Becoming an Alto

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Waiting in line at the gleaming grand piano, I listen to repetitive scales. Each girl in the choir takes her turn singing along. After each ascent and descent of the duet, the director announces which voice part she will sing in the choir. The room buzzes with tension and anticipation. This moment will completely determine my identity in the choir for my second year of participation.

For someone involved in choral singing, the differences between the voice parts are evident. In a choir of girls, there are three parts: soprano one, soprano two, and alto. Soprano one, the highest voice part, receives the melody in every song. Soprano twos are similar yet slightly lower, enjoying intricate harmonies, countering the song of the soprano ones. This leaves the alto part, the deepest of the female voices, reduced to simple, low monotony. From these stereotypes, a hierarchy emerges. If the sopranos are the upper class, then the altos are the peasants. They struggle to be heard among the sopranos, often consisting of the rejected sopranos and inexperienced singers. Any self-respecting soprano would never stoop so low as to sing alto.

My heart races as the line draws nearer. Though I have been performing as a violinist since the age of three, singing by myself still overwhelms me with nervousness. Having only participated in the choir for one year, I lack the confidence of singers who have been members since they were seven years old. I take a few jittery breaths to center myself.

My proud thirteen-year-old self knows that I must retain my role as a soprano one in order to showcase my hard-earned place in the choir. Any less, and I could lose the status that I secured as one of the choir’s highest sopranos, and be banished to the unknown land of the altos.

At my director’s command, I step up to the piano. Singing the high notes felt like struggling to climb a mountain that I used to be able to effortlessly float up. I end my sub-par performance with a grimace, worrying I did not truly show my capabilities.“How about you sing alto this year?” My director delivers the dreaded words.

I’m speechless. I nod and stagger to my seat amongst a sea of unfamiliar faces. Devastated and furious, I fight off tears, trying to ignore the stares of the unfamiliar girls. How could the director think I belong in the alto section? This is all wrong!

Yet the rehearsal presses on, and I realize the alto voice in the music we sing is neither boring nor easy. I sing a lower voice than I ever have, and support the rest of the group like I never could as a soprano. In reality, altos are the soulful, powerful foundation of the choir.

My new alto friends call to me during our break. I shake my head at my own judgements; these are actually some of the most talented choir members here. For the first time, I feel satisfied about my status in the choir. The true joy of participating in a choir comes from working towards a common goal of giving our best performance. By isolating ourselves into separate groups with our judgements of each other, we defeat the purpose of singing together. We are a choir composed of a variety of people. Without this diversity, the choir would cease to exist.

Five years later, I still proudly sing alto. I managed to adapt to a new role and rose to the occasion instead of dwelling on the past. As I perform worldwide in various ensembles, I still strive to collaborate with the group and show the world what we, together, have to offer by contributing our own individuality.

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