top of page

Becoming A Contralto: My journey discovering my contralto voice



Settle in, as this will probably be quite a read! I myself poured two cups of coffee before even starting to write this (and didn't write it all in one day), so join me with a cup of something and let's dive in!


Why am I writing this story down? There is so little written about the (classical) contralto voice and so little information/real stories out there of people who have discovered that this is their voice type. Many singers of all voice types have dealt with their own questions and the doubts of others regarding their voice category, so I am hoping that by writing this article that singers, listeners, teachers, and anyone else interested can gain a little insight!


Over time, I may add details to the sections which are more about the contralto voice, or write separate articles/create social media content! Your questions are very welcome, and I will do my best to answer them.


A very short TL;DR summary: I started singing pretty much everything (but soprano-leaning). I was initially categorised as a soprano (I had high notes, I guess), then as a mezzo-soprano (but this was often questioned), and finally as a (much more comfortable) contralto.


 

Who am I?



If you're new here, I'm Kayla Collingwood - a France-based classical contralto singer, music/voice/stagecraft educator, and creator from New Zealand. You can read more about me and what I do here!


 

A quick note



I believe that everyone I have trusted with my voice absolutely contributed positively in some way, whether by giving me the tools to improve my technique, nurturing my artistic soul, helping me to deconstruct and overcome some negative beliefs and other hurdles, increasing my understanding of my voice, etc. The teachers I worked with for extended periods did their best according to their knowledge and where I was at with my vocal and personal development, and I value their input immensely!


No matter how experienced any teacher is, it is the singer who needs to listen to what their voice/body is telling them, and it is the singer who has to do the work to keep progressing. This article is not about whether any teacher was correct or not, or whether they were "good" or "bad", so I will not include names in this post. It is also important to understand that some voices are difficult to identify correctly, especially when the voice is not fully developed (lower and bigger voices usually take longer).


Another note to say that people, whether professional voice users/teachers or not, will always have opinions about voices and singers. This is not a bad thing - it's great to connect with people who are invested in our voices/careers in some way! However...

  • Opinions should be expressed respectfully and appropriately according to your relationship with the singer, understanding of vocal development, etc. On the other hand, insisting that a singer IS a certain voice type or MUST sing certain things or NEEDS to leave their current teacher (and go to who?) or "will/will not have a 'successful' career" is usually unhelpful, often wrong, and can be very harmful.

  • If you're a singer and still figuring things out (aren't we all?), stay focused, be gentle with yourself, and listen to your instincts. Sing what you know makes your voice shine or gives you a chance to work on specific challenges. Explore and work on all parts of your voice - low, mid, high, comfortable range, extremes. Recognise that your voice will continue to shift and change throughout your life due to maturity, hormones, health issues, life experience, and so much more!


Now, a bit of my backstory...


 

First steps: Childhood and adolescence



I grew up in a family and community where (non-classical) music was a daily part of life, so I was always around singing and music. From classic or contemporary pop/rock hits and ballads, Christian contemporary music, New Zealand Māori waiata, R&B, hip-hop/rap, reggae, and much more, I was exposed to many different genres of music growing up!


As a toddler, I used to sing myself to sleep. At around the age of three, something stopped me singing entirely. I have no memory of what happened to cause that. But the result was that I became very shy about my voice and no longer sang in front of anyone, even family. The PlayStation game SingStar was what got me singing again, at around the age of ten!



Eventually, I began taking weekly singing lessons at a singing/stagecraft school, and had my first role in a musical production, where I performed my first "trouser role" (where a female performer takes on a male role) as a prince. Most of the songs were musical theatre/traditional folk songs/"standards"/pop songs.


After having been home schooled all my life, I started attending public school at the age of fifteen. Here I was able to take music classes - previously I had taken formal piano lessons and informal guitar lessons, but I had very little theory or music history knowledge - and join every music group I could (as well as singing, this included viola lessons, orchestra, and chamber music groups). I started singing in a barbershop chorus and quartet, which to this day has been one of the most valuable musical experiences of my life. I sang every part as necessary (tenor, lead, baritone, bass), but baritone was where I really settled.



I also took private singing lessons again, with more of a classical focus. I saw my first opera, and this really was the pivotal moment in what made me want a career in this field. I entered singing competitions, with varying levels of success and a lot of stage anxiety, and was singing repertoire which was mostly quite "soprano"-ish.


 

Undergraduate and Postgraduate Years



I was not immediately accepted into the Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice, as I still had a long way to go regarding confidence, technique, vocal development... pretty much everything! But the audition panel recognised my potential, so I was accepted to begin studies anyway on a sort of "trial" basis. I continued singing more-or-less soprano repertoire throughout this initial year - a couple of light arias, and a range of art songs.


Once I was fully accepted into the singing programme, my teacher at the time almost immediately identified that I was probably not a soprano. We started working on lower repertoire, beginning with "But who may abide" from Handel's "Messiah", which essentially set in stone that I was some kind of lower voice.


Throughout all the rest of my undergraduate and postgraduate studies (I hold a Master of Music in Classical Singing), I trained as a mezzo-soprano. What kind of mezzo was often called into question: I had fairly easy access to high notes, a relatively flexible voice for singing "fioratura" runs, there were clear signs that I didn't have a "small" or "light" voice (in one competition I was passed by for the prize because "big voices need time"), I had a rich and dark tone in the lower register particularly (to the extent that I had one friend rolling on the floor when he heard the quality of tone when we tested my lower extension for fun!).



