My Tenor Story: Part One


I called myself a tenor for most of my adult life, and then, one afternoon in early August, I learned I wasn’t.

I’m not proud of my reaction.   Part One

A view of the lake at Camp Ogantz, Lyman NH
A view of the lake at Camp Ogantz, Lyman NH

As you know (from Sasha’s post last week), I spent the past week in the White Mountains of New Hampshire at a choral music camp. She did tell you where I went, didn’t she?

And, as you also probably know (if you’ve read my Author Page or any of my various bios) I sing tenor.

What you might not know is just  how much I have loved singing tenor.

I love it so much, in fact, that rather than saying, “I sing tenor,” I often say instead, “I am a tenor.” I’m proud of my tenor identity. 

The low notes are fun to sing, comfortable for me. But more than that, I love that being a female tenor is a fairly unusual thing. Sure, in each of the choirs I’m in there are other female tenors.  But for the three of us in the hospice choir there are fifteen other women who sing either alto or soprano. It’s the same ratio in my regional choir as well.

Imagine, if you will,  my surprise (and dismay) when shortly into my Tuesday afternoon master class, after offering the Malvina Reynold’s folk song “Sing Along” for critique, I was told I was not a natural tenor but a soprano. A mezzo soprano, to be sure, (second soprano, the lower one), but a soprano nevertheless. They didn’t even consider alto first.

“I can’t be,” I countered immediately. “I’m a tenor.”

“No. You are a soprano, naturally.”

“But singing tenor is so comfortable for me,” I declared.

“Being comfortable doesn’t necessarily make it right.” Said a new friend, overhearing.

“You’ve just been using the muscles in that range.” Says the another. “Start singing the higher notes and those muscles will strengthen.”


Two weeks ago I wrote how facts don’t always help us change our opinion; often, in fact, they do the opposite. I lived that lesson during this past week.

Here’s a photo with my two new gurus, Tim Brown and Paula Rockwell, after we had a most productive session Friday afternoon, on one of the hottest and most humid days I’ve ever experienced.

Photo compliments of Susan Martin Taylor.
Photo compliments of Susan Martin Taylor.

Tim Brown — a Brit, currently the  Artistic Director, Zürcher Sing-Akademie, Zürich, Switzerland; the Founding Director, English Voices, London, UK; and a Life Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge — asked me to step over to the piano and in a series of chords and coaching got me to sing the A flat above high C. That’s a fact. Tim works all over the world. Whether directing 250 singers in Handel’s Messiah in Israel or 20 singers in Vivaldi’s Gloria in Tulsa, Oklahoma, he is a world renowned musical legend and I pushed against him every chance I got, denying, countering, minimizing.

Paula Rockwell — a product of the Nova Scotia air —  led us each morning in vocal and physical exercises.  I discovered fairly quickly what a gem she was.  She led the master class I took on Tuesday afternoon (video to follow next week) and met me again on Friday for a half hour session to show me I was indeed a soprano.

How about you? Have you been in a similar situation? Thought you knew something, only to find out you were mistaken? Had your life story down pat only to discover it was the wrong story? How did you react? 

Next week, Part Two: Choosing that reassuring lie over the inconvenient truth.


26 Responses

  1. Merril Smith
    | Reply

    I’m sure I have had such a moment, although nothing comes to mind.
    Your experience is fascinating and wonderful, Janet. (I hope you think that, too.)
    So I suppose you have quite a vocal range.

    My younger daughter could sing 1st soprano to alto in high school and college–singing whichever part was needed.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I’m still trying to focus on what I’m gaining rather than what I’m losing. But I’m not doing a very good job of it quite yet. 🙂 Thanks for weighing in, Merril.

