World Choir Games Flanders 2021

Mixed tenor sections: the weirdness of men and women singing the same note

  • [A version of this article first appeared as a post on my blog From the Front of the Choir]

    Many community choirs have mixed tenor sections with men and women singing the same part.



    That’s when things can get weird! Let’s look at what’s going on.

    There is often a shortage of men in mixed community choirs, especially men who like to sing high. Most men tend to be baritones and will gravitate to the bass section.

    In which case, many choirs fill their tenor section with women who like to sing low and a few men who like to sing high.

    problems arising from having a mixed tenor section

    Mixing men and women’s voices in the same section can bring a few problems:

    1. limits the tenor range – any song arrangement that the choir chooses can’t have a tenor part that’s too high for the men or too low for the women. That limits the range of possibilities.
    2. two different kinds of voice – the timbre and quality of men’s and women’s voices differ so it becomes harder to blend the tenor section vocally.
    3. male voices can dominate – because the men are singing high in their range their voices tend to be quite loud and piercing. It’s difficult for women singing very low in their range to compete. You need to be careful to get the balance right.
    4. difficulty of knowing what octave to sing – this is where most of the challenge is: men and women singing the same pitch can seem very strange at first and it’s easy to get confused about what octave you’re supposed to be singing in.

     

    men and women singing the same note

    Men and women don’t often stand together singing exactly the same notes. At first it can appear strange.

    Men will be singing high in their range whereas women will be singing low in their range, even though both men and women will be singing exactly the same pitch. The strangeness comes from unfamiliarity and the perception that the person of the other gender is singing much higher or lower than you are. It takes some time to get used to.

    In everyday life we tend to stereotype men’s and women’s voices by perceiving that men’s voices are generally lower than women’s voices. We kind of guess that the difference is about an octave (even if we might not understand musically what an ‘octave’ is).

    If a man sings a note to a woman, she won’t copy it, but she’ll automatically sing it an octave higher.

    If a woman sings a note to a man, he won’t copy it, but will automatically sing it an octave lower.

    However, if those notes are at pitches within the range of both men and women, then it can be ambiguous.

    If a man and a woman stand next to each other and sing exactly the same pitch, it will usually be perceived by the women as being low in their range, and by the men as high in their range. Which means that it can feel that you are singing different notes! The woman is singing too low and the man is singing too high.

    After a while it becomes second nature and you’re able to hear the sung note independently of whether a man or a woman is singing it.

    the challenge of giving out starting notes to a mixed tenor section

    Getting your starting note can also be problematic. A woman choir leader will sing the starting note at pitch for the women tenors, but an octave higher for the men as she wants them to sing high in their range.

    Conversely, a male choir leader will sing at pitch to the men, but an octave lower to the women as he wants them to sing low in their range.

    Which means that whatever the gender of the choir leader, they might have to give out two starting notes (an octave apart) so the singers know where to pitch.

    If you find it confusing and can’t get your note from your choir leader then try to get your note from another singer of the same gender who has got it.

    Failing that, you can ask for your note to be given at the correct pitch from a piano, say (not a pitch pipe as that will be too high). This works for both men and women.

    After a time, when the mixed group of tenors have got used to it, it’s possible for the choir leader to just sing at pitch and everyone will get it. But it does take a while.

    why women shouldn’t (usually) sing bass

    Some women with low voices ask if they can sing the bass part believing that they are truly singing down with the men. This is not usually the case.

    More likely is that they have a low voice and should be singing with the tenors. They’re actually singing an octave higher than the blokes but perceive themselves to be singing as low.

    It’s important for the integrity of a SATB arrangement that each part is sung at pitch (which is why there are usually no male sopranos either). So, unless they can truly hit those low, low notes (and occasionally there is a woman who can), women won’t be singing the bass part.

    other useful posts

    You might find these other posts useful on the subject:

    Singing the same note – differently!

    Can women sing tenor?

    How to give and receive starting notes

    Finding (and keeping) your starting note

    How male singers can successfully pitch from a woman (and how women can pitch from a man)

     

     

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    Chris Rowbury

    website: chrisrowbury.com
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