As the new year begins and we re-open our singing studios, many of us will be engaged in one of my favourite activities: repertoire selection. As we browse song anthologies or trawl through the internet’s digital libraries, our students’ individual voices and needs will be top of mind. When selecting repertoire, I like to remind myself of John Nix’s words:
“It is the teacher's task to carefully choose repertoire that ensures success and progress while it challenges but does not defeat the student” (Nix, 2002, p. 217).
Some of us have curricula to guide us, such as the AMEB syllabus or a school syllabus. Singing pedagogues like John Nix, Jean Ralston and Christopher Arneson have also created rubrics to help the independent studio teacher evaluate and grade repertoire, based on personal factors such as age, developmental level, emotional maturity and temperament (Nix, 2002), as well as on musical and technical factors such as range, tessitura, rhythm, phrasing, diction and harmonic and lyrical content (Ralston, 1999). For me, in order to ensure that my students feel comfortable practicing pieces over and over (hopefully!), it is important in repertoire assignment to find a perfect match between song tessitura and singer tessitura.
Tessitura may simply be defined as “the part of the range most used” (Sadie, 1994). Ingo Titze breaks this classification down further into “song tessitura” and “singer tessitura” (Titze 2008, p. 59). Song tessitura relates to pitch dominance, or the highest occurrence of a note in a piece. Singer tessitura refers to the most comfortable area of the vocal range. I personally respond to Janclaire Elliott’s description of singer tessitura as the area where the voice “blossoms” (Elliott, 2004, p. 248). One of our tasks as voice teachers is surely to allow that blossoming to occur by, initially at least, avoiding tessituras that are uncomfortably high or that sit in a tricky passaggio zone.
Although voice scientists have developed measurement tools called “tessiturograms” (Rastall, 1984; Thurmer, 1988; Titze, 2008), a singing teacher’s ear and eye, as well as their knowledge and experience of vocal repertoire, can go a long way towards finding the perfect match referred to above.
According to Titze, singer tessitura can be determined by locating the area of the vocal range in which a singer can crescendo and decrescendo on a sustained note (the messa di voce exercise) with the most ease.
Song tessitura can be determined by a simple visual scan or by a note count, remembering to take duration into account. Titze (2008) demonstrated the importance of duration as a variable when he conducted a tessitura analysis of the tenor aria “Il mio tesoro” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In an initial analysis, he counted a dominant pitch of C4. However, when he took note duration into account, the dominant pitch shifted upwards to F4. This is significant, since F4 falls at the top of the tenor’s secondo passaggio, an area where, for many young tenors, time and patience is needed for the voice to blossom.
Do we need to automatically reject beautiful or favoured pieces of repertoire to avoid discomfort? Not necessarily. There are many online tools and digital applications for key transposition, allowing us to explore a rich range of repertoire whilst maintaining comfort and ease.
Elliott, J. (2004). Frequency, duration, and pitch or what makes a tessitura? Journal of Singing, 60(3), pp. 239-253.
Nix, J. (2002). Criteria for Selecting Repertoire. Journal of Singing, 58(3), pp. 217-221.
Ralston, J. (1999). The development of an instrument to grade the difficulty of vocal solo repertoire. Journal of Research in Music Education, 47(2), pp. 163-173.
Rastall, R. (1984). Vocal Range and Tessitura in Music from York Play 45. Music Analysis, 3(2), pp. 181-199.
Sadie, S. (ed.). (1994). The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopaedia of Music. W. W. Norton & Co Inc.
Thurmer, S. (1988). The tessiturogram. Journal of Voice, 2(4), pp. 327-329.
Titze, I. R. (2008). Quantifying tessitura in song. Journal of Singing, 65(1), pp. 59-61.
About the author
Linda Barcan Linda Barcan trained at the Conservatorium of Newcastle, the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, and the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA). Following professional engagements in France and intense study in Germany, Linda returned to Australia to perform for many years with Opera Australia and other performing arts organisations. Also specialising in art song performance and interpretation, Linda has concertised in Australia, France, Germany and Asia. She is Lecturer in Music (Voice) at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and was recently elected National President of ANATS.
ANATS is the peak professional association for singing teachers in Australia. We help teachers of any style of singing to be the best they can be, by provide professional development, advocacy and community for singing teachers and other voice professionals across Australia.
We welcome members from all musical cultures, vocal styles and singing or teaching environments.
We are committed to building an inclusive culture that encourages, supports, and celebrates the diverse voices of our industry.