The Dissonance of “Not-All-Men”

I sing soprano in a chorus. I know what you’re thinking: What does that have to do with random dudes popping into Twitter threads and Not-All-Menning women’s experiences with misogyny? Hear me out, I have a point and I will make it.

So our chorus has anywhere from 80 to probably 120 voices. We sing an eclectic mixture of music: great choral masterworks, Broadway hits, African American spirituals, commissioned arrangements of Prince songs, you name it. We’re pretty good. We sing with the symphony orchestra several times per year, and we produce our own concerts. Our Chamber Chorus has done some really exciting smaller gigs. We’re going on tour to Italy this summer.

(Some of us are, anyway. Some of us have three kids and can’t take a 10-day trip away from them, but that’s another story. Waah I don’t get to go to Venice.)

There’s no way it’s really that pretty, right? Right…?

But we sometimes struggle with pitch problems, especially in the soprano section. It’s the most noticeable in the soprano section, because we are on the top of the musical texture. We stick out. Your ear will naturally gravitate to the highest pitch, and if it’s off, it ruins the whole sound.

In fact, it only takes a few sopranos singing under pitch to throw off the whole section.

Our director, a PhD in choral music, a woman of great fortitude and intelligence (and a frighteningly keen ear), does her best to help us when this happens. She gives us exercises and targeted warm-ups and calls us on our flatness when she hears it. But ultimately, we know that we are responsible for singing on pitch.

For some particularly challenging pieces, we have gone rehearsal after rehearsal with consistent pitch problems. We can hear her frustration building. She does not have time to spend a 2.5-hour rehearsal fixing our pitch problems. She has the entire Requiem (or whatever) to prepare, and three other sections who need attention.

So at some point in the process her helpful suggestions morph into “Sopranos, you are flat. Fix it. If you’re wondering whether it’s you, it’s you. Help your neighbor.”

Now, do some of us quail at her terseness and worry whether we are the ones who are ruining everything? Certainly.

Do some of us worry that a few flat-singers are sucking us down with them into a pit of flatness out of which it is difficult, nay, impossible, to drag yourself? You better believe it.

Do any of us stand up and say “I’m not singing flat! I have perfect pitch! Not All SopranosTM!!”? Or worse still, “You’re deluded! We’re not flat, your ear is off!”

Yes, we hear you. Now shut up.

Hell no.

That would be the height of rudeness. It would be a waste of everyone’s valuable time. It would mark you as someone who values your own comfort above the good of the group.

It would not help us make better music together.

If it happened repeatedly, you would be asked to leave, because nobody has time for that nonsense.

(Besides, she is already aware of the two sopranos who do have perfect pitch, and she has asked them to sit in the back and sing real loud.)

Now I realize this is not a perfect metaphor. The sopranos do not have a longstanding, well-documented history of sexual assault and oppression of the other sections, at least not in my chorus. The tenors walk safely in our presence, however tight their pants.

Although there are a few stereotypes about sopranos, for those of you not part of the choral world. We’re a dime a dozen; we’re spoiled, emotional divas; we can’t read music; we can’t count. Hahaha, so funny. Except there is a kernel of truth to be had there. We are used to getting the melody, which is often easier for your eye to pick out on the page and easier to sing. Confession time: that has made me a little sloppy sometimes. And my sight-singing is not what it could be.

So, whatever. Go ahead. Laugh it up. Maybe Soprano Privilege is a little bit of a Thing. I’m singing soprano 2 these days anyway, which is harder.

So gentlemen. My dudes. My bros. Please. I’m asking nicely, for the last time. The next time a woman shares an opinion about male behavior rooted in her own experience, however generalized it may seem, before you slip into her mentions with a Not All Men response, ask yourself: was she really talking about you? Are you the one singing flat, or is it your neighbor who needs a nudge? Do you really need to stop the rehearsal and school her with your manly wisdom?

If you give yourself time and space to think about it, you may find it preferable to sit back and let us all get back to the business of trying to make better music together.

I leave you with Movement 4 of the Brahms Requiem, “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place,” one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. My chorus gets to sing this Requiem (the best Requiem, written by my boyfriend, Johannes) in its entirety again in November, yay! I encourage you to seek out and listen to the rest of the work if you enjoy.

One comment

  1. Haha! Great comparisons to life from the choir perspective! (However, I have to add that in my Church, it’s the Alto section that has collected the reputation you described above. Oh, and they do derail the entire practice while they fix their issues.)


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