Types of Contraltos
by David L. Jones
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 that being a contralto is more limiting, therefore making this voice type a ‘disadvantage’. It is important to be aware that the roles of Carmen and Dahlila were written for contralto voices. These 2 roles alone represent important repertoire. In the end, Mother Nature is the boss in dictating vocal category, and we have little control over the length, thickness, and structure of the vocal folds, nor the vocal tract for that matter.
Different Types of Contraltos: An important subject that is rarely discussed is that of contralto types. One is not just simply a contralto. There are lyrical contraltos, just as there are lyric mezzos and lyric sopranos. There are ‘middle weight’ contraltos as well and there are dramatic contraltos that can fill any theater in the lower range. I think today that many teachers and singers are absolutely terrified of color in a voice, which is too bad. Many have been brainwashed into thinking that a dark ringing tone is unhealthy. NOTHING could be further from the truth. In detecting a true contralto, one major characteristic is the deep warm color of the voice, EVEN when the tongue is forward. Realize that the only way to artificially color a voice is with tongue retraction. If a singer achieves a forward arched tongue position, she is NOT singing too dark. I recently had a wonderful middle weight contralto from Europe. YET AGAIN, she had been trained in every vocal fach, including soprano. This is a travesty and reflects great ignorance about this wonderful voice category of the contralto singer. I love this voice type and if I have anything to do with it, this fach will take the forefont again and takes its rightful position as a viable and valid voice category.
I find it really surprise that many really think that contraltos just magically ceased to exist. I think the big problem is that there is an international disease of ‘high, light, bright, forward and unprotected’ singing going on. Singers are being trained to achieve frontal vibration, which is not a bad thing if the pharynx is open and the larynx is tilting appropriately between middle and head voice registers. When the acoustical space is open and the tongue is forward, you cannot hold ring out of a voice. But residual frontal vibration is more of a result than a goal. True that the Swedish-Italian School worked with the NG, but this was only in coordination with the open throat and the healthy closure of the vocal folds.
Dramatic Contralto: I taught a dramatic contralto several years ago, who was sent to me by her voice therapist who is a student of mine. She had fallen on a terrace and had a neck injury. After this accident, phonation in the middle voice was quite difficut. With the right stretching of the tongue-root and the right stretching of the pharyngeal wall, this singer regained healthy phonation throughout the middle register. It is important to note that dramatic contraltos often take a chest mix up as high as the F natural. This is not unhealthy for this voice type, but another important key factor is to keep the thin edge function of the vocal folds functioning in the chest register. This assists the singer in finding the healthy blending of the registers. Thinning the cords in the chest register is an important exerise for any singer, but especially for the contralto singer. To achieve this register blend through the use of staccato exercises in the chest register, I use 3-tone scales in the chest register. It must be done with little volume, while concentrating on just touching the fine edges of the vocal folds. I often start them on single notes and then move to smaller scales, staying within the chest register at first and then using arpeggios to navigate register change through the middle register.
Lyrical Contalto: A lyrical contalto come to me who had sung an entire career as a lyric soprano. But the amount of air pressure that she had to use in getting into the top was far too much. She could not sing piano anywhere in her range, only forte. There was little or no dynamic range and there was one basic color in the voice, which reflected more shrillness of tone than resonance. The throat was closed, so there was no possibility to achieve true color or warmth in the voice. Gradually we took her down. First to mezzo-soprano to get into a lower range, yet this was not enough. The voice was still tight and imbalanced. Then one day I was vocalizing her really low and I heard IT. The IT is a unique smokey dark color of a true contralto, which is specific, both dark and resonant, and rumbles deep in the body. From this point onward, we worked on contralto repertoire and the entire voice opened. The color in the voice completely changed and the voice began to bloom, allowing for dynamic range and ease in the upper register. We could then work on high piano singing, which was a major miracle for this singer, considering her history. Now she sings and teaches and is having a successful concert career.
Middle Weight Contralto: Recently I had another contralto come to my New York Studio for a cluster of lessons. Sadly, she is yet another casualty of the ‘high, light, bright’ approach. She had also previously been trained as a mezzo and a soprano. I observed that this young lady had a very large thyroid cartilage and she spoke with a warm dark timbre. This is not always an indicator of voice type I must add. There are sopranos who speak low and should be allowed to do so if they are free in their function. But the timbre and color of this speaking sound was specific to contralto color. We worked a great deal on the jaw and tongue release, because when a singer has sung in a higher fach (and they are truly a lower voice), the tongue and jaw are frequently locked and tense. After several weeks, her vibrato began to develop and vibrate freely (she had been told NOT to use vibrato by a previous teacher.) Inviting her to trust that vibrato is a fine and healthy part of healthy vocalism took a little time. Now she is excited that the voice is vibrating freely and she is feeling free in her repertoire. We had to work a lot on unhinging the jaw in order to get to the tongue-root release. This ‘renovation’ will probably take about a year to complete because she is so intelligent and she had stopped singing for a period of time. This allowed the laryngeal muscles to relax a bit more.
I think that learning to hear the characteristics of different vocal fach is critical to a teacher’s development if he/she wants to master the art of singing. We must learn to hear different colors in the voice when it is fully released. The release must come before the true voice will reveal itself. The laryngeal tilt and the idea of ‘vacuuming under the cords’ or what many call ‘inhalare la voce’ are critical to finding the timbre and color of the true voice. It may take a little time, but I find in using these tools the true voice will definitely reveal itself within about 2 to 5 hours of instruction, IF the singer is concentrated on what he/she is doing physically. A singer must understand the mind/body connection and be sensitive to what the body feels.
I hope that the contralto will soon be celebrated as an important part of our world of singing. Too often they are trained as other voice types. This is detrimental to their vocal health, and quite frankly this is why there are so few. Even though is it a rare voice type, they do exist and they are being overlooked.
Wishing you all a wonderful day! David
© David L. Jones 2013
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