Following on from Cloud's last post about singing the 'wrong' music for your 'fach' or voice type, I'm going to look at the issue from a slightly different perspective.
Throughout my singing life, I have had several of those experiences with singing teachers. A recent-ish example – I went in for a consultation with a teacher who knew me vaguely although not well. After I had sung for them for maybe 20 minutes, they looked at me funny, and said, you know, I don’t think you’re a mezzo.
I am most comfortable singing up above the stave. I am not as much queen of the high cs as I used to be when I was slightly younger and, on the matter of vocal acrobatics at least, more fearless, but I am absolutely and definitely a soprano.
But, see, there is an expectation not just about what sort of voice type will sing what kind of music, but what kind of voice type will characterise different personality types.
I am also, to put it bluntly, pretty damn butch. Again, less than I was when I was younger and, on the matter of femininity at least, more fearful. I am clumpy, stompy; one of life’s hairy-legged angry feminists. When I find graceful, it is an embodied, earthy kind of experience, not the disembodied floatiness that the inexperienced expect ought to go hand in hand with a high, angelic voice.
Strangely enough, it turns out you cannot judge on appearances.
And yet, the stereotypes are there. Flightiness and floatiness. Or, poise and pose. Mezzos are the ones who are angry, who are earth mothers and drag-kings, who play men and pass, visually if not vocally.
We are coming pretty close to saying - the sound of your voice limits the emotions you can express. Only loud women can be angry. Only gentle women can be in love. Of course, this is an art form where tone is used as a metaphor for content, where emotions are signed and signalled through means other than words. Of course, there is an assumption that anger will not be gentle, that love will not be violent.
We categorise and then give meaning to the categories. I am absolutely definitely a soprano, I said, not three paragraphs back. What does that even mean? I sing high notes, and violent emotions. And fear holds me back from both.
I sing regularly with a bloke with profound and multiple learning disabilities, whose voice glides effortlessly from basso profundo gravel to floating soprano glissandi. Who has never learned to categorise his voice into parcels he is and isn’t allowed to make music with. We duet, across space and understanding. And I do not want to call it inspirational, or freeing, or natural – I am so, so aware of his being relegated to the status of a lesson in a life that counts. But here’s something that’s true. When I sing with him, I am not a soprano. And I can manage graceful, in his company, in that space, where he is freed from constraints of category, and so am I.
My voice has limits. Boundaries. There are things I cannot say, or even sing. Limits of biology, of possibility, and courage. But limits of convention – if high, not low; if butch, not feminine; the imposed binary opposites of gender that radiate outwards into just about every aspect of our life. Those limits are things that can be opposed, deconstructed, thought through or worked around.
What does it mean to pair a butch voice with a femme body, or vice versa? A butch range with a femme tone? I don’t know, and more than that – I can’t find out, without... performance, audience, reaction, conversation. People find it disturbing. I know that from too many stories of the difficulty trans friends get into when they open their mouths and the tone that comes out is unexpected.
I know what it feels to sing as my butch-femme self. It feels right.And I tell you something else, which you will have heard said before if you are a reader of feminism on the internet. I am tired of watching my tone.