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The Forth in Praise Organists' Blog

The personal views of a Catholic parish organist

May 7, 2014

Choirs ain’t what they used to be!

evelyn @ 2:53 pm

Generally speaking, parish choirs in the past have had a surfeit of sopranos and a lack of men, especially tenors.  In my own parish experience, as choirs came and went over the decades, there were never more than two parts, soprano and alto.

Until recently, when there arrived upon the scene – the Midnight Mass Men! (ta-da!). This group of strong-voiced males suddenly appeared in the run-up to one Christmas, sang with us at Midnight Mass, then vanished as mysteriously as they had come. The following year they turned up again, and this time we asked them to stay. Not only did they agree, but they actually wanted to sing in parts. This was wonderful.

So now we are averaging five or six men, all singing the same baritone part, seven or eight altos but only two or three sopranos. More or less a direct reversal of the previous situation.

Yesterday evening we were due to start Elgar’s Ave Verum with the organ filling in the tenor part. The piece has two soprano solo sections. But for the first time ever, not a single soprano turned up. The bench where they usually sat was empty, and the rest of us looked at each other in dismay.

Then the leader of the men had an idea: ‘Get George to sing soprano!’ During the banter that followed (‘we’ll have to get him a dress and a wig’), I realised what a good idea this was. George (not his real name) has a rich tenor voice, but is not confident about carrying the tenor line on his own against the strong bass of the others. But he was perfectly happy to sing the Elgar solos as a tenor. In fact, he even sang the top part of the choral sections which followed, an octave down, of course. So we finished up with what can only be described as an ‘alto sandwich’, although the altos were actually the highest voice. It certainly made for an interesting sound.

But what is it about the sopranos? I’ve heard that other choirs are having this problem. Are we all getting so big and healthy as a race that the higher voices are becoming less common? Or do these physical advantages mean sopranos are being asked to sing too high and are thus straining their voices? Certainly, more of our sopranos have had throat problems this past winter than the other voices. Maybe I should start thinking of transposing some things downwards.

Anyway, a parish appeal for more high female voices will have to go out. And if we could at the same time rope in an extra tenor or two, we might actually be able to give George some reinforcements, and become SATB, instead of TAB …

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