The Lyric Voice

A lyric voice is one that is light, supple, and usually, pretty. Lyric voices have never been as impressive as the “bigger” voices…..the lyrico spinto, the dramatic …..the voices that make so much sheer sound that one wonders how human beings can do that in the first place.

The lyric soprano, the most common female voice, is not a desirable entity here in New York. If you go into an audition for a classical job being a plain vanilla lyric soprano it will likely get you a stifled yawn, or maybe even a sort of camouflaged eye-roll as a response from whomever is auditioning you. If you are a lyric coloratura (a bird chirp, I call it), with a very high range and spectacular agility, you are in a better category, especially if you can hold your own in the music written to show off this unique combination. You must, however, stay in this repertoire, as not to stay there puts you in competition with the bigger voices. You will not win.

There is something else though, that lyric voices have to contend with — chaos. A lyric voice is by definition flexible. A flexible voice is easy to manipulate. A flexible voice can easily be distorted. A flexible voice can do all kinds of things but get lost or confused sorting them out. A flexible voice isn’t usually good at sustained loud singing of any kind. It is very easy to get into trouble, both vocal and psychological, with a lyric voice. And it is very easy to lose the beauty that is the calling card of being lyric. Without it, you haven’t got anything else as good to use as a substitute.

Youngsters have to be regarded as lyric singers, even the ones with robust sturdy voices. If a young voice is too soon taken into powerful material, trouble will surely follow. It can take 7, 8 or 10 years to develop staying power in both the throat and body, and although the tone and the range are present, the long-term stamina needed to do a big, long operatic role, or a big powerful Broadway belt role, doesn’t just come in a few years of training or singing. There’s a difference in being able to sing something once and sing it over and over again.

The lyric voice is out of fashion and has been for quite some time. John McCormack and Lily Pons would not have mainstream careers in opera today. Gigli would have trouble, and “Irish Tenor” (as a vocal type) would never have been around at all if it had been up to today’s taste makers. Perry Como’s voice was beautiful, but he surely wasn’t a powerhouse. Sweet gentle singing (not the soft breathy mushy singing that can be found in some of our hot jazz and pop divas) is not part of mainstream music anywhere, and that isn’t just the fault of American Idle [sic].

I am a lyric voice. When I was out there auditioning I was told repeatedly “your voice is so small” as a criticism. It was, but that’s because it was constricted, not because of its inherent capacity. Once I got it to work correctly I stopped getting that feedback, even though it is still very light. What happened to me was typical in that I was pushed. I could go all over the place and do lots of things, and that only made it worse. I could do “through the forehead” and “through the cheekbones” and “out the back of the head” and “in the belly”, and “from the diaphragm” (OK, stop laughing now), “across the room”, “through the elephant’s trunk”, “with more resonance” and “with less vibrato”, “without so many disturbing consonants” and “with clearer pronunciation of the words”, and, and, and, and. What I couldn’t do was put Humptette Dumptette back together again, vocally speaking. (It isn’t great to be “Gumby of the Throat”). Singing teachers who mean well may not realize that what is easy for them isn’t always easy, or even possible, for their students.

If teachers with large frames and strong bodies, teachers with wide rib cages and long torsos, teachers with thick necks and big larynges, get a hold of some thin, small, unathletic lyric tenor or soprano at the age of 18, unless they are experienced teachers, I shudder to think what will happen in their voice studios. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about CCM or classical music, as the same kinds of consequences are possible. You can push a belter just as easily as you can push someone singing classical repertoire. The saddest thing is, the student doesn’t know or understand that he or she is being pushed, because they have nothing to use as a means of measurement, unless, of course, the training ends up in pathology. In this case, though, that is not the kind of pushing I mean. The onus is on the teacher to be an advocate for the “lyricness” of the singer, as not to be cautious and slow during the training process is risky and often irresponsible.

If you are a singer with a lyric voice, don’t be surprised if vocal boundaries are difficult for you to find and maintain. Be patient, and develop as quickly as possible at the outset a guide for yourself about your best “vocal balance”…those things that make your voice pretty, comfortable and happy. Don’t stray too far away for too long until you have done a good deal of training and singing. Once you get lost, it is very hard to find your way out of the woods.

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One thought on “The Lyric Voice”

  1. Question: If you are a lyric soprano, what are you like as a belter? Are you a “lyric belter”? When, where, and how do you discover a belt sound in your voice? If you are a lyric soprano, does that limit you in some way as far as how much belting you could do if you wanted to do? Did your voice get big enough? When is big big enough? When is belt belt-y enough?

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