I also had some people who were still convinced I was a soprano, but this was tested with spectrogram voice analysis (which shows graphically the distribution of the different frequencies contained in the voice), which made it very clear that this was not the case. Some people thought maybe I was a "Zwischenfach" (between mezzo and soprano) as my voice had some qualities which didn't put it firmly into one subcategory of mezzo or another. Somehow no one ever (as far as I remember) suggested that it was possible I could be a contralto, though I often received compliments and reviews about the richness of my lower notes.


Did it matter? Voice type identification DOES matter, because if you are singing the wrong repertoire and with incorrect technique, it can hinder your development and lead to future voice problems. A lot of my repertoire was art song and oratorio, though, much of which I can still sing now (although not always in the same keys as I used to). The operatic repertoire was the issue, although the difficulties I had I figured were just related to technique and the fact that a lot of "standard" repertoire for mezzo-soprano historically wasn't actually written specifically for a mezzo voice. The teachers I worked with did not try to pigeonhole my voice, so we did explore quite a range of repertoire.



At this time I was also singing for New Zealand Opera (in the chorus, so the tessitura was usually fine) and performing some solo opera roles with companies and organisations around the country - some of which were roles which I can still sing today (for example, the Third Lady and Third Boy in Mozart's "The Magic Flute", the Sorceress in Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas"). Other operatic roles I have had to remove from my repertoire now as the tessitura is too high.


 

Europe



After finishing my studies in New Zealand, I moved to France. I had the worst audition of my life for the national opera company (jet lag + incorrect repertoire = bad combination). I became ill and lost my voice for several months. Then began several years of very little singing and very challenging life circumstances, in Paris.


I kept taking lessons where I could afford it, but struggled to find a good teacher, and did not have much of a network. I developed some vocal issues - a bit of a wobble, a lot of tension, and frequently lost my voice. On occasion, I was fortunate to meet and work with some wonderful musicians and composers, who were very supportive (some of whom I still work with now). I moved to London for two years, where I found a good teacher, improved my technique, and prepared to restart my singing career (still as a mezzo).


Then COVID hit, so that was that. I moved back to Paris and was back at square one. After an audition, I received a call from a panel member who asked me "as a teacher" about my current singing teacher situation etc. He thought I was perhaps singing the wrong repertoire, and wanted to do a trial lesson. This set off alarm bells as usually this meant "soprano", but I had nothing to lose, so I agreed.


 

Contralto "diagnosis"


In my first lesson, we initially did some vocalises, and then I sang the first song from Schumann's "Frauenliebe und -leben", which I had successfully added to my recital repertoire. He transposed it down, as the standard key had revealed some potential signs of misidentification, and... well, that was the start of my transition to contralto!


We began by working on some songs by "The Carpenters", just to let the voice get used to singing in the lower range. We then introduced some art songs and arias for contralto into the mix, and worked on technique. Singing becoming so much easier, freer, and I really felt like my voice had found its "home". After several months, it was decided that it was time to officially rebrand as a contralto.


Things didn't work out with the teacher I was studying with at the time due to inappropriate behaviour - unfortunately not the first case of that I have come across, and unfortunately far too common in this industry. However, I then found a contralto teacher who I began working with by distance in Sweden, and who I have been working with ever since.


The first year or so of singing as a contralto, I still had quite a lot of tension in the upper range, so the "contralto" quality was not always evident. Over time, my voice settled more and more in the lower tessitura and my technique improved (and continues to improve) to allow the true nature of my voice to show.


Take a listen to how the the different "registers" (upper, middle, lower) have developed over time!


First outing as a contralto (after a few months):



After a year:



After two years:



 

Contralto voice types


I am absolutely certain that the contralto category is the correct one, and the more I learn about this voice category and the common qualities and challenges, the more certain I am.


I still have people who express that they don't believe that I am a contralto, but I put that down to either my own vocal development/incorrect technique (because that still isn't perfect) hiding the true qualities of my voice which come through when I'm singing with correct technique... or simply the fact that the contralto voice is so misunderstood.


Many people think that all contraltos are physically large, with very "androgynous" voices which tend to be quite dramatic in quality. Like this:



However, just like every other voice type, the contralto voice has subcategories. The most common recognised subcategories (with examples of currently prominent singers) are:

  • Coloratura - An agile, "lighter" contralto voice with a focus on executing rapid ornamentation and intricate melodic lines. Example: Delphine Galou

  • Lyric - A warm, velvety voice which excels in repertoire where emotional expression and lyrical phrasing are necessary. Example: Avery Amereau

  • Dramatic - A powerful, resonant, dark voice, capable of conveying intensity and authority in repertoire requiring dramatic climaxes. Example: Jess Dandy


You can find out more in my article about classical voice types for beginners.


As for me... myself and my teacher think I'm probably a lyric contralto, with some agility and also some dramatic capabilities, but essentially preferring expressive, lyric lines.


For teachers of potential contraltos, and for singers who think they may lean that way, voice teacher David Jones has some great articles about this voice category, which you can find on his site linked from the Contralto Corner site.


 

Summary


Really, I'm not sure what to say in summary! However, I would be happy to answer any questions! You can contact me here or leave a comment.


I also teach singing, so if you're interested in learning more about your own voice, feel free to book a lesson! Note that voice types usually can't be identified from a first lesson, especially for beginner singers. However, over time or for more technically developed singers, we can look at the qualities of your voice and what repertoire makes your voice shine!


I hope you found this article useful/interesting/inspiring :).





36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page