing soprano, because it wasn’t just singing “the tune” but involved delving underneath and harmonising. So it appealed to my preference for complexity (see my earlier blog-post on learning a fugue), and learning music theory baked in this preference even harder.

By the time I went to university – where we sang the Tallis 40-part motet Spem in Alium in my 2nd year, so it would have been abundantly clear that singing one of the soprano parts was at least as complex as anything I was attempting – I had already established my identity as “an alto”.

And I’m not using the word “identity” lightly here. The words we use reinforce a sense of identity: we talk about “being a soprano/alto/tenor/bass”, not merely “singing the S/A/T/B/ part”. This perhaps reflects the fact that our voice is a part of who we are, rather than just something we do. But being an alto vs a soprano (and I assume being a tenor vs a bass) is as much a matter of identity as being brunette versus blonde, or – perhaps more controversially – being British, or European.

This alto identity also fitted with my preferences as an introvert. I’ve never sung a solo in public in my life, though I enjoy belting out a tune in the company of others. While there are of course many wonderful contralto solos, the alto part in a choir is often less conspicuous, more reserved, less florid than the soprano part. I’ve always regarded any singing ability I might have as that of a reasonably competent choral sight-reader rather than a polished soloist, and that fitted very well with providing the harmonic interest down in the alto section.

More recently, a couple of chinks had developed in the armour of my identity as an alto. For over 30 years, while commuting to a civil service job, I didn’t sing regularly in a choir; but I did dabble from time to time, and for a few months was a member of a small chamber group – as a soprano, because that’s what they were short of. Then, just last month, I sang soprano in the Fauré Requiem at a summer school – again because they were desperately short of sopranos – and found it both manageable and exhilarating.

But neither of these forays was sufficient to alter my long-standing identity as an alto. They “didn’t count”, because I was singing soprano as a favour, to even out the numbers; if I didn’t feel able reach the high notes, I could just keep quiet without any loss of face.

Keeping quiet was not, of course, an option during the audition. As I started on the scales, I was given a few tips on vocal technique and then asked to sing higher and higher until I’d lost track of which note I was starting on. The pianist confirmed that the note I’d just reached – with reasonable ease and volume – was a top G, and still the music director wanted me to go higher. He eventually relented as I squeaked a top B 

And then he declared that, based on various technical considerations such as my “passaggio” (which I’m now reading up on), and the fact that my low notes were weak or in some cases almost non-existent, I’m a soprano. A second soprano, but a soprano nonetheless.

Apparently, I’ve also got “quite a big voice”.

So I’m in the choir, but not as an alto. I’ve never been an alto. I’ve been deluding myself for the last 45 years.

This will take some getting used to. I may burst into song – loud, high-pitched song – from time to time, just to try out my new identity.

Ultimately, I may learn to cherish my inner shrillness. I may even have lessons to develop and control this new, high-pitched voice, and see how big it can grow. For now, I can only marvel at discovering something new and unexpected in the depths of middle age.


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