Upon reading the title of this article, if you are a piano or instrumental teacher, you may be tempted to turn the page and zoom past onto other topics. You will probably ask, “why is this topic relevant to me?” Many music teachers are involved in church, school, and community activities that involve children and teens singing. Understanding this complex and challenging time for boys who sing is therefore important to voice teachers and non-voice teachers alike.
Over the past few years I have had an increasing number of boys going through their vocal change seek lessons from me. While I have a music degree in Vocal Performance, this topic was neglected in my vocal pedagogy classes and music courses. So out of necessity I began to do my own research and seek out information.
During puberty, the larynx (voice box) grows larger and thicker in both boys and girls, but a boy’s vocal folds grow significantly longer and thicker. The boy’s facial bones also grow so the cavities in the sinuses, nose, and throat grow larger and create larger resonators. Adjusting to these changes may cause vocal cracking, squeaking, or “breaks.” The vocal change in boys typically occurs between the ages of 11 and 14 ½ and often follows a growth spurt. Some voices change gradually, while others change rapidly. The change often occurs downward in half step intervals. The vocal pitch changes anywhere from one to two and a half octaves.
Theories about boys singing during the voice change have evolved over time. The rule used to be: “do not sing during the voice change.” However, since the 1950’s the vocal change has been studied and researched and this is no longer the rule. Current theories encourage boys to continue singing during this time. The Cambiata Concept was created by Irvin Cooper, and Don L. Collins is the founder of the Cambiata Vocal Music Institute of America. Cambiata means “change.” This concept classifies the changing voice ranges as: male treble (B flat below middle C to F above high C with a boy-soprano quality), cambiata (A below middle C to A above middle C with a limited range and wooly vocal quality), and baritone (low D to D above middle C with possible blank spots where the voice will not sound and trouble accessing falsetto). Throughout all stages of the change boys lose high notes and add low notes as their passaggio (vocal break) gradually lowers in pitch.
Here is some practical advice for working with boys during the change. Always do a range check by having boys sing warmups or songs in different keys to see where their vocal range lies. Use music websites to transpose songs into singable keys. The boy may need to sing the song an octave lower than written. There are a few published vocal anthologies for the boy’s changing voice that may be helpful. Look for songs with an octave range – this is challenging! When a female is demonstrating a song for boys, she may need to sing an octave up from the written note to get the boy to sing the correct pitch. Emphasize that vocal changes are a normal masculine transition. Vocabulary is very important at this age, so avoid referring to boys as “sopranos” or “altos.” Most importantly, encourage boys to keep singing!
By Suzanne Rohrbach, KAMTA Voice Teacher