Fun_People Archive
28 Feb
The Young Person's Guide to the Chorus

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Mon, 28 Feb 100 02:38:42 -0800
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Subject: The Young Person's Guide to the Chorus

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In any chorus, there are four voice parts:  soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.
Sometimes these are divided into first and second within each part,
prompting endless jokes about first and second basses.  There are also
various other parts such as baritone, countertenor, contralto, mezzo
soprano, etc., but these are mostly used by people who are either soloists,
or belong to some excessively hotshot classical a cappella group (this
applies especially to countertenors), or are trying to make excuses for
not really fitting into any of the regular voice parts, so we will ignore
them for now.

Each voice part sings in a different range, and each one has a very
different personality.  You may ask, "Why should singing different notes
make people act differently?", and indeed this is a mysterious question
and has not been adequately studied, especially since scientists who study
musicians tend to be musicians themselves and have all the peculiar
complexes that go with being tenors, french horn players, timpanists,or
whatever.  However, this is beside the point; the fact remains that the
four voice parts can be easily distinguished, and I will now explain how.

THE SOPRANOS are the ones who sing the highest, and because of this they
think they rule the world.  They have longer hair, fancier jewelry,and
swishier skirts than anyone else, and they consider themselves insulted if
they are not allowed to go at least to a high F in every movement of any
given piece.  When they reach the high notes, they hold them for at least
half again as long as the composer and/or conductor requires, and then
complain that their throats are killing them and that the composer and
conductor are sadists. Sopranos have varied attitudes toward the other
sections of the chorus, though they consider all of them inferior.

Altos are to sopranos rather like second violins to first violins - nice
to harmonize with, but not really necessary.  All sopranos have a secret
feeling that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially
the same, and they don't understand why anybody would sing in that range
in the first place - it's so boring.  Tenors, on the other hand, can be
very nice to have around; besides their flirtation possibilities (it is a
well-known fact that sopranos never flirt with basses), sopranos like to
sing duets with tenors because all the tenors are doing is working very
hard to sing in a low-to-medium soprano range, while the sopranos are up
there in the stratosphere showing off.  To sopranos, basses are the scum
of the earth - they sing too damn loud, are useless to tune to because
they're down in that low, low range - and there has to be something wrong
with anyone who sings in the F clef, anyway (although while they swoon
while the Tenors sing, they still end up going home with the basses).

THE ALTOS are the salt of the earth - in their opinion, at least. Altos
are unassuming people, who would wear jeans to concerts if they were allowed
to.  Altos are in a unique position in the chorus in that they are unable
to complain about having to sing either very high or very low, and they
know that all the other sections think their parts are pitifully easy. But
the altos know otherwise.  They know that while the sopranos are screeching
away on a high A, they are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of
sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm, and nobody is noticing because the
sopranos are singing too loud (and the basses usually are, too).  Altos
get a deep, secret pleasure out of conspiring together to tune the sopranos
flat.  Altos have an innate distrust of tenors, because the tenors sing in
almost the same range and think they sound better. They like the basses,
and enjoy singing duets with them - the basses just sound like a rumble
anyway, and it's the only time the altos can really be heard.  Altos' other
complaint is that there are always too many of them and so they never get
to sing really loud.

THE TENORS are spoiled.  That's all there is to it.  For one thing, there
are never enough of them, and choir directors would rather sell their souls
than let a halfway decent tenor quit, while they're always ready to unload
a few altos at half price.  And then, for some reason, the few tenors there
are are always really good - it's one of those annoying facts of life.  So
it's no wonder that tenors always get swollen heads - after all, who else
can make sopranos swoon?  The one thing that can make tenors insecure is
the accusation (usually by the basses) that anyone singing that high
couldn't possibly be a real man. In their usual perverse fashion, the tenors
never acknowledge this, but just complain louder about the composer being
a sadist and making them sing so damn high. Tenors have a love-hate
relationship with the conductor, too, because the conductor is always
telling them to sing louder because there are so few of them.  No conductor
in recorded history has ever asked for less tenor in a forte passage.

Tenors feel threatened in some way by all the other sections - the sopranos
because they can hit those incredibly high notes; the altos because they
have no trouble singing the notes the tenors kill themselves for; and the
basses because, although they can't sing anything above an E, they sing it
loud enough to drown the tenors out. Of course, the tenors would rather
die than admit any of this. It is a little-known fact that tenors move
their eyebrows more than anyone else while singing.

THE BASSES sing the lowest of anybody.  This basically explains everything.
They are stolid, dependable people, and have more facial hair than anybody
else.  The basses feel perpetually unappreciated, but they have a deep
conviction that they are actually the most important part (a view endorsed
by musicologists, but certainly not by sopranos or tenors), despite the
fact that they have the most boring part of anybody and often sing the same
note (or in endless fifths) for an entire page. They compensate for this
by singing as loudly as they can get away with - most basses are tuba
players at heart.  Basses are the only section that can regularly complain
about how low their part is, and they make horrible faces when trying to
hit very low notes.  Basses are charitable people, but their charity does
not extend so far as tenors, whom they consider effete poseurs.  Basses
hate tuning the tenors more than almost anything else. Basses like altos
- except when they have duets and the altos get the good part.  As for the
sopranos, they are simply in an alternate universe which the basses don't
understand at all.  They can't imagine why anybody would ever want to sing
that high and sound that bad when they make mistakes.  When a bass makes
a mistake, the other three parts will cover him, and he can continue on
his merry way, knowing that sometime, somehow, he will end up at the root
of the chord.

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