Part 1, an overview, part 3, female voices.
I was going to put out an article for all voice types at once, but this turned out to be much heavier reading, so I have split this into two articles. This week, I have released the following article on male voice type and next week I will release an article on female voice type. Richard Miller, considered to be one of the most respected writers on voice for the last 100 years, created an interesting system where it is possible to identify vocal fach based on the location of the primo (lower) and secondo (upper) passaggii.
You can find Richard Miller’s book here: The Structure of Singing: System and Art in Vocal Technique. If you wanted to purchase this book I would strongly suggest used hard-cover as it is far cheaper than the paperback prices. I am going to give an example from each vocal fach and describe (as briefly as possible) the qualities that are unique to their voice and how they are navigating their passagio effortlessly.
Primo and secondo passagio explained:
Primo passagio or lower passaggio: This is the point at which your chest voice will naturally ‘shed’ some of its weight and become middle voice. If you are carrying to much, it is the point where you will start to feel strain in your chest voice. Proper singing through the lower passaggio requires you to remain predominantly in chest voice, but to gradually colour it with aspects of the head register. To do this, you should imagine that you ‘are’ singing in your head voice, but do not let yourself change. The easiest way to practice this is by using a very pure ‘ooooh’ (Italian u) vowel through this part of the voice.
As a general rule, an “ahh” vowel must be altered to an “awh” vowel (as in ‘horse’, not hawh as in the sound “eeehawh!”) This allows for the throat to remain protected, the larynx to naturally tilt in preparation for transition while allowing the sound to gain more ‘cut’ and remain out of the throat.
If you transition into your head register too early, the colour change of the voice will be very obvious. You will feel as if you are ‘flipping’ and the voice may sound weaker. The best approach is to prepare for register change as much as possible as you progressively alter the vowel until the voice naturally changes. This should happen at a point where, if you sang any higher in your lower register, it will feel like a yell or it will feel as if your voice is going backwards in the throat.
I like to refer to the lower passaggio as the ‘preparation’ passagio. This is because, while you are still in a lower mechanism, you are ‘preparing’ the voice to transition effortlessly.
Secondo passaggio or upper passaggio: This is where the middle voice voice will make a transition into the head mechanism. If you have been singing through the passagio in a ‘mixed’ chest voice (which is what belters may do), then you must transition at the secondo passaggio to head voice. It will be that point where your voice just sounds like it’s becoming a yell. If the singer has been singing in their mixed head voice through the passaggio, then they will probably only feel a lifting of tone into a lighter area – the different will not be massively noticeable. To the untrained singer, this is where the voice becomes clearly ‘lighter’.
A general rule for the upper or second passaggio is to alter your ‘ahh’/’awh’ vowel to ‘uuh’ as in a very rounded “told”. Imagine saying “told” with an added “ooh” vowel. Be careful, however, not to alter so far towards an ‘or’ sound to the point where you are over-darkening. In this case, you will lose the frontal ‘ng’ or ‘ih’ ring at the front of the mast.
In both instances, be careful not to alter to a nasal ‘awh’ or a overly darkened ‘uh’. Listen to Barney the Dinosaur to get an idea of how not to think about your vowel alterations. Alternatively, Kirsten Flagstad’s voice as she speaks contains the correct balance of forward resonance and backwards space.
The following is an analysis of fach based on Richard Miller’s suggested passagio locations for different voices. Please note that non-classical voices may also have similar transition points, but due to the benefit of using a microphone, it is not advisable to confine yourself to certain music due to your passaggio locations. Opera singers must make full use of their resonating chambers (in the skull and pharynx) and vowel alterations. As a result, their passaggio locations will be far clearer when they sing a scale right through their range.
