What's the Difference Between an Alto and a Mezzo-Soprano?

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In choral singing, voice parts are normally listed as soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. A four-part, mixed voice choir is frequently referred to as an 'SATB choir,' where SATB is short for soprano-alto-tenor-bass. So if SATB is for a chorus of women and men, what do you think an all-women's chorus would be? Take a guess--and read on! It's an 'SA choir,' or an 'SSAA choir.' However, since all of these women's voices are notated on the treble cleff, a women's chorus is most often referred to as a Treble Choir.

You'll remember from my previous blog post that voice classification in individual singers is somewhat different than the names of voice parts in a chorus or ensemble. However, when we get to bigger concert pieces, like the Mahler Symphony No. 2, the score (sheet music) lists the soloist's voices like the choral voice parts.

Let's use the Mahler Symphony No. 2 as an example. It calls for an orchestra, an SATB choir, a soprano soloist and an alto soloist. A soprano soloist sings the soprano solo and a mezzo-soprano then sings the part of the alto. A true alto, a contralto, can also sing this part, but as you read last time, there aren't as many true contraltos as there are mezzos and their ranges are similar. That's why mezzo-sopranos so frequently sing alto.

Which is exactly what I do. I am a mezzo-soprano (my voice classification), however I sing the alto part in many oratorios and concert pieces. I sing the alto solo in Handel's Messiah, in the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, the Mozart Requiem and in Bach's Christmas Oratorio.

There are scores in which the composer calls for a mezzo-soprano soloist, in which case it's pretty clear:  a mezzo-soprano sings the mezzo-soprano solo.


Do you have a question about voice parts, singing, or music? Email me and I'll answer it here on the blog!

To Sing is To Heal

on . Posted in Singing

There are times in life when I am absolutely certain, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that music, singing, movement and dancing, are how we heal ourselves. Most times it's so enjoyable to sing in a concert or to take in a performance that it's not conscious, it's not a conscious choice that you or I would go to a concert or trot off to a gig with the idea in mind, "Today I will heal people. I sing so that I may heal others." Sometimes, sure, when I know that a person who is having a hard time is attending a concert I'm singing, there is a line of thought throughout my performance that runs along...."these notes, this singing is for my friend...she shall be healed, she shall be whole..."

Most of the time, I think of the beauty of the people sitting in front of me and I wonder at their ability to take in the music, to restore their souls, to be filled by and to fill up with the music. Time gets lost and we all get lost in the music together.


Let's jump back in time for a moment. In August of 2001 I moved to New York to begin my Master's Degree in Classical Voice. I moved into a dorm room on the 14th floor of the dorm; I looked out my window and took in the magnificence of the George Washington Bridge every night. It was beautiful. Orientation finished, the school year began, and I signed up for my Opera Studio audition.

On September 11, 2001, while one plane crashed into one tower of the World Trade Center, I was half asleep. I got up and went to my friend's room to check my email and she told me that a building downtown was on fire. I thought of the NY Fire Department and their fine reputation and was comforted for the people in the building. From where we were, several miles away on the 14th floor, it didn't look as bad as it really was. As I wrote, emails from friends started to come in. They were short, very odd.  "Are you OK? What happened?" "What's going on in New York City?" "Are you in Manhattan?" I heard screams from the next room and naively wrote to a friend,

"I'm fine! New York is interesting but I haven't seen much of it yet. People just screamed in the next room and there's a building on fire downtown, I need to go find out what's going on. I'll write more later."

As I walked to the room next door, I didn't know the first tower had just fallen. I didn't know I would spend the entire day there, glued to the television. I didn't know our dorm would be locked down and we would be witness to the streams of thousands of people walking up Broadway, trying to get home. I didn't know I would see taxis racing up and down Broadway all day long. I didn't know we would be watching the television as the second tower fell. And when we looked out the window, that it would be gone. And the sky...empty.


Despite the endless, oppressive presence of fear, school opened again two days later, we were allowed to leave our dorm, we went to our Opera Studio auditions, and we began to talk, at least a little bit, about healing. Denyce Graves sang at a televised memorial service in Washington D.C. and we wondered how she could ever get through it. The group of students in Opera Studio gathered and somebody said something about being so solid in your performing that you just do it, technically, or something.

I didn't get it, and I wondered how a singer could ignore her emotions and just sing? We saw some quivers in Ms. Graves' hands, we saw the focused concentration--she was grieving and healing right along with us, and it was anything but purely technical. I wondered how she felt inside.


Now I don't wonder anymore. I've been asked and have accepted to sing the Mozart Requiem on September 11, 2011 and it's been running through my mind all week. Now I have no doubt about how important it is to sing in order to heal, to grieve, and to move through whatever needs to be moved through. Now I know that singing is as vital to memorializing and grieving as water is to life. Now I know that there is so much to be sung and to be expressed and healed through music itself--that hearing music puts people at peace and calms their troubles. Music holds their hearts in a sacred time and space. Singing is a way to reach out to thousands of people at one time and put my arm around all of them and say into their ears, "It's going to be OK. It will all be OK. We are in this together and we will be OK."


