Monday, August 6, 2012

Boy singers and an earlier voice change

We all know that boys' voices change during adolescence. Now we're learning that the embarrassing tendency to squeak when speaking may be occurring ever earlier. Currently, a boy's voice starts to change around age thirteen, and a boy is likely to speak in his adult male voice by age fifteen.

Franz Hals - Two Boys Singing
But the voice change hasn't always come so early, as the Washington Post reports. Records from Liepzig's St. Thomas Boys Choir, which is 800 years old, suggest that in the first half of the 1700's, when J.S. Bach led the choir, most boys' voice change began at age 17 or 18.  Moreover, during wartime, when hunger was common in the city, the voice change began even later.  So maybe better nutrition accounts for today's falling age of male voice change.

On average, the pitch of a male's speaking voice falls by about one octave as he passes through adolescence. Singing teachers have assured me, however, that a boy's adult singing range cannot be predicted from his childhood range.  You can't assume that an alto will become a bass while a soprano will become a tenor.

Voice change can be a challenge for all chorus directors, not just those in an elite boys' choir like Liepzig's. As boys' voices become less predictable, they also lose some ability to sing on pitch and sing intervals correctly. Their vocal range may also simply contract for a while. Boys may become discouraged and drop out of a choir or school chorus. Directors of a middle school musical may find their male lead suddenly unable to sing the part. Girls may have to fill boys' roles because too few boys are willing to risk singing.

To me it's telling that we talk about boys' voices "breaking," not just changing.  Maybe the term reflects  our unconscious sense that our sons' adolescence is a loss -- loss of innocence, loss of closeness, loss of beauty and loveableness.

In the Land of Winter, the imaginary setting for my middle grade fantasy THE ICE CASTLE: AN ADVENTURE IN MUSIC, singing ability is each person's defining characteristic, determining social class and educational opportunity. Although I don't directly address how this society handles boys' voice change, I doubt that it does so with any great compassion. After all, there is no place in society for the visitor Ivan, who sings badly. And when Fort, a talented singer, finds his voice ruined by a botched throat surgery, his adoptive family throws him out of the house.

In some ways, THE ICE CASTLE is a parable of the passage through adolescence, where voice change is only one of many troublesome changes. Other signs of passage touched on in the book include increasing independence from parental control, learning to see beyond one's own excessive self-regard, and learning to delight in creativity and invention.

In reality, most chorus directors and singing teachers nowadays encourage boys to keep singing through the voice change. They allow boys to change parts or select music with a narrower range and less challenging intervals. Even if they decide to let the boys take a break, they assure them of their place in the chorus and welcome them when they return.

The choir directors of St. Thomas may rush to fill boys' heads and voices with as much musical knowledge as possible between ages 9 and 12, but that doesn't always work even with music.  Most parents and teachers know that adolescence comes upon our kids before we or even they are ready for it. All we can do is hold their place, keep teaching, and work to assure them that adolescence is a continuation of growth, not a sudden break from childhood.

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