Layout of fach titles and location:
“Voice type: Primo passaggio (e.g. G3) and secondo passaggio (e.g. C4)”
Low Bass/Dramatic Bass: G3 and C4
Commendatore Scene from Don Giovanni
The dramatic bass is a distinctively imposing voice type. When the true dramatic bass sings, there is no false darkness through the range, and the voice takes very little effort to cut through an orchestra. It is important never to label somebody a dramatic bass unless their voice has this distinctive quality. The dramatic bass will sing between A2 and C3 with complete ease and will require very little effort to be heard as you accompany them or listen to them while being accompanied. The main task for a dramatic bass is to ensure that they are not tempted to spread their vowels. While this may create a particularly ‘mature’ sound for whatever age they are, this will ensure vocal fatigue. The above video is a brilliant example of how the dramatic bass can be done ‘just so’ with a respectfully wide-support, but a good grasp of vowel modification.
At 0:16-0:18 you hear the bass lift the quality of his voice and sing on a pure ‘uh’ vowel on the D4. When a low or dramatic bass sings through and above their passaggio, they gain an extremely thundering, metallic quality. It is not ‘pulled up’ from their lower, rumbling chest voice, but rather lifted off and brought into the skull for the voice to sound completely effortless.
Lyric Bass: Ab3 and Db4
Mihaly Szekely – In diesen heil’gen Hallen from Die Zauberflote
The lyric bass is a lighter, silkier bass that has a lot less natural presence than the dramatic bass, but can enjoy singing with more lyricism and less effort to keep their sound consistent. It is important to realize that even though a lyric bass may have very natural low notes, they should never be expected to create more volume than they naturally can. Their instrument is built for very fine legato and beauty. They can be very easily drowned out if they are made to sing roles that are too large for them, particularly if there is a lot of brass in the orchestra. This is extremely important. Dramatic basses have a natural maturity to their sound that they do not put on, while lyric basses cannot get away with adding any extra darkness to their sound. A bass should always be asked to sing a scale on an ‘ooh’ vowel through their range, which will encourage a natural lifting of the vocal weight through the range and into their passaggio.
In the video above, at 0:10-0:13 you hear the lighter quality of the upper passagio on a pure Italian “u” vowel. Notice the absolute lack of any weight in this part of this voice, but it still has presence. The dramatic bass can produce a slightly more metallic sound at this part in his range, but may not have the same silky quality as the low profundo.
At 1:38, the lowest note of the song is sung with very little air pressure outside of what is required. The vibrato is gentle and unforced and the Italian ‘i’ vowel is almost like an umlaut ‘u’ in quality, which keeps the vowel narrow and pure.
Bass Baritone: A3-D4
Ashraf Sewalim – Brahms Requiem
In contrast to the other bass voices, the bass-baritone has a lighter quality which does not contain the same ‘rumble’. However, the bass baritone is able to sound lyrical in the passaggio and above it if they sing on a more rounded vowel. You can hear the space in the back of the singer’s mouth of the ‘u’ vowel from 0:41-0:42. Contrary to the ‘closed mouth’ approach to singing (which can be detrimental), the jaw must drop and curve back slightly to allow for more pharyngeal space. The Note is given presence by the fundamental ‘ng’ resonance. While it is hard to observe this, you will notice the flared nostrils and slightly ‘lifted’ appearance of Sewalim’s upper skull. This allows him to target his ‘lazer pointer’ (direction of resonance when the throat is open) towards the front of his face with little effort from the throat.
It is important for bass-baritones not to be mis-fached as basses or baritones. As baritones, they will have the tendency to spread their vowels at around notes C4-E4. This has a very distinctive quality of the voice becoming swallowed and having no presence whatsoever. Alternatively, the bass fach is not a healthy place for the bass-baritone to sing in. This may cause them to have too much of a ‘fry’ quality in the lowest part of their range and prevent them from developing a health, weightless quality in their passaggio.
If you are a bass-baritone, it is vital that you listen to singers like Ashraf Sewalim to understand the weightless quality of the voice. This voice is common in Rossini operas, which demands a flexibility for coloratura. Therefore, the voice must be trained to find a balance between the ‘core’ of the bass quality, and the ‘weightlessness’ of the baritone quality.
