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Vocal Terminology: Introduction and “Tessitura�

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There is nothing quite so frustrating as to read an article or hear someone speak, and the originator uses a term, which is unfamiliar. I did that this week in The Modern Vocalist Forum, with the term “tessitura”. When one of the readers asked me to explain it, I thought I'd just post it here for everybody.

Definitions

Here is a link to a very useful Wikipedia article. Start with the first paragraph. Here's another from Miriam-Webster dictionary online.  

Discussion

When we perform a piece of vocal music, it has several characteristics that affect how we perform it:

  1. It has a range, from the lowest note, to the highest. Very practically, we don't -- often, or ever -- perform pieces that contain notes that we cannot produce consistent with our vocal tone quality standards.
  2. It has tessitura, which indicates where in the range of the piece that most of the notes are found. For individual singers, some sections of the vocal range are more tiring or challenging than others are, when desiring to maintain our tone quality standards.
  3. It has dynamics that indicate how loudly the singing must be in the various sections. Very soft and very loud singing put special demands on the technique of the singer, while trying to maintain our tone quality standards.
  4. It has duration, which is the amount of time that singing must occur during the length of the piece. To sing a few notes over the period of a minute is not difficult. To sing 1,000 over the period of an hour requires a different level of endurance, while maintaining our tone quality standards.

What Does “Tone Quality” Have to Do With This?

I mentioned for each of the above items the desire to maintain our vocal tone quality standards. That is my way of saying that the singer has aesthetic, genre and stylistic preferences and values that influence the singing they choose to do. Paraphrasing Robert Lunte, some pieces require certain types of tone quality to be effective. The countertenor sings the C above middle C in a Purcell verse anthem differently than a Death Metal front man would warn of the destruction of the world.

When all of these items: the tone quality, the durations, the dynamics, the tessitura, and the range are combined, they represent the totality of the vocal requirement for the piece.

Why is Tessitura so Important?

The tessitura determines which notes in a piece get sung the most often. The singer's ability to perform those notes repeatedly, while meeting the other performance requirements mentioned factors into the experience of vocal fatigue. For example:

  • The high-school choir bass who can take the occasional E above middle C briefly but loudly in concert, will have a much more difficult time singing that same note 10 or 20 times in a row.

  • The rock balladeer covering “Stairway to Heaven” better be able to sing that hook line in his sleep, because it will get repeated very many times. (Mercifully, the piece has lots of nice interludes for recovery.)

  • The singer handling Neil Young's parts in quartet harmony has a similar challenge.

  • The bass covering a Johnny Cash tune, or singing the low melody in a Stamps Quartet gospel song, better be able to live below the bass staff, and balance everybody else, too. It’s not enough to have one low D in a song -- there may be 20 -- and notes even lower.

  • The college baritone learning a Verdi aria will discover that he spends most of his time in the passaggio and that it just wears him out when he tries to sing the entire aria.

  • Covering a Janice Joplin tune... well, you get the idea.

Summary

The tessitura of a piece, large or small, places certain demands on the singer's ability to sustain their technique when combined with other musical factors. For these situations, the tessitura of the singer (that is, the areas that the individual singer can sustain) should be matched to that of the piece. Other factors being equal, this is best done by adjusting the key of the piece to the ability and voice type of the singer.

 

This essay was first published January 17, 2009 on The Modern Vocalist.com the Internet’s #1 community for vocal professionals, voice health practitioners and pro-audio companies worldwide since November 2008.


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