Gender Bender : Is It Best to Study with Your Own Voice Type?

A patient would not go to an orthopedic surgeon for an eye exam. A dentist would not be the most likely candidate to treat appendicitis.

So why would it make sense for a soprano to seek out a baritone as a voice teacher?

Renowned vocal pedagogue Richard Miller once wrote, “Teachers of singing often confess that it is easiest to instruct a student of one’s own voice type.”1 Is it feasible, then, to expect teachers to confidently address all the elements of vocal training that are particular to each voice type? Perhaps they will always be a little bit more comfortable (and perhaps competent) with students who share their own Fach.

Are there times when a soubrette, for instance, is best served by seeking a teacher who is also a soubrette? In the same way that physicians refer patients to specialists, should voice teachers also refer students to those who may specialize in teaching a particular voice type?

Hoping to address this phenomenon and help teachers find success when working with all of their students, Miller authored three books with specifically tailored instruction: Training Tenor Voices (Schirmer Books, 1993), Training Soprano Voices (Oxford University Press, 2000), and Securing Baritone, Bass-Baritone, & Bass Voices (Oxford University Press, 2008). He acknowledges that singers of all voice types are subject to the same laws of physiology and acoustics, but he also believes “the diversity of instruments. . . requires variation in pedagogic application.”2

“I started off with a tenor and I definitely think it had its advantages,” says Chicago-based tenor Scott Ramsay. With recent engagements including Beadle Bamford in Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’s Sweeney Todd and the tenor solos in Verdi’s Requiem at the Berkshire Choral Festival, Ramsay began his vocal studies as an undergraduate with Dr. William Lavonis at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point and later at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

“He was definitely the best thing that ever happened to me,” Ramsay says. He credits Lavonis with using age-appropriate techniques and literature that allowed his technical foundation as a young tenor to form. “I think it makes a big difference to have someone like Bill who is understanding of tenors and the voice. In my heart I want to say that it’s because he is a tenor and that he got my voice.”

But as his vocal studies continued in training programs with the Florida Grand Opera and the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, Ramsay had a succession of female teachers. During these years he felt his technique grow, specifically as he established more unified registers, connected the voice “into the body,” and found a consistently more forward placement—which he readily attributes to the expertise and qualified guidance of his teachers.

But over the last year, Ramsay has once again begun working with a tenor and feels that he has made even further progress in these same areas of his voice while also discovering an ease he never used to have in his top register. “I can definitely tell the difference in my singing when I’m working with a tenor. . . . That’s not something I think I would have learned with a female,” he said.

Ramsay admits, though, that the specific instruction he receives now, as a professional, is clearly not what was needed in his earlier, undergraduate years of training. “When we’re talking about young singers, that’s not what they need at that time. They need to be working on their breath, working on keeping as much musculature out of the singing as possible, and getting it very free. And I think most teachers, regardless of sex, can help with that.”

Most teachers have two perspectives from which to view the situation: assessing the students they currently teach and looking back over their own years as voice students.

Courtney Crouse studied voice with both soprano Carol Vaness and the late Paul Kiesgen during her doctoral studies at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

“Of course we feel more comfortable with our own gender,” she says. “They make sounds that are more similar to us and they understand intimately our issues.” While she does concede her initial self-consciousness studying with a man, those feelings quickly faded as the technical work of building the voice began.

All the same, Crouse has not experienced the same self-consciousness in her own teaching studio, now as assistant professor of music at the Wanda L. Bass School of Music at Oklahoma City University. “I like teaching men,” she says, “because I don’t have to belt.”

When teaching musical theater techniques, Crouse finds herself demonstrating vocally much more with her female students. “With men I tend to be more concise and vivid with my descriptions of what I want them to do, plus I have enjoyed the process of learning more about men’s voices. The ultimate conclusion is that we have more in common than not.”

These commonalities and differences, however, are not as immediately applicable when an entire teaching studio is of the same gender. Laurel Thomas is associate professor of music and department chair at the all-women’s Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana. Having taught both genders for the majority of her career, Thomas has felt increasingly confident in her abilities as a voice teacher since joining the Saint Mary’s faculty 10 years ago. “I believe that I hear with more empathy when analyzing vocal strengths and challenges in the female voice and come to an understanding of each student’s future work more easily,” she says. “I also believe that I am quicker, with women, to arrive at a common language regarding vocal technique.”