  2. Nancy
    | Reply

    Not as earth-shaking, but oddly life-shifting, I noticed my eyes are actually hazel, not brown. It affected my self-image in a positive way. “Color ” me crazy!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Thanks for this, Nancy. Isn’t it funny (as in odd) what we attach our self-image to? As for eye color, all my life I’ve had some people tell me I have blue eyes while others tell me they are green. I think it depends on what I’m wearing. I’ll have to gaze into your eyes longer next time I see you. 🙂

  3. Shirley Hershey Showalter
    | Reply

    This post shows so much of your personality, Janet. It made me chuckle. You and I both enjoy being different. At least most of the time.

    I actually tried to train my voice to lower register when I was in 6th grade. I would sing “Let My People Go” and keep dropping the key until I couldn’t reach the notes anymore.

    I heard a Young Met Opera singer sing this lovely song most associated with Edith Piaf in concert last Saturday. Mezzo range. Let it comfort you in your new identity.

  4. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    That’s fascinating about trying to train your voice to be lower, and at such a young age. What do you sing today?

    ( I chuckle to recall where my attention was at 12, [stuffing folded up kleenex inside my newly acquired bra.])

    In finding the right voice to narrate my audio book recently, I knew I wanted one with a deeper voice than others. I just liked the sound better. But this week I’m trying to remember to talk in a slightly higher register. It’s all a bit unnerving.

    Thanks for stopping by, Shirley.

  5. Joan Z. Rough
    | Reply

    Yes, it is unnerving. I am a soprano and have always wanted to be an alto. Now I just sing to myself the way I want to! I’m just a stubborn cuss.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I envy you the simplicity of it all, Joan. Though I also wish for you the chance to sing in chorus. There is something magical when many people sing together, something in the vibrations they produce, together.

  6. Laurie Buchanan
    | Reply

    Janet — You’re comfortable singing tenor. You use the muscles required to sing tenor. You sound good singing tenor. You love singing tenor. Yet you’re “not a natural tenor but a soprano.”

    That boggles my mind!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Ah, “boggles.” What a great word. Thanks for the smile, Laurie.
      Wait until you see the videos next week! They you’ll really wonder. (If I can figure out how to edit them down to something viewable).

  7. Val
    | Reply

    A flat is so amazing!!!! I am smiling at the irony of it all. This is new territory to explore ?

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Yes indeed. “New territory” I like that. Thanks, Val.

  8. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    What a fabulous experience, Janet! I have no idea what I am. I love to belt out a few tunes in the shower and I love music but have not pursued any organized musical activities. The only experience I’ve had where I was surprised by the results had nothing to do with music but with my nursing career. When I took the State Boards years ago, the results indicated that my strongest area was surgical nursing. I spent my entire 44 year career in many areas except in surgery. I wanted to be able to talk with my patients!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh yes, isn’t that “belt out a few songs” just the most invigorating feeling? I do that in the car; one reason I love my long trips. I took one of those avocation tests in high school, as I recall. Librarian came out on top. And I imagine there are many, many former patients of yours who are very glad you opted to follow your heart. Thanks, Kathy.

  9. Tim Fearnside
    | Reply

    Fascinating, Janet — that perhaps it is not the “fact” you are finding yourself reluctant to concede, so much as the narrative and context you have always attached to it, i.e., your identity as a tenor, your experiences singing as a tenor, etc. Perhaps this is what we all do, and why our beliefs, whether about ourselves or other things like religion or politics, etc., can be so difficult to change (?)

    While I’m struggling to think of a good specific example of this in my own life, I think I can say I’ve done this precise thing on a very large and fundamental level. I’ll explain:

    Growing up in in a blue collar family in the rural midwest in the ’70’s and ’80’s, I came to believe, even if subconsciously, certain things about myself, based in part on what I understood men were supposed to be. Because I was halfway intelligent and scored well in subjects like math, I ultimately assumed myself to be, among other things, a logical, objective, and analytical kind of guy, almost certainly predominantly left-brained. I carried this belief well into adulthood, until at some point, dissatisfaction with my left-brained career began to mount, and a different sort of energy began forcing its way to the surface. Eventually, well into my ’30’s, it started coming out — almost by accident at first — in the form of visual art. Since then, it’s kept coming out in various forms, and I came to slowly realize that I am not fundamentally driven by left-brained logic, but rather other, more “right-brained” qualities, such as feeling, intuition, visual/spatial thinking and the like. Of course, once I understood this, a lot of things began to make sense.

