Adolescent voice – working with teenage male singers

Adolescent voice – myth busters!

Let’s bust some myths about adolescent voice, and male voice change in particular:

“Boys’ voices break.”

Nothing breaks during puberty. A boy’s larynx and vocal folds go through five distinct and sequential changes, and the pitch and tone of his voice will deepen and darken in a series of gradual steps.
Part of the myth of voices breaking comes from trainers in the 1800s and 1900s who kept boys singing soprano throughout their puberty until the effort of maintaining a falsetto setup could not be sustained any more and the “adult” voice “suddenly” appeared. There are photographs of celebrated 20th Century boy sopranos 6 feet tall smoking pipes.

“Changes happen overnight.”

John Cooksey, one of the founders of modern adolescent voice research, has this to say: “If a young man went to bed one night with vocal folds that were 17 millimetres long and woke up next morning with vocal folds that were 28 millimetres long, then that would be the logical equivalent of his legs growing five inches longer during eight hours of overnight sleep. Voices do not change overnight, but various circumstances might occur that could lead to a perception that extensive voice transformation had occurred in a very short time.”

“Boys’ voices will always crack during adolescence.”

Of the five stages of change, there is one during which you are more likely to crack (flip quickly into falsetto), and it usually only lasts a few weeks. It’s known under the unfortunate phrase Mutational Climax (stage 3). If the boy has been kept singing high during stage 2, this stage will be more obvious. By following the general speaking pitch range and moving his singing range down to match it, he will gain more control over his new lower voice and will have more chance of controlling the yodelling!

“Boys must stop singing during voice change.”

This was hotly debated all through the 20th Century. The current thought is to keep boys singing all the way through voice change, but to move their music downwards to coincide with their descending range, rather than keeping them singing high.

So why are the changes in a boy’s voice sometimes so extreme?

Larynx size and growth

A boy’s larynx will grow dramatically, and the most significant growth is front to back. His larynx will show 3 times more growth than a girl’s larynx, with half that growth happening in a 1-2 year period during puberty. The length of his vocal folds increases by an average of two thirds (girl’s vocal folds only increase by a quarter).

The result of this hormonal upheaval is a major change in length, density and therefore vibrational speed and texture of the vocal folds. Fortunately, those changes happen in five distinct, sequential stages, usually beginning at 12 and tapering off around 15 onwards. Unfortunately, age is not a reliable guide, so in a single class of 13-year-olds, you might have boys in each of the five stages of change.

How do you deal with an adolescent male voice?

The first thing to identify is which stage of change they are in. You can usually tell by their average speaking pitch, coupled with their overall tone colour and (if available) singing range. The average singing ranges are well documented (see Resources below) so here is an exercise to discover where each boy’s average speaking pitch sits.

Average speaking pitch

Getting them to say something repetitive but slightly unusual that engages the brain will prevent them from manipulating their voice to match either their peers or an imagined goal (lower to sound more mature or higher to sound younger). So get them to count backwards in twos from 40, or say the months of the year forwards then backwards.

Often within a few words, their voice will have arrived on a particular resting pitch – make a note of it. If you find this difficult, hum gently while they are speaking and match your note to their voice pitch – it’s easier to identify your own pitch on the piano afterwards. (Incidentally, Stage 3 voices can fool you as the harmonic makeup during stage 2 can sound an octave higher or lower than the true pitch).

The average pitches for each stage are:
Unchanged: middle C (C4)
Stage 1 – Midvoice I: Bb3
Stage 2 – Midvoice II: Ab3
Stage 3 – Midvoice IIA (Mutational climax): F#3
Stage 4 – New Baritone: D3
Stage 5 – Settling Baritone: B2

Notice that according to the classifications, all settling voices are baritones. It’s impossible to predict what voice a boy will end up with as an adult, even in stages 4 and 5. No matter how much your student wants to be a tenor, you can’t promise him, and he’ll have to wait and see!

Vocal richness diminishes during development, with the least resonant sounds (unsurprisingly) reserved for MidVoice IIA. The richness of sound starts to return, but even in stage 5, Settling Baritone, the singer will not yet have the adult’s complexity of timbre. In the same way, noise turbulence in the sound increases towards stage 3 and decreases towards stage 5.

By sharing practical information, you can help boys stay in touch with their voices and see the changes as a rite of passage. In an interview with Vocal Process, Dr Jenevora Williams, an expert on adolescent voice said: “I have never had a boy who wasn’t excited by his changing voice. Out of several hundred. They all welcome it. They’ve had enough of being little boys, and they welcome the move on.”

In the next Vocal Clinic, I’ll be discussing the different problems that girls face during adolescent voice change and how to help them sing with clarity and confidence

This article was first commissioned by the Music Teacher Magazine and was published in 2014. Thanks to Rhinegold Publishing for permission to use it here.