But Thomas also looks beyond technique as she encourages her students to work toward artistry and independence. “I have to know my students well, and they have to trust me,” she says. She acknowledges the difficulties many have in transitioning from high school to college. “[Students] should be free to talk to me about their literature, language, and history courses and to confide in me when homesick or having roommate problems,” she says. “I am invested in helping each one to develop as a singer while cultivating the intellectual and psychological qualities of an independent, strong, enabled woman—for one must be such a person to be a musician.”

While many acknowledge the various advantages to working with a teacher of the same voice type, often the same people feel it is not required until a certain level of vocal proficiency has been established. Others argue that even at advanced stages, it need not be a necessary part of vocal training.

Good, basic vocal technique can be taught regardless of the voice types of the student and teacher, according to Timothy Schmidt, assistant professor of music at Southeast Missouri State University. “Studying with a teacher of one’s own voice type can be extremely helpful at an advanced level,” he says, “particularly for learning nuances of specialized repertoire. But even at the advanced level, very effective teaching can still be done across voice types and genders.”

During his undergraduate degree at Westmont College in California, Schmidt studied applied voice first with a tenor and then a soprano. As a bass-baritone, he never felt that anything was lacking in his instruction at that time. In fact, he believes that much of his foundational development as a singer as well as his initial curiosity and understanding of vocal pedagogy came from his soprano teacher, Janet Proodian.

For his graduate study, Schmidt felt ready for what he calls an “insider’s perspective” on the technique and repertoire of his own voice type, and he found that in Carl Gerbrandt, a baritone at the University of Northern Colorado. He believes his time with Gerbrandt was well spent, primarily because he was both physically and intellectually ready for the level of instruction he received.

After several years of teaching at undergraduate institutions, Schmidt began to look for doctoral programs. “At that point, I felt confident that I could learn effectively from any voice type, so I focused more on finding programs that would help me fill in gaps in my knowledge.” This time, his prospective schools included teachers whose personalities meshed well with his own and coaches who could help him further explore his repertoire.

That led him to the University of Illinois School of Music. “I ended up working with another low male voice,” he says, “but I would have been just as happy with another voice type.”

In his books, Miller identifies that the primary differences between voice types lie in physiognomy, size, and shape of both the larynx and the resonator tract, and points of registration shift.

Schmidt highlights similar differences. “From a technical standpoint,” he says, “one must remember that while the general shape of the vocal tract is similar from person to person, every person possesses a vocal tract with a unique shape and size. This provides each singer with a uniquely identifiable tone, but also means that no two singers (regardless of voice type) will experience the sensations of singing in exactly the same way. The same holds true for the structures of the breathing mechanism and, thus, the sensations of breath support.”

He points out that even singers with the same voice type as their teachers may experience these sensations of singing differently. “There is no guarantee that another baritone—even one of essentially the same vocal size and color—will feel exactly the same things that I do,” he says. “Even if they perceive them the same way, how they make sense of and describe those sensations may still be very different.”

Voice teachers are often adept at employing images and analogies in their instruction to help make difficult concepts or the functioning of hidden apparatuses easier to comprehend. In that regard, a student seeking a voice teacher may be likened to a car in need of a tune-up. Searching for a mechanic who drives the same kind of car may not be imperative since it can be reasonably assumed that all trained and qualified mechanics will have experience working with various makes and models.

As the miles accumulate, however, it may be necessary to check in with someone who has more extensive knowledge, or even personal experience, with the quirks of a particular brand. In any case, whether the concern is carburetors or cricothyroids, assistance is best sought from anyone who can ensure a smoother, more enjoyable ride.

Brian Manternach

Brian Manternach, DM (he/him), is an associate professor at the University of Utah Department of Theatre and a research associate at the Utah Center for Vocology, where he is on the faculty of the Summer Vocology Institute. He is an associate editor of the Journal of Singing, and his research, reviews, articles, and essays have appeared in numerous voice-related publications. /