Do Singers Get Paid For Singing?

on . Posted in Singing

YES! Just like the organist at your wedding, your child's piano teacher and your high school choir teacher, singers get paid for singing.

Singers add a special emotional, spiritual element to many occasions and they may already be working in music positions you're not aware of. Did you know that many church choirs have section leaders in the different voice parts? And that many private parties hire singers and other musicians for cocktail hours and general entertainment?

Here's a sampler list of all the different work that singers do:

  1. weddings
  2. private voice lessons
  3. church & temple services - as soloists, as paid section leaders, as guest musicians, as choir conductors...the list goes on!
  4. funerals & memorial services
  5. receptions, both private & public - from jazz to pop, some singers sing it all!
  6. orchestral concerts - from symphony orchestras to chamber orchestras and from chamber ensembles to community orchestras
  7. educational outreach - many singers earn their entire living with fascinating programs in schools and libraries
  8. concerts in-the-park
  9. rock bands
  10. singing the national anthem at sporting events
  11. making recordings
  12. voice-overs & jingles
  13. ensembles - this can range from multi-voice ensembles like Cantus, to small ensembles for weddings and memorial services
  14. community choirs - conducting & administrating
  15. other instruments - many singers also play another instrument and many also accompany their own students in recitals and at competitions; you remember Solo & Ensemble, don't you?
  16. piano tunings - every piano needs a tuning at least once a year

Remember, this is just a beginning list of all the work that's out there for singers. Can you think of other work singers do? Email me and I"ll blog about it!



What's the Difference Between a Mezzo-soprano and a Soprano?

on . Posted in Singing

This is the #1 question I get asked by concert audience members and people I meet on the street.

Let's start with choir voice types. In a choir, people sit in sections:  sopranos, altos, tenors, and basses. You’ll probably recognize the names soprano and alto from choir in school. This is different from an actual voice classification, as there are more of those than there are choir voice types.

There are three voice classifications for women:

  • a soprano (the highest)
  • a mezzo-soprano (in the middle) and
  • a contralto (a/k/a alto).

So think of a mezzo-soprano as being able to sing Alto I or Soprano II and fitting into that place in between.

Sopranos are typically comfortable singing higher pitches and also for longer periods of time. Mezzo-sopranos can also sing high, but not always quite as high and mezzos may find it more challenging than a soprano. Mezzo-sopranos also sing lower than a soprano and for longer periods of time. Contraltos sing even lower than mezzo-sopranos but true contraltos don’t sing nearly as high as mezzo-sopranos and sopranos.

Also, every woman’s voice ‘shifts’ differently between the lower, middle, and upper registers (think of those like the low, middle, and high gears of a car) and some singers experience their voices in two registers, or maybe just one! Just as the clutch is different on every car, each person’s voice 'drives' and ‘shifts’ differently.

Do you remember singing in choir in school and there was always that part of a song that went higher, but it wasn’t comfortable until you sang even higher? That’s the part of our voices where we need to ‘shift’ and that is called a passaggio, an Italian word meaning ‘passage.’ Singers practice a lot so these passaggi (the plural of passaggio) aren’t too obvious for the listener.

What Your Teacher Never Told You

on . Posted in News

So you're 18, fantastic at music, everybody loves what you perform, and they all want to know if you're going to study music. 'Yes!,' you say, and you head off for 4 years (or more) of higher education, maybe take another 2 years for graduate school, and you hit the real world as a freelancer. But your teacher (or teachers) never told you this: that you're an entrepreneur. And you need valuable skills that no one taught you in college or grad school--one of the most important ones being: money management.The Money Book

We're not talking about making a budget and balancing your checkbook, we're talking about setting aside money for taxes, paying them on time, avoiding fees & penalties, creating an emergency fund (for when those gigs don't come rollin' in!) and creating a system by which you can be financially successful.

Years ago my dad taught me this: Don't follow the money; never let it out of your sight.

I knew how to do that with my checkbook, but for my business I had to figure it out the hard way. (That is a sad statement for someone who went through 6 years of higher education.) Here's one tool that I picked up recently and from which I have learned an immense amount: The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs.

Go take a look and use the "Look Inside" feature. Watch 'The Money Book' Video. Don't let your money out of your sight!

N.B.:  This book doesn't differentiate between personal and business accounts and they assume you have one main checking account. Use separate accounts for your business and personal finances--you give yourself clarity, avoid overwhelm, and you avoid potentially serious problems with the IRS!

How Savvy Are You?

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The Savvy Musician by David CutlerJust like your instrument, The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference is a tool for your toolbox. And if there's one thing I've seen that more musicians need, it's business skills.


In college and grad school, no one pulled me aside and said, "Hey, did you know that you'll be an entrepreneur for the rest of your life and everything that goes into your career you'll have to generate yourself?" If they had, well, we'd all be reading a different blog entry right now.


Over the years I've created several lists of skills every performer needs from "time management/scheduling" to "flexibility, sightreading, networking, branding" and the like. Thankfully Dorothy Wu, Co-Founder of NotesontheRoad.com, told me about David Cutler's book


The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference. I've already implemented ideas from this book and as I can personally attest to, it's an extremely valuable tool for your toolbox!


Stay tuned for my next tip for Musical Entrepreneurship Success!