Dramatic Baritone: Bb3-Eb4
Ingvar Wixell – Cortigiani vil razza dannata from Verdi’s Rigoletto
This baritone is particularly versatile. It is commonly seen in Verdi and Wagner roles. In musical theatre, they are often the dark-baritone male lead (Phantom, Beast, Jeckyl/Hyde – Think Anthony Warlowe). They often have a very high head voice range as well and they will have tenorial qualities. Listen to the above video; at 5:40, you will notice the singer access a very noble space that sounds ‘almost’ like a tenor. This is far into his upper register. However, the power and lushness to the sound it too full and covered for a typical tenor. If you go back to 4:17, you will hear him just accessing his passaggio. The sound is less ‘speaky’ and the vowels are very rounded and have a tendency towards the narrow ‘awh’ and ‘uh’ rather than a wide ‘Aahh’.
Dramatic baritones may find themselves having high tenor notes when they finally access their head range. Rather than training towards becoming a tenor, it may be more prudent to revel in having a rarer voice type and training particularly in Verdi roles.
Lyric Baritone: B3 and E4
This baritone is commonly misfached as a tenor. The distinguishing factor of a lyric baritone is that B3-E4 is a particularly impressive part of the voice, with a considerable amount of groundedness and power. It could be said that at this point, the lyric baritone is the perfect example of a marriage between the laser-like sound quality of a spinto tenor, but with more ovular depth of the dramatic baritone.
“G4” above their passagio is particularly oval and round and will have a ‘weightier’, climactic quality (assuming that the singer isn’t using any false or added weight), while the tenor’s G4 will sound a little bit more like a ‘preparation note’ and have a lot less natural weight – you may even notice more ‘iihhh’ in the tenor G while you may notice more “uh” in the baritone G. I want you to notice the amount of natural ‘cover’ on the G4 at 3:03, and also notice how at the through the the passagio (2:53-3:02), Merril’s embouchure will become more ovular. He does not close down the mouth, but allows the jaw to release, while allowing his larynx to naturally tilt through this part of the range. We don’t see him ‘reaching’ for the higher notes, but rather altering the vowel to an ‘uh’, thus creating tilt in the larynx and keeping the throat protected.
It is important to note that lyric baritones do not possess the same, metallic squillo of a dramatic tenor, but the also do not sit comfortably where lyric tenors normally sing. This is why it can be very damaging to introduce lyric baritones to tenor arias. If a lyric baritone does wish to test the capabilities as a tenor, it is advisable to try lower Mozart tenor arias, ariettes and middle-high voiced German lied and French art song. This gives a good taste of what it’s like to sit a little higher without too much force.
Bari-tenor or tenor robusto: C4 – F4
The bari-tenor is a unique vocal fach where the singer has very distinct, darker colours similar to the lyric baritone, but they have the ability to sing far into the range of a normal tenor. I find that the bari-tenor is a warmer voice than the typical dramatic tenor. When you listen to someone like Jonas Kaufmann (classical) or Ramin Karimloo (Musical Theatre), there does seem to be a very distinct baritonal quality in the lower part of the range, while there is a distinctly tenorial cut in the upper part of the range. I believe it is important for me to use a musical theatre example here as the bari-tenor is commonly found in this genre.
I particularly want to draw your attention to what I call the ‘peak passagio belt’. This is that part of the belt that still sounds very grounded in the chest register, but it is being sung in a mixed head quality. Everything above that will have a slightly ‘brighter’ quality. The quality of the ‘peak passagio belt’ is a laser like quality, the mouth is not too open and there are a lot of chest-voice colours still present. The note I want to draw your attention to is the F4 at 4:20. This sounds distinctly like a note right at the top of his passagio. The vowel is a very direct “awh” as in “horse”. You will notice that this “awh” alteration started lower and earlier in the piece, particularly at 2:18 on the word “door”. At 3:34 “You’re not here”, you will notice a distinct change in quality and vowel shape with an emphasis on “uh” as in a rounded “told”.
Because belt is very common with voice types like this, it is always recommended that belters are correctly trained to transition at a point that feels natural, not too low so as to cause a ‘flip’ (a result of the larynx adjusting too much), but not too high as to cause fatigue from yelling.
Here is an example of a classical ‘bari-tenor’.
