Issues with Fach

The American vocal pedagogue who has a serious addiction to early Fach designations, thus relying on a European system, suffers from a pedagogical disease against which the student should be on guard.

Richard Miller, On the Art of Singing 

Many young singers are desperate for a Fach designation. Somehow when they have their Fach, every fear will be eradicated and all vocal problems will somehow be solved.

Fach is a German word that means category and is used to divide the four basic voice types (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass) into further categories. For example, the soprano voice might be classified as Soubrette Soprano, Lyric Coloratura Soprano, Dramatic Coloratura Soprano, Lyric Soprano, Character Soprano, Spinto/Young Dramatic Soprano, Dramatic Soprano.

When these categories fail to classify a voice, further ingenuity is required, and we get more outlandish classifications, “I’m a young Lyric Soprano with Coloratura tendencies and a Mezzo extension.”

The quest to determine scientifically how the voice works may have contributed as much to the standardisation of singing (the general absence of individuality) as the ready availability of vocal recordings, the German Fach system and the proliferation of vocal techniques with fixed agendas.

Harrison, Peter T. The Human Nature of the Singing Voice: Exploring a sound basis for Teaching and Learning. Dunedin Academic Press Ltd. 2016.

One of the voice training directives that sprang up in the early 20th century was to determine the category of voice by the location of register changes. Herbert Witherspoon (recently covered extensively on this blog) was one of the first to codify voice types by register transitions while simultaneously denying the existence of registers – (cognitive dissonance much?)

Richard Miller also elaborated on Witherspoon. Miller’s book The Structure of Singing (1986) lays out the following charts for male voices, sopranos, mezzos, and contraltos. Because of the influence of Miller’s work, I have seen teachers work first-hand to put these transition locations into a singer’s voice. (“Well you sound like a baritone, so I’ve got to hear that primo passaggio at B3!”) I’ve also seen these charts used in first lessons to diagnose the singer, with no previous history or knowledge of the voice.

Many believe these changing tones are the ‘key’ to finding the Fach of the singer’s voice. But what happens when the singer doesn’t have these transitions? For example, if the singer is a baritone, what happens when nothing is felt at B3, or Bflat3? Does the baritone think he’s a bass? tenor? Could a lower-voiced male with a robust voice be classified as a tenorino if he didn’t feel or hear any register shifts until F4?

And consider this observation: shouldn’t a fairly well advanced voice have NO perceptible register shifts anywhere in the scale?

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Cornelius Reid took umbrage at classifying voices by a ‘changing note’ in the scale. For him, the classifying of voices by a particular ‘note’ was a dangerous process that served to lock in a singer’s vocal faults.

Although one may believe that “changing notes” are located at specific intervals in the harmonic series, this correlation is unlikely. Too many individual exceptions violate the rule, and since changing notes (“lifts” or “breaks”) do not occur when the vocal registers are perfectly balanced, it appears that the supposition is baseless. More reasonable is the concept that changing notes are physiological rather than acoustic phenomenon that reflect slight imbalances in the segmentation points relative to registration.

Some teachers try to categorize voices by the location of changing notes in the tonal scale, since it would appear that heavier voice types might have slightly thicker vocal folds, and consequently lower changing notes than their lighter counterparts. This practice, however, is exceedingly dangerous, as breaks and noticeable changing notes often indicate the presence of technical limitations, and cannot be considered fixed installations.

To establish vocal categories on the basis of changing notes, or even tonal range, is an a priori judgement. It leads to an acceptance of a status quo, the avoidance of making necessary changes, and procedures which avoid the employment of those functional principles which alone are capable of developing the voice properly.

Cornelius Reid, A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology

Maria Callas had this to say on Fach in her masterclasses at Juilliard in 1971:

Once upon a time, however, one soprano sang Norma, Puritani, Sonnambula, Lucia. She was a soprano – basta! I have a poster in my home of an evening with Maria Malibran in which she sang both Sonnambula and Fidelio! It’s a matter of technique. Today, if a soprano does not have her high notes, she is a mezzo. But we all must have our high notes, our low notes. We must have everything.

