Traversing Voice Types; My Journey from Mezzo to Soprano
When I tell people I “used to be” a mezzo-soprano, and now I’m a high soprano, they are often very surprised that someone can “change” voice types. With good reason – you cannot, in fact, truly change your voice type without taking hormones. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a major change that happened in my life about two years ago, when I found out that I am, and always have been, a soprano. So in order to give you more perspective of what led up to that point, I will offer my nutshell version of my singing history.
But first, some definitions. A mezzo-soprano is a type of female voice that is a bit lower and often darker in tone quality than a soprano. When I say “a bit” lower, it’s really not by much – the distinction is made more by where the voice shines, it’s tessitura, and also where the voice “shifts” from one “gear” to the next – those gears are called registers, and the transitions between them are called passages. Most women are sopranos, and most men are tenors! But there are other types of sopranos, and often-times the sopranos with a little more power or richness in their lower ranges, and/or with a keen musical ear, get put in the alto section of choirs, along with the mezzos and contraltos. “Alto” is not an operatic voice type, but rather a designation in a choir – it literally means “high,” meaning higher than the tenor voice! The lowest type of female voice is the contralto, and that is very rare.
So I have been exploring my voice from a young age – singing for joy, for the beauty of it. I started choir in middle school and singing (in a group or in the relative safety of my own home) fit right in alongside violin study as a safe outlet of expression, something that somehow made sense to me when so much else did not. My music-making continued through high-school, where I started to identify myself as a “good musician,” but never as a soloist or someone with a notable voice. Despite being mostly an introvert, I had a strong desire to perform and auditioned for plays and musicals. After many rejections, I finally got cast in some smaller roles in school plays. I was not discouraged from singing but I wasn’t encouraged, either. I sang in the alto sections of the advanced choir because I could hold my own with the harmonies, and I didn’t have the breath for the high notes. I also didn’t have the breath for speaking my truth, expressing my anger, or much else. I was an asthmatic.
In college I studied voice formally for the first time, and was immediately drawn in to the beautiful process of opening up my voice, and by doing so, getting to know myself on a deeper level. Little did I know I was already practicing a form of yoga, though I wouldn’t discover Hatha yoga for another few years. Without realizing it, I was using the yogic principle “svadhyaya” or self-study, to tune into my body and whole self; much like what I do now when I practice yoga, and what I encourage my students to do. Despite my deepening passion and commitment to this art, my vocal journey was not an easy one – asthma still blocked me, and I hit a wall when I tried to sing higher. I was told I was a mezzo and continued singing in the alto section in choir, and eventually sang some mezzo roles in operas. I was finding stability in my mezzo voice, but not freedom.
After I gave birth to my incredible daughter, my body didn’t quite seem to remember how to breathe for singing – I had lost my stability. Sometimes we need to be jolted out of our stable “safe” place in order to find more truth and freedom! This jolt led me to seek out a teacher who had struggled in a similar way as me and overcame asthma – that is how I found Linda Brice. When Linda first told me that I was a soprano and not a mezzo-soprano, I couldn’t believe her. I had spent so long in the identity of a mezzo; building repertoire as a mezzo, creating my “special-ness” as a singer around that. It was one of the hardest transitions of my life to have that all stripped from me and have to start again – second only in difficulty to the transition of becoming a mother. But this transition proved to be rich in important lessons about who I truly am as a singer and teacher. I am an expressive, musical singer, and finding my true voice type couldn’t change that (ultimately, it has helped.) I am a thoughtful, encouraging and observant teacher, and making this transition only deepened those qualities and gave me more tools to work with. My understanding of the registers of the voice has grown exponentially, as has my understanding of breathing for singing.
Two years later, I am a stronger singer than I’ve ever been, and most importantly, singing feels good. I mean, it felt good before, but now it feels really good – with so much more ease and fun. I say this to inspire anyone who might be on a similar path to keep at it – because it is so worth it!
Also, I know I mentioned this before, but I have grown so much as a musician and teacher as a result of this life-changing transition. I feel equipped to help any struggling singer who comes my way. And the best part is, the asthma is pretty much gone! I attribute that not only to my singing practice, but also to yoga and receiving regular acupuncture. But considering how sickly I was as a child and how much that one block got in the way of the biggest passion of my life, the now almost complete lack of wheezing and other symptoms is nothing short of miraculous. And I’m making great headway in speaking my truth and expressing my anger, too.