This voice is particularly cavernous. There is a change to an “awh” vowel as in “horse” or “oh!” at the C#4 at 0:29. There is a similarity at this point in the range to that of a lyric baritone. However, you will notice the spin of the voice at G4. The vowel “oh” is altered to a neutral “uh” which gains a baritonal ‘anchoring’ quality, combined with a healthy, tenorial ring. The capacity of this voice as a true tenor rather than a baritone is demonstrated of course when Giacomini sings the Bb at 1:03. When you listen to the lyric tenor later on, you will notice that this region of the voice is naturally wider and brighter, which in the bari-tenor, the quality is extremely cavernous. It has the quality of singing in a large, concrete structure. It is not, however, falsely covered by the tongue. There is a balance of a subtle ‘ih’ vowel combined with the ‘ooh’ space in the back to ensure a healthy ring at the top of the range.
The bari-tenor is a very exciting voice type that I have yet to get my head around. I am still trying to work out whether Jonas Kaufman is a bari-tenor, a dramatic tenor or a very dark lyric tenor.
It is important for young bari-tenors to sing mozart at the beginning of their career. Because they do not have the same natural metallic sound as a dramatic tenor, they risk pushing the sound if they sing larger arias too early. On the other hand, singing songs that demand a higher tessitura will not encourage connection to the breath. The singer’s registers will develop entirely separately from one another and will change very suddenly if the passagio is not coordinated. Mozart’s music keeps the voice in the middle of the range and does not require tremendous volume. This will ensure natural development of an instrument that can be very slow to mature.
Dramatic Tenor: C#-F#4
Lauritz Melchior: In Fernem Land from Wagner’s Lohengrin
The true dramatic tenor is a tenor with an incredible natural metal to the voice. His lower register is extremely ‘heroic’ and lacks the same darkness as the true baritone. Melchior gives a fantastic example of middle-passaggio narrowing at 1:40. Unfortunately the above video is not the live one I used to have here. While singing near his upper passaggio, he kept his embrasure ovular, but does not decent his jaw prematurely. The vowel is changed slightly to an ‘awh’ rather than an ‘uh’ so that the frontal resonance remains. At the word “Grail” (1:52), he has gone above his upper passaggio and into full head. In the original video he flared his upper lip and lowered his jaw slightly.
The dramatic tenor should sound ‘heroic’ and not ‘dark’. There are a lot of people confusing dark tenors for dramatic tenors. It is very possible that these voices are indeed ‘dramatic’, but a significant number of them are over darkening their vowels with their tongue to create a false dramatic sound. Maria Callas was famous for over darkening her voice when she performed roles like Turandot and Lenora. Now, arguably these are extremely impressive recordings, but they no doubt contributed to her eventual vocal wear and tear. Time will only tell if Jonas Kaufman isn’t over-darkening his sound, or if this his truly natural sound. If you listen to his performance in Cosi Fan Tuti, you can hear a younger, lyrical sounding Kaufman. This is what makes me wonder if he is over-darkening.
Dramatic tenors also need to balance their naturally declamatory qualities with a strong legato. There are many dramatic voices that can declaim, but seldom use proper legato – tying the entire phrase together with consistent air pressure from note to note.
Spinto Tenor and Lyric tenor: D4-G4
Franco Corelli – Recondita Armonia from Puccini’s Tosca
The spinto tenor has a particularly bright quality, while also maintaining some of the natural weight of the dramatic tenor. Their distinguishing feature is the extreme sob-like quality of their middle register. The sound is laser-like and extremely ethereal, while the dramatic tenor is more declamatory and the lyric tenor is smaller, but suppler. The chest register is buzzy and more weightless, while the passagio is narrow and pointy and the upper register is extremely penetrating and starts having a ‘wide’ quality to it. You can hear this ‘wide’ quality when Corelli sings the climactic note at 2:30. The vowel is more neutral than the ‘uh’ vowel from the upper passaggio and has a mixture of ‘ihh’ and ‘uh’ and extra lift at the back of the skull to create the true tenor high note.
