On the Contralto Singer
by David L. Jones
For those of you who do not believe there is such a thing as a contralto voice, THINK AGAIN! There are great examples of this voice type. Sadly many younger contralto singers are ruined because they are misdiagnosed as mezzo-sopranos. It is as though few instructors are willing to admit that the contralto is a valid vocal fach. This consistent ignorance about this vocal fach has cost many singers their career and it reflects a limited way to thinking.
A few years ago, I presented a master class in London. As part of the class, I offered a section on the contralto singer. I had FIVE; yes count them: FIVE contraltos on the same class. There are many different types of contraltos, just as there are different types of sopranos and mezzos. There are lyrical contraltos, middleweight contraltos, and dramatic contraltos. So this vocal fach needs to be discussed in the public arena, plus there needs to be more light shed on the fact that they exist and that they offer a wonderful contribution to the world of singing. Yes there is repertoire written for the contralto, which is often sung by mezzos because in general people think that contraltos do not exist.
I have recently been teaching a young contralto from Europe. She has sung everything from soprano to mezzo. Any aware vocal professional can hear a deep timbre in the speaking voice, even though this is not always an indicator. Her tessitura is much lower than a mezzo, and she finally is achieving high notes as a result of singing in the correct vocal fach. When we squeeze a voice higher, the head voice does NOT come into function properly at the correct transitional pitch. A laryngeal squeeze is yet another way of dragging up too much vocal weight, which I have been recently writing about for several days previously.
This young singer now is achieving more flexibility, more fullness of tone, the vibrato is stabilizing, the registers are blending, and the joy is coming back into her singing. She has stuggled with teacher after teacher who did not have the awareness that she was a true and beautiful contralto singer. In this singer’s case, she has little or no registration issues, which some contraltos suffer, especially the dramatic contralto. The dramatic contralto often takes the chest voice higher in pitch, sometimes up to F natural. It is imperative that they learn to manage breath pressure to diguise the lower passaggio ‘break’. Also the dramatic contralto must work consistently against the tendency to use too much chest register too high in pitch. Often, after singing larger higher notes, the lower passaggio break becomes higher in pitch. This voice type is not designed to stay in the high range. This is the time to thin out the cords in the chest register by using staccato exercises and imaging how to touch just the fine edges of the vocal folds. This is a concept that Lindquest taught me in 1979 to thin my cords so I got a better approximation and released the vocal weight in my voice.
Working the contralto high range: Often the contralto singer loves the ‘o’ vowel. When vocalized on this vowel, they tend to accomplish a lower larynx position and achieve fullness of tone without too much weight. They also work well on the umlaut sounds, as this opens the pharynx, especially if the cheeks are sunken between the teeth. With this particular singer, we worked a sequence of pitches (5, 8, 5, 3, 1) to begin approaching the upper range. This was fear provoking for this singer, as she had always squeezed the larynx in her upper register. We started on 5 with a forte umlauted ‘i’ vowel with a released jaw and a feeling of the ‘o’ vowel in the throat. THEN I had her decresendo as she went to 8, almost to a falsetto function. This is related to Lindquest’s ‘voce cuperto’. Using this exercise, I took her up to a relatively easy high B-flat. Before she had been afraid of even high F on the staff.
In the end, we must re-establish a public understanding that this vocal fach DOES exist. We must give contraltos their proper place in the singing world again, and we must start to develop this voice type with an open-throated and grounded approach.
© David L. Jones 2013
More Articles by David L. Jones
Training the Contralto Voice
How often have you attended a concert and felt the excitement of the audience, as a real Contralto was about to take the stage? Whether in opera or oratorio... (click here for full article)
Types of Contraltos
I still find it fascinating that there seems to be a consistent denial that contraltos exist. They DO exist and are alive and well. Perhaps those in the teaching field think... (click here for full article)
A Little More on the Contralto
I have sometimes been asked about contralto register transitions. They are quite a bit lower than the mezzo, sometimes a major 3rd lower. I have one contralto... (click here for full article)