Carolyn (fellow alto) and I took ours together--or rather, she sat in on mine, learning from my mistakes, and I sat in on hers, learning from hers.
I now have enough confidence (starting from somewhere below middle-zero when I joined this choir) to go first, and so found myself standing by the piano singing scales. And being firmly told how to do them better.
Well, sort of. Relevant history. My mother's mother's sister was a paid church soloist in the days before microphones at a large church in Dallas. My mother's mother was popular with the whole town--she sang at every event, including up on a stage at the end of the football field. My mother was considered a failure by her aunt and her grandmother in several ways (coloring among them--she took after her father, not her mother's family) but one of those ways was voice: she had excellent pitch but a very low natural range. She sang torch songs like "Stormy Weather" in a rich, low, voice, but in high school she was told to stand on the back row and lip-synch.
We sang a lot at home (this was pre-TV for that area--singing was normal. I loved to sing along with records (as I learned to play music from them) and that included Broadway musicals, operettas, and a few bits from opera. One that fascinated me, because it was so unearthly beautiful, was an old 78 rpm of Nellie Melba singing the Mad Scene from Lucia de Lammermoor. Through the scratchy surface noise, and the bump-hum-bump of the turntable itself, I could hear this magical music of voice and flute entertwined. (I still can hear it...) So anyway, I tried to sing with it, as I sang with the others. My mother told me it was too high for me and I'd hurt my voice...but I couldn't resist. Day after day, I'd sit on the floor by the old cabinet record player, and get a little farther...and then do it again.
And sure enough, one day, something in my throat went *sping* and hurt a lot, and she said "I told you so" and I was hoarse for awhile and didn't try to sing high again. Shortly after this, in my 8th grade elective (which had 12 weeks of chorus) the choir teacher told me I was no good and shouldn't try to sing because (it seemed to me) I couldn't sing the high notes. I sang at home, and at church, for the sheer fun of it, but didn't try to do more with it.
So I became an alto by default, when I finally did sing again, in college. A second alto because I'd always been able to sing low like my mother and higher as well. But there's no need for a second alto to sing high, and once settled into the comfortable world of the second alto, there I mostly (mostly) stayed. Except I had a secret yen to write music, and liked to sing what I wrote, and that sometimes led me upwards. In my late twenties, singing for the first time with a good choir and with the insistence of a lab assistant in the graduate lab where I was fumbling my way into research, I first learned something of vocal technique. A tiny bit...and discovered that with minimal urging I could go a lot higher than I had...and lower. How low? More than an octave below middle C, though it got growly down there. How high? Well, that was a problem...if relaxed, happy, having fun, quite a ways higher, but it wasn't under reliable control. The lab assistant, who'd had voice lessons for years, urged me to take voice lessons...but I wasn't *really* a singer, I insisted. I was a budding biologist, an unpublished writer, and a fairly novice second alto in a choir. Besides, who had time and money? Not me. She had me do vocal exercises with her, and pushed me to find a piano and check out my range. So we hunted around and found a piano and...well, gee. Big range. Like, um, three and a half octaves. Untrained.
But still, officially, an alto. I was convinced my higher half of the range sounded awful. Who could sing tenor or alto or soprano if the soprano wasn't too high. Who *liked* singing all over the place.
And then came years of not-singing, during which (given the age at which this happened) most of my range disappeared, I feared forever. So did the formerly seamless mid-range shift from high to low. After several years in a choir again, it gradually came back, but without what it had been. And then I moved to my current choir, with much higher standards and a lot of vocal technique being taught week by week. David insists that 99.9% of altos can sing with quality a lot higher than they think they can. So first the transition notes steadied back into place, and then the upper stuff began coming back, note by note. The lower stuff returned more slowly, with his insistence that every tone had to be a quality tone, but it too began to come back. In one terrifying instance, when the altos were required to double the sopranos on a very difficult part of a requiem, we were supposed to sing the F# an octave and some above middle C. And...if well warmed up...I had that note, a note I had not sung in over twenty-five years. Occasionally, I could hear in my voice something that had been there before--not with the power it once had but with more refinement and definitely a not-sucky voice.
So today, the scales began. I'm not a soloist, I insist. I'm an alto, a LOW alto. But today, trying to coordinate stance, breathing, relaxation, et cetera and so forth, and work up the scales bit by bit...coached carefully on the way. There were glitches and hitches and problems with getting mind and body to work in synch (the very hot, stressful drive into the city had turned my neck and shoulders into cement.) But David said "Think of it as musical phrases, not scales--think of the gesture you want--now put some emotion into it--some anger, maybe..." And then, out of my own mouth, came this voice. Partly like it had been once--in my late twenties/early thirties--and partly something new.
In the pause, David asked Carolyn what she'd heard. "She's a soprano!" Carolyn said.
"No," he said. He looked entirely too smug. "She's a mezzo. Not a contralto."
I had no idea what a mezzo was (hey, I'm a second alto, my mind insisted. That's way down the scale and you don't need to know what those others are called up there, those singing the high notes. You also don't need to read above the staff.) On the other hand, one does not argue with David.
So I came home and looked up mezzo-soprano in Google, expecting to find it completely irrelevant to what I know about myself. (Which is apparently less than I thought.) The range I used to have, from A below the C below middle C, to the C two octaves above? That's mezzo range. I don't have that range now, of course. The low end has come up, the high end has come down. But having hit the F# more than once without squeaking or feeling like someone had stabbed my throat with a hatpin, I have surreptitiously sneaked a try at some descants that make the sopranos go up to the G, and even the A. It's a tight, feeling, the way it was six years ago when I could barely sing the D an octave and one note above middle C, but it's not an impossible feeling, and I remember when that A was duck soup with chives on top. Forty years ago, but...it was there.
I just didn't know what it meant. And now...me. Not just a second alto who can beef up the tenors if they're short, or sing a string of low notes with some volume, but....a mezzo. A fine thing to find out at my age (well, I can't find it out younger...)
From the gleam in David's eye, I will now be expected to work on singing higher with more quality. And work even more head voice into the low end. No more hiding in the comfortable little niche between G and G on either side of middle C. And I suppose I'll have to learn to read accidentals correctly, rather than reversing them half the time.
I should have realized (I did, but suppressed it) that he knows every voice in the choir, and those times I sneaked in some soprano notes to see if I could, he heard me. Of course I never played around on the anthem...only on hymns, with everyone singing, so I thought I was safe. At another church I used to play around a lot, because they sang a lot of really boring praise music. Beth and I would improvise alto parts, different for each verse, and on really bad days we'd improvise words, too, and sing them very softly. That choir director didn't catch on. I'd never dare try that with David.
It was a very interesting lesson.