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SATB: Untangling the Web of Part Singing

The mysterious nature of musical terminology will often scare many people from singing parts. Once explained, these terms are simple enough for a 6 year old to grasp and you can confidently say–“I’m a Tenor!” or “Pass me that Psalter–I’m singing with the Altos!”

Make sure to first read over all the information, then go back and follow the guidelines for your age group.

Adults (generally over the ages of 18-24) 
Those whose voices have settled into their adult ranges.
Voices are classified into 4 basic parts.
Soprano or “S” in SATB: The higher woman’s voice.
Alto or “A” in SATB: The lower woman’s voice.
Tenor or “T” in SATB:The higher man’s voice.
Bass or “B” in SATB: The lower man’s voice.

Are you a man or woman? That automatically narrows your options. : ) Try singing the high part. Now try the low part. Now the high part again. Which seems more comfortable?

Don’t be deceived–in lazy America, our voices tend to favor the lower part because Soprano or Tenor “seem” too high. Try out both high and low parts until you can start feeling comfortable in one “range” or the other. This is an art not a science, so don’t get hung up at this point. If you can’t decide, just pick one. You can always change later.

Children (Birth to age 10/16) 
Those whose voices have not changed/deepened/dropped.

It is very important to have young children singing. When they are taught to sing from their earliest of days, it builds in them excellence, confidence and love for singing. I have seen children as young as 3 be able to carry their part with out batting an eyelash. For ideas to work with your children, you may find the article But I Can’t Sing! Tips for New Psalm Singers helpful.

Soprano: Girls and Boys can sing this melody.
Tenor: I think it is fun to have the young boys sing Tenor with the men–just remember the children will sound an octave (8 notes) higher even though they are singing the “same note”. This is because their voice has not yet changed. Sometimes this will be confusing to the other singers, but when you explain the children are singing up an octave, it will usually make sense to everyone involved.

Young People (10/16 to 18/24)
Those whose voices are in the middle of changing/deepening/dropping.

These important singing years are the most challenging to learn to sing if you’ve not had much experience . . . but a new world opens up when you figure out how to match pitches and sing a part. Both boys and girls voices will drop in range during these years. You may get to change parts from when you were younger. This is always a fun adventure!

Soprano: Younger boys in this category may stay here for a few years, but then their voice may deepen over a period of months to Tenor or Bass. Some girls will stay soprano their whole life until in their 60’s-80’s when their voice may deepen to Alto or Tenor.

Altos: Boys whose voices are changing may find the alto comfortable to sing for a while–this will generally be from ages 10-16ish. Then they may move to Tenor or Bass. Many girls voices will change from Soprano to Alto during these years–but not all!! Don’t move out of Soprano unless there is a reason. But also, don’t strain your voice trying to sing Soprano if your voice has deepened to Alto–use wisdom.

Tenor/Bass: If you have sung Tenor since you were little this will be an easy transition. Over the course of a couple months you may find it easier to drop your line of music down an octave. If this happens, you are probably a Bass. Switch over to Bass for a while–but when your voice settles you may come back to Tenor. Through this transition, you may have sung Soprano, Alto, Tenor, or Bass . . . the main point is just keep singing. Within a 6 month period you should generally get an idea of what part your voice is moving towards. In the middle of that process, you voice may “crack” or jump around. Just listen to the correct pitches and match them the best you can. This is the most exciting time of singing as it is a surprise to find out which part you get to sing as a man!

The most important thing to remember is keep singing through the growing years. It may sound a little different for a while, but persevere. Don’t worry too much about what part you are in, just pick the one that seems most comfortable for the time; you may switch in a month or two. But that is ok–just part of the process. Make sure you can hear yourself sing. Listen to make sure you are on pitch by cupping your hand over your ear. Find other ideas in the article But I Can’t Sing! Tips for New Psalm Singers. Your enthusiasm will encourage the adults and children around you to sing with joyful hearts.

Singing in harmony is such a wonderful gift. Use music to it’s full potential. Don’t be shy when it comes to singing parts. With a little trial and error you can discover your musical range and use it to glorify the Lord.

© December 2005, Rebecca Serven
Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.

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