You will also notice that the ‘iih’ vowel in this voice is particularly lifted. A lot of vocal weight is removed during the iih vowel, you can hear this at the F4 (upper passagio) at 2:14. The mouth is small at this point, while the ‘iih’ is being made by lifting the soft palate and having an open vocal tract. This should be fundamental to all passagio singing on the ‘ih’ (Italian I) vowel.
The lyric tenor is also reflected in these locations. The simple difference is that the sound is lighter, warmer and is able to maintain more atmospheric qualities in the upper register. The lyric tenor will have fewer issues with the passagio than their heavy voiced counter parts because their voice does not carry enough natural weight for them to ‘shed’ as they are ascending.
Jussi Bjorling – Che gelida manina from Puccini’s La boheme
Notice that fundamentally, the lyric tenor’s sound is not as dark and has less difficulty navigating the passaggio and above and can rely on less vowel alteration until higher in the range. This is why roles like Rodolfo and the Duke (Rigoletto) are much more suited to the lyric tenor – although such roles can be done by other tenors. The lyric tenor is able to navigate the upper passaggio without having to sacrifice a lot of brightness because their cords are smaller and suppler. As a result, their top notes particularly allow for a little more ‘spreading’ of the vowel (albeit very minute) than the lower tenor fachs whom require a lot more ‘ooh’ in the upper register.
The spinto and lyric tenor must also take advantage of the ‘awh’ vowel at the top of their lower passagio. They may be attracted to the idea of pulling their more ‘metallic’ head voice lower than is needed, but would benefit from learning to altering their notes from around D4-E4 to “awh” as in “oh no!” (rather than a nasal “awwwwwhhh”) to assist in the natural ‘lifting’ of the top of the chest register in preparation for a natural transition.
Leggerio tenor: D#4 – G#4
The Leggerio tenor is an extremely nimble and versatile instrument. There is a lot of metal in the sound, more-so than the lyric tenor and there is more potential for fast coloratura and even ‘finto’ singing (singing with a very light quality). You can hear two examples below:
Lawrence Brownlee – Ah mes amis from from Donizetti’s La fille du regiment
Luigi Alva – Ecco ridente in cielo from Rossini’s Il barbiere di Sivilglia
Alva’s approach has always been observed as lighter. There is a lot of thin fold contact and care made to preserve the longevity of the voice. Do not be fool however, if you listen to the notes at 2:00-2:01 after the short run, you can see how he makes full contact between his lighter passages. Lawrence Brownlee’s performance demonstrates the true breadth of how large the leggerio instrument can sound. This is a sound that no other tenor type is capable of, because the leggerio, by nature, has more ‘bite’ to the sound even though it is a lighter instrument.
At 2:18-2:20 you can hear Brownlee sing right through his passagio into his lower register (F4-C4). You hear how, no matter which part of the voice he is singing in, his ‘gears’ mix together effortlessly on the I vowel without too much alteration. His I vowel remains light and forward (but spacious) on the F4 and simply becomes a little more like the umlaut Ü when he has transitioned into his lower register.
If you are a male singer and you are not entirely sure about your fach, ultimately one of your best steps is to go to a teacher who is well respected and gets good results. Do not be saddened if it takes a while to find your true fach. As I have stated in part 1 of this series, try to begin with songs that do not demand tremendous amounts of vocal weight or the extremities of your range. The natural laryngeal tilt that must occur in order to sing through the entire voice without any breaks is best achieved with material that does not demand as much from you as a singer.
Thank you for coming along! In future I hope to make a similar article for more contemporary voices.
Next week: Female fach based on passaggio location.
Don’t think I’ve written enough on lower voices? Voice your opinion and let me know. I will endeavor to write more on lower voices for a future article.
9 thoughts on “The trouble with vocal fach these days Part 2: Determining male voice type and range based on passaggio location”
Hey there! Amazing article about opera fach! I have a passaggio which lies between C#4-F#4. I have a baritonal colour, especially in the lower register. I have a singable low A or B-flat, it depends on day, with a good powerful resonance. As an untrained singer I don’t know how to pass over passaggio very well, so my last singable note is high A-flat. My timbre is changing at high A, which I can hit, but I am not very comfortable. Do you think I am an untrained dramatic tenor? I have already 30 years. Thank you, Michael!
