“A superb tenor voice, like a silver trumpet muffled in silk.” Alec Guinness
Learning to sing is a good start. Now you just need to get to grips with the voice you've got (your voice type) and the vocal physiology that gives each singer their operatic singing voice.
On a piano, the farther a note is to the left, the deeper the note is. On the other hand (literally), the farther a note is to the right, the higher the pitch.
The human voice can make musical notes. After all, that’s what the art of singing is. Handel, Mozart, Gounod, Wagner, Donizetti, Purcell. So many great composers have helped choristers and singers refine the art. However, not everyone has a voice beautiful enough or capable of perfectly reproducing an opera.
Even if everyone could reproduce a given note, they wouldn’t be able to reproduce every octave across the range of every musical instrument since such a range is huge. That’s why voices are classified according to their range or tessitura, the range of notes and pitches they can perform from the lowest to the highest.
The male voice generally covers bass, baritone, tenor, and countertenor while the female voice covers contralto, mezzo-soprano, and soprano. Within these classifications, there are also subdivisions depending on the role played and also the quality of the voice.
The term “tenor” generally refers to male singers. This was the highest male voice in classical music with the exception of baroque music which included falsettos.
When referring to women, we can talk about soprano or mezzo-soprano as the female counterpart to the male tenor.
Intensity, range, rhythm, and timbre are the four main qualities of any voice. Let’s look more closely at a tenor, how you can tell what it is, the best ways to get such a voice without hurting yourself, and how vocal training with a voice teacher can help any male singer (given that their natural voice is suited to the role) can become a tenor.
Since we’re not talking about just changing your voice for the fun of it but rather for the love of music, we’ll try to remain as academic and realistic as possible.
What is a Tenor Singer?
In terms of sound, the tenor (there was also the haute-contre and the baritenor) is a type of opera voice whose range is between the baritone and the alto and is considered the tip of the traditional male vocal range.
In fact, due to the romantic music and operas of the 19th century, tenors are generally considered a chest voice while countertenors (the higher range) are considered to part of a head voice range.
In most opera singing, the male melodies are for tenors, like those of Giuseppe Verdi, whose Rigoletto is a perfect example.
By making the most of their natural gifts, technically training as a tenor can be done as early as adolescence and young adulthood as long as they have a musical ear.
It’s easier to slide from high to low or from a head voice to a chest voice. You’d rarely call the latter your voice “breaking”, after all.
You’ll have to be able to sing in key before you can start working on these sorts of techniques. Otherwise, you should come back after a few catch up singing lessons.
The tenor is characterised by his dynamic support and diaphragmatic breathing. This is what you’ll have to be able to do if you want to belong to this group of singers.
While it may seem weird, it may be worth visiting a speech-language pathologist in certain cases. However, a good private tutor could also help you find your voice in certain cases.
Of course, you have to know music theory if you want to be able to decipher the music you’re going to sing. Being able to play another musical instrument like the piano, guitar, saxophone, cello, clarinet, etc. can also help you a lot when it comes to understanding the music theory and when you inevitably hit that false note in a song.
Famous Tenors throughout the History of Music
Since the 19th century, tenors have been the pinnacle of the history of singing.
The French tenor Gilbert Duprez, who pioneered the delivery of a high C from the chest, is a name that should be remembered. He was famous in the Barber of Seville in Paris as well as in Othello and William Tell in Italy. These revolutionary elements were also taken on board, perhaps subconsciously, by the verismo Puccini.
These historical elements allow us to better understand the kind of work that a tenor does. Something that we’ll see later on in the article.
More recently, tenors like Pavarotti, who was both a leggero and lyric tenor at the same time, have been very popular amongst music lovers,
Roberto Alagna seems to be his “musical son” by performing the big roles in Rigoletto and Der Freischütz as well as being able to brilliantly perform modern and traditional songs, too.
Plácido Domingo is another example with a deeper tessitura who’s great at playing roles like Don José in George Bizet’s Carmen, Calaf in Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, and Manrico in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
While it’s quite the task trying to imitate these greats, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try!
Look for singing lessons online.
The Different Categories of Tenors
While the tenor is a completely separate category to other vocal ranges (such as baritone and bass), it’s also a family of different ranges and types.
Generally speaking, musicians classify tenors into five different groups from the highest to the lowest ranges:
the tenore di grazia, whose range is between C3 and E♭5 (and occasionally all the way up to a high F like that in Bellini’s Credeasi Misera.
the leggero tenor, with a wider range
the lyric tenor, similar to the previous but with a wider range ( from C one octave below middle C (C3) to the D one octave above middle C (D5)
The spinto tenor is similar to the lyric tenor but has a heavier timbre capable of more dramatic moments.
the dramatic tenor has a range from the B one octave below middle C (B2) to the B one octave above middle C (B4) as well as a powerful voice capable of reaching up to 120dB.
Each of these types of tenors can vary depending on the role being played, the age of the singer himself (a voice tends to get deeper as it ages), training, and practice. You’ll see that the power of a voice, which is largely innate, can lead to a tenor being classified as one of the sub-types.
Music Exercises for Working on a Tenor’s Voice
There are several fundamental vocal techniques that any singer can use. For this, you should probably look for a specialised vocal coach to help you. For example, without a quality voice coach, learning vibrato can be demoralising. Taking vocal classes online might be necessary before you end up practising certain types of singing.
Vocal coaching, which can be quite physical, is there for those who want to refine their singing technique.
The first thing you need to work on is your body: you need to ensure your chest and sternum are in the right posture as you vocalise. Such bad habits can be rectified (once you’ve warmed up) by working on your posture and using breathing exercises.
Similarly, the tenor should fight against the natural tendency to raise their throat and breathe with the top of their lungs. For a real chest voice, you’ll need to focus on diaphragmatic breathing. Diaphragmatic breathing is one of the main goals rather than just a stage of learning to sing.
If you want to be a soloist, you’ll have to have a nice timbre, not get stage fright, confidence, and a taste for improvisation. A good singing lesson doesn’t just focus on your vocal cords, after all.
You'll also have to work against losing your voice. One thing that’s unique to tenors is the work they have to do because of their high range. Bit by bit, you’ll come across a number of exercises and get used to your own vocal range.
The important thing is that you don’t skip any of the steps. You can’t start working on high notes if you haven’t even mastered the lower notes. You need to get the head voice before you move on to the chest voice. Patience and perseverance will take care of the rest.
Daily exercises are necessary to stop you from stagnating but you’ll need a professional to help you master the physiological aspects.
Find out more about how to sing as a mezzo soprano.