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Choosing Songs For Your Voices

Choosing Songs For Your Voice

Pick music for the voices you have, not for the voices you wish you had.

Education Class International Woman

Have you ever heard an arrangement and thought, “Wow, I would love to sing that!” Chances are, particularly with so many active arrangers in our style nowadays, that the arrangement was tailored to maximize the impact and minimize the risks of four specific voices. But how can you determine if the chart is something your group can sing well?

Through arranging choices, arrangers can help make climactic
moments more impactful by highlighting one of the quartet’s unique talents, and more achievable by building in “breaks” for the performer along the musical journey. They can help build a sense of anticipation through chord vocabulary, voicings, tessitura, different textures and rhythmic propellants—all geared to the talents of that ensemble.

The following points assume a quartet, but can also apply to the sections of a chorus. Whether you’re looking at custom or existing arrangements, consider these elements.

Range For Each Voice Part

• Know the “sweet spot” range for each singer—that part of the range that, regardless of health, fatigue, stress, or other distraction, is “automatic.” Be sure most of the song lies in each part’s sweet spot.

• Understand the limits for each singer—know the upper and lower limits of range the singer can handle even when there are extenuating circumstances. In particular, be sure climactic moments don’t fall outside this range, and that no singers spend too much time near their limits when leading up to those moments.

• Describe special circumstances - “our bass can sing an E flat below the staff, but don’t keep him there for more than a note or two, and not on a forte volume or higher."

Strengths of the Ensemble

• Who can post, for how long, on what note and what vowels?

• Who can be featured on a solo besides the lead?

• Does the bass have a strong sense of rhythm and groove?

• What’s the quartet’s best chord (vowel, voicing, pitch)?

• Can your tenor sing with the same resonance and presence as the lead? (If so, look for charts with lots of major second intervals between tenor/lead, and featured roots/fifths in the tenor voicing.)

• Does your baritone have a similar timbre/resonance/presence as the lead? (If so, look for charts featuring lots of bass/bari perfect fifths, and intertwining lead/bari lines.)

Weaknesses of the Ensemble

Identify areas to avoid. These are perhaps more important when determining whether a chart will fit than emphasizing strengths.


• The tenor has a beautiful falsetto voice, but isn’t comfortable soloing.

• The quartet handles homorhythmic textures well, but doesn’t excel at rhythmically complex/syncopated passages.

• The quartet sings downbeat songs well, but doesn’t feel swing groove or backbeat.

• Our “more mature” quartet handles arrangements inside the staff well, but struggles if we spend too much time outside the staff. Just pitching something down isn’t always a recipe for success.

A little planning and preparation up front can go a long way toward determining your success later!

About the Author

Steve Tramack is a 4th generation, 36+ year Barber- shopper who is an arranger, coach, past International chorus director and quartet singer, and a member of the Music Category Board of Review.

As seen in The Harmonizer, March/April 2019 "Harmony University" issue, pg. 26