Can you imagine a violinist without his high notes, his low notes, his abellimenti? `Cantabile’-what does this mean? It means you have a singing ing tone. But we all must be cantabile, not just basso cantabile but baritono cantabile, soprano cantabile. We must also sing what is written. How do you get out of notes which are there, staring you in the face? You must have your trill, your acciaccature, your legato; otherwise don’t call yourself a singer.

John Ardoin, Callas at Juilliard

W. Stephen Smith also agreed that the obsession with categories could lead to stale, lifeless performances, as well as the maintenance of a status quo.

We have all become so category-minded these days that it seems building a career is all about choosing the right repertoire. The problem is that every coach, conductor, and teacher will have a different opinion of what each singer’s voice is and what music is appropriate to that voice. It is a never-ending, losing battle. While acknowledging the expectations of the business, we should not feel compelled to cater to those expectations but rather be true to ourselves. If singing Carmen and “Je suis Titania” both feel right and true for a soprano, then I dare her to sing both. The same company might not hire her for both roles, but one could hire her to sing Carmen and another to sing Philene (the coloratura role in Mignon). It all depends on their personal tastes, who else is already cast, or the kind of sounds that the casting director happens to like. It is pointless for a singer to second-guess the expectations of the people listening to auditions because everyone’s opinion is different.

The task of choosing repertoire really matters only after we have done the work of uncovering the naked voice—learning to sing with free phonation and airflow. The more aligned the voice becomes, the more naturally the right repertoire will emerge. Sometimes young singers will ask me if they can sing a particular aria, and I tell them to wait a few years. If they work on that aria before their technical issues are more ironed out, they are likely to develop habits they will have to unlearn later. It is not that their instincts are wrong or that they should never sing that piece; rather, they should just wait until they are more technically secure so they won’t have as much baggage to deal with when they truly are ready to sing it.

Smith, W. Stephen; Chipman, Michael. The Naked Voice:A Wholistic Approach to Singing . Oxford University Press. 2007.

In closing, I’ll share my favorite remark on the Fach system from soprano Jessye Norman, an artist who made a career on diverse roles and performances:

I think one of the things, when I talk to younger performers, whether they’re singers or violinists or pianists, is that I feel that I have encouraged them to go beyond the limitations of the box in which we can be placed as classical performers. That it really is all right to be a cellist, and to play the Elgar Concerto, but to be also interested in the music of the Silk Road, as Yo-Yo Ma has shown so brilliantly. That the music need not have been composed originally for the classical cello. That doesn’t mean that you can’t play it, and that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be interested in it. Why should a person who’s playing the Brahms Second Piano Concerto not be interested in the ragtime music of Scott Joplin? Why should a singer who’s singing Mimi — a Puccini (role) — not be interested in the music of Cole Porter? I feel that we so often limit ourselves, because we think that we have to follow a certain line, that we have to follow and do what’s been done before, instead of finding our own paths and making our own way. I hope that my performance life encourages — particularly other singers — not to be limited, not to be put into a box and to be told, “You are that kind of soprano, so therefore this is the kind of music that you’re supposed to sing.” I said one clever thing — and I say this all the time — I said one clever thing in my entire life, and I was asked this question when I was about 23 or 24 years old. When I was doing probably the second interview I’d ever done in my life, and the interviewer said, “What kind of soprano are you? You sing this and you sing that and you’ve got sort of fiorituri possibilities..” meaning sort of like coloratura sopranos, “…so what kind of soprano are you exactly?” And so then I said, in all of my sort of 23 or 24 years, “I think that pigeon holes are only comfortable for pigeons.”

Jessye Norman
Interview can be found here:


2 thoughts on “Issues with Fach

  1. Very interesting post, which reminded me of learning that Francesco Lamperti had a system in which changing notes were involved. However, he seems to have understood its purpose in terms of what he heard. As way of example, he observed that a mezzo-soprano arrived at high G in a different manner than a true soprano, for whom the high note itself was more brilliant that the notes leading to it.

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