    Unfortunately, I resisted this realization for years, almost as if embarrassed by it at first. It was too foreign to what I had always believed about myself, too radically opposed to the life, and even the persona, I had constructed. While I try not to think in terms of “regret,” I struggle not to think of these as somewhat “wasted” years. Still, better late than never…

    Anyway, I guess you could say that not only do I agree that we can believe “something” about ourselves that isn’t true, but, perhaps, in some ways,“everything.” Sorry for the long comment, but I hope you found this interesting.

    Best, T

  10. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Thanks for it all, Tim. You’ve hit on the crux of what I’m promoting here. That it’s not the “fact” alone that creates the cognitive dissonance. Think of all the times we are persuaded by facts — usually because we are searching for them. It’s that hook to our identity, our sense of self, that makes all the difference. So, that, when that inconvenient fact appears, we get defensive. Sometimes it’s in something as relatively inconsequential as what part we sing in the choir, and sometimes, as you note, it’s in areas of so much greater import.

    I’m finding your blog fascinating, Tim, and some of what you’ve written here in the Comments is reminiscent of what I’ve read there. I think we all change as we grow.

    Thanks for stopping by.

  11. Terry Bryan
    | Reply

    All my life I believed I was English/Welsh…imagine my surprise when a DNA test said I was Mediterranean.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      I am imaging it. And thinking there’s a story there. Any plans to put out your own memoir, Terry?

  12. Pamela
    | Reply

    Such a wise post. I’m sure there are many times in my life I’ve been surprised by thinking I’m a ‘tenor’ when really I was a soprano. The first memory is when I was sure, after I finished graduate school, that I wanted to work in the ‘big city.’ I told myself and everyone else that I was a big city career woman who would never have children and would always have a fun-based busy life. But a voice told me, “no, you’re a teacher and a writer and you’re going to be a mother and settle down and have a slow, beautiful life.” I fought that for a long time, but guess what? That voice was right! 🙂
    P.S. I’m a tenor. My voice couldn’t possibly go high.
    Could it?

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Pam. So fun to hear your story. What really struck me was your final “Could it?” It captures the wonder and curiosity that keeps me sane. “What else might there be?” “What’s possible?” So many questions, so little time. Thanks so much for stopping by.

  13. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    Oh, my gosh, Janet! Lots of people I know are having fun with your bouncy post, so I’ll chime in too.

    When my sisters and I sang in a trio as teens, I always sang the alto part. Then in a church choir I sang second soprano. Now I feel comfortable singing soprano unless the notes go too high.

    It doesn’t make sense. With less estrogen in my body (and more testosterone judging from chin hairs) shouldn’t my notes go lower rather than higher? I don’t get it – hahahahaha!

    About my life story – I assumed I’d marry a dark-haired Mennonite guy. Instead, a blue-eyed, blond artist chose me. I’m glad the former wasn’t in the plan. Still love-struck!

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Marian
      And you and Cliff have just celebrated your 49th.

      Are you still singing regularly? Hope so. Thanks for popping in. Any recordings of the sister trio? That’d make a great post.

      • Marian Beaman
        | Reply

        Not singing regularly . . . too tired!

        And no recordings of the sister trio either. I found a skinny book of music we sang – archival so I kept it. Still settling in . . . thanks for asking, Janet.

  14. […] My Tenor Story: Part One My Love Affair with a House […]

  15. […] in one, an alto in another, and a tenor in the third, in case you were wondering the outcome of last summer’s epiphany).  Some day, I’ll write more about the power of music to heal. For today though, I’m […]

  16. […] music camp last year. This was before I was outed as a closet soprano, which I wrote about in “My Tenor Story, Part I” and “My Tenor Story, Part […]

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