Fach Change

In classical singing sometimes an artist changes “fach”. This word refers to the general category that artist in is in relationship to roles in opera or perhaps also oratorio. There are all kinds of subdivisions of the basic soprano, alto, tenor and bass that you find in choirs. There is lyric coloratura, light lyric, and full lyric, lyrico-spinto, spinto, and dramatic soprano and Wagnerian soprano. There’s mezzo soubrette, lyric mezzo, full lyric mezzo, dramatic mezzo and somewhere in there, coloratura mezzo. There’s lyric tenor, full lyric tenor, dramatic tenor, and Heldentenor. There’s lyric baritone, “Verdi” baritone, and bass-baritone. There’s bass, basso cantante, basso buffo and countra-bass (found mostly in Russian choirs). In between there are “character” voices and counter tenors and male sopranos. Then, there are voices that are hard to classify – that don’t exactly fit into a category because they span more than one or don’t quite fit into an obvious one. Those artists really have to know their own instruments in order to have solid careers. If they choose the wrong roles, they are in trouble.

Every now and then even a major artist can go from singing mostly one kind of repertoire to another. Generally, artists’ voices get fuller, stronger, and more powerful as they age, allowing them to tackle heavier roles as they get older, but sometimes a person’s range increases (up or down) at the same time, or, occasionally, gets lighter and higher. If that happens, it could be that the artist would go from one “fach” to another. Sometimes artists actually take off a year to make the change comfortably before tackling new repertoire in the new category.

And, artists will often wait until a certain point in their careers before taking on certain roles. Generally, the role of “Norma” is not sung by a younger singer because it is long, taxing and demanding in all kinds of ways. Joan Sutherland didn’t sing it at the Met until she was 45. She had a lot of singing under her belt by that time. Pavarotti didn’t sing the Duke in Rigoletto until he was older, and he stayed away from heavier roles for a long time. Domingo, of course, started out as a baritone and then went up to tenor and now is lower than he was when he was young, so is in an “in between” place.

The question is then, what’s the big deal here? Why don’t people just sing anything anywhere? Why wait? If you have the notes, and you can learn the role, why not sing it? What’s the issue if you are capable? And, why change gears in mid-stream? Wouldn’t it make sense to either stay where you are if you have been successful there? And what does it mean to have the voice “grow into” bigger, heavier roles?

If you are classically trained and have been around a bit, all of these questions are ones you can easily answer. I have another one, however, and I ask it because it does not get asked.

Why doesn’t any of this apply to artists who sing CCM styles? Does it mean that a CCM artist can just sing everything there is to sing from the get-go? Do artists change categories in gospel, rock, jazz, country? Do people tackle repertoire differently in music theater as the voice goes up or down? (Yes, in music theater they play different roles as they get older, but that’s not a vocal thing, it’s a physical thing.)

The answer is that this issue isn’t considered at all and that’s a shame. You can do things at 25 that you can’t do at 50 and vice versa. The voice has flexibility while it is young and stability when it gets older, but it doesn’t always improve and it doesn’t always deteriorate. Why is it that no one looks at what can be SUNG at certain ages in terms of both range, as well as the weight and size of the voice, regardless of style, in the CCM styles?

If you are light lyric voice but are a belter, you might be able to belt like gangbusters but you will never sound the same as a big full contralto making the same sounds. You might be able to go up higher, but not necessarily, and you might hold up better, but maybe not. On the other hand, if you are a big full contralto who belts, you are probably not going to get a lighter, easier sound up high unless you work on it, and over time, you could find that you are singing lower and lower until you have no high range at all.

The only way this information has an impact on the expectations of singers, composers, producers, casting directors and music directors is if they have it and pay attention to it. In most cases, I would venture to say that all of these people, who do not have a good deal of experience in classical repertoire for the voice have no clue about the information in the beginning of this post. They therefore do not understand how important it is in relationship to what is being sung, who is singing it and how it is being sung. Voices can and do change in CCM styles and that should not be ignored or be assumed to be “accidental”.

The other thing that has an impact on “fach” is training. What kind of training has the vocalist has and how long has she been training? Ten years of singing has an effect on singing that nothing else has and you cannot substitute ability for its effects. Just as people who have been doing physical exercise for 20 years look different than someone who has been at it for just 5, ability alone is not a substitute for long term effects of training. Ballet dancers don’t do the Swan Queen when they are young. They don’t have the stamina, although they might be very strong and quite skilled.

It’s too bad that the CCM world doesn’t pay attention to this ingredient in classical singing that has been accepted as being valid for a few hundred years. Throats are throats. Bodies are bodies. If this information was in the minds of those who TEACH, the training process for CCM would be looked at very differently. Most people give it little thought. Some people give it none.

Understanding the voice takes into consideration all these factors. If you are not familiar with them, do some reading.

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5 thoughts on “Fach Change”

  1. Great points. As a teacher of both classical and ccm rep for mostly young people, I have found that I have to be on top of a lot of music in order to pick things appropriate to the development of the student. It would be great to have lists like Kloiber’s opera fachs, but for other genres. There is a thesis project for somebody!

  2. Indeed, Brian. There are some songs in Music Theater and other styles that are too much for young voices but no one seems to know that. There are also other considerations in terms of the size of the voice and its other capacities.

    Hey, grad students and doctoral candidates, want a topic for your thesis or dissertation?

  3. I am curious to know what you think happens when having a light voice and when entering serious training after the age of mid 40ies?

    My natural voice lies closest to that of a light lyric coloratura, and now that I start training a teacher agrees I am a coloratura because of the unusal ease in my high register. But since my age the teacher resists the idea that I would be a light lyric coloratura wanting me instead as it seems, to be closer to a dramatic coloratura.

    My voice should have matured somewhat, but I had almost no training in my younger years when I sung non -classical repertory.

    So inspite my age I didn’t have 20 years of classical singing that is said to prepaire a singer for more dramatic singing.

    Personally I think it would be best to sing repertory of light lyric coloratura because it feels comfortable, until I have some consistent technique, and then maybe I better can see if I can be that sort of coloratura soprano that also could be more dramatic.

    I also wonder if it is really true that all voices can be more dramatic with age/time? Historically I see some light coloratura voices that never got outside of that repertory even if they got older because their voice was too light to handle it.

    So even if it might mean I can never be cast in an opera because my voice is to light for age appropriate roles, and I am to old to be cast in the roles appropriate for my voice type I think the only way is to stay true to my actual voice and it’s development, and maybe only sing arias in concerts and sing church and chamber music instead, assuming that even if I developped as an amazing light coloratura I would not be casted because being closer to 50 when I could start perform more professinally.

    I would be interest to hear your thoughts about this?

    1. Your age doesn’t matter as much as your lack of serious classically-oriented training over the past decades. You can absolutely be a light lyric soprano (I am, at 67, exactly that) but you can learn to sing in a variety of colors and qualities. Being a big dramatic voice will just kill you and your throat, so do follow your intuition and stay away from that. If you study seriously and practice, you might be just fine in opera by Mozart, Handel or Gluck. You might do French opera or modern works. Not everyone who sings opera has a big, dramatic voice. Functional training should help you have more stamina, more control, greater freedom, better skills and not be at all concerned, especially right away, with what “voice category” you are in, regardless of your age (which, by the way, is not “old”.) Look around until you get someone to train you who doesn’t tell you what you are supposed to be. Work with someone who allows you to discover what your voice wants to do and find repertoire that suits you. It might change or even get fuller, but if it doesn’t, and it might not, there is nothing wrong with that. Nothing.

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