Warm wishes, Daniel
Thank you for your comment.
As an untrained singer it’s quite hard for fach to be determined. You may very well have a tenor-extension starting around A and going higher, but this generally won’t develop until the middle is secure. As a dramatic tenor myself (albeit quite a young one who would avoid anything beyond Puccini right at this point), I found that it took time to develop the A-C extension. That being said, I spent a few years developing those notes in falsetto/M2 (the voice you flip into at the top), which I strongly recommend to give you a sense of how the weight kind of ‘sheds’ at the very top. Eventually the goal is for you to stay in one voice, but for those top notes to feel as if they are ‘almost’ in your falsetto or M2.
If you are happy to, you could email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a sound sample and I could give some recommendations as to what you might want to be looking at.
Generally you don’t need to worry about ‘fach’ unless you’re training as an operatic singer. In most contemporary music, I find it easier to kind of ‘find your niche’ of music that suits your voice the most and then expand from there (as you are training in your most comfortable sound).
Many thanks! Go well!
Great article, Michael. I have a passaggio which lies between C#-F# with a baritonal color in the middle and lower register, but my voice doesn’t sound dramatical, but not typical lyric voice, something between. Is it a Spinto quality vocal type? I am almost 32 years, so I guess is mature enough. Thank you!
Sorry for the delay Alex.
It’s hard to tell for sure without hearing the voice in a room with me. Vocal fach within each main fach is something I wouldn’t worry about until you’ve determined whether you’re a tenor, baritone, bass etc. A rudimentary, but obvious sign of a tenor is a transition into what sounds like a lighter mechanism at around F#-G#. In young voices this will be close to a flip, but will become quite pingy and will extend up to around a high C, or even higher. A baritone will really struggle to find this same mechanism.
For example, I simply consider myself a tenor at this point. While I’ve been told by some fairly good ears that I’m a ‘baby heldentenor’ (I’m 29), I will likely remain singing lyrical repertoire for the time being while the voice grows. It is best to do the same with art song, lieder and Italian songs until the voice finds its place. Once you’re around 35 and the voice has really ‘cooked’, you may find that it naturally prefers repertoire suited for a voice that has the right kind of formant (how the sound carries). For example, Spinto tenor voices carry very well in Verisimo music, because they have height, a pingy formant, and darkness. Lyrical voices carry well in Romantic music, or earlier music because they are able to blend well with smaller and much larger orchestras. Heldentenors are specific to large orchestras, but will not have the range or speed to sing Rossini.
The fachs mentioned in this article are a rough guideline rather than a pigeonhole :).
Thanks for this very thorough article. I’m 36 and sort of in the middle zone where I may be a “bari-tenor” or a lyric baritone. My range is from G2 to G4 (maybe an A4 on a good day).
I have had vocal training and in high school and college was always told by my teachers that I was a tenor. But I’ve always struggled to sing above the second passaggio. However, I’m sort of emotionally attached to being a tenor. I don’t think I have the tone color of a baritone (based on listening to a lot of opera). Jonas Kaufman is my vocal hero.
Here is a sound sample. It’s “The Music of The Night” in a “baritone” key (lowered a half step from the original).
Thanks for your help
Hi Kabir, thanks for the comment!
I wouldn’t emotionally attach yourself to a fach :). If you listen to a lot of the great sopranos, tenors and baritones of the past, you could hear them gliding through different vocal fachs, even though they primarily preferred one. Robert Merril had a lot of ‘tenorial’ overtones because he could utilise the same muscles a tenor can when he sings at the top, many a good helden tenor or dramatic tenor (e.g. Corelli), or even Leggeri (Jerry Hadley) were quite similar to one another at their core. They just had a penchant for specific roles. You’ve got an easy vibrato, my advice to you would be to develop more core to your whole sound without worrying about your vocal fach. Fach is a guideline based on certain roles or areas of comfort.
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Thanks for the valuable feedback. I will take your advice and not worry so much about the specific categorization.
By “emotionally attached”, I mean that there are certain personality traits associated with tenors vs. baritones and on that spectrum, I identify more with the tenors:)