Thoughts on training the adolescent voice

Dr Jenevora Williams, author of Teaching Singing To Children And Young Adults, whose PhD work focused on elite classical boy choristers.
Jeremy Fisher: Now you’ve actually done a fair amount of studying of the whole vocal development starting with babies?

Jenevora: Yes. The infant has very different needs from the child and the adult. The infant doesn’t need to be able to speak, doesn’t need to be able to make connected sentences with the variety of vowel sounds that we find in all languages. All the infant needs to be able to do is to make a lot of noise in short bursts, and that’s something they can do very effectively!

You can see how the vocal mechanism that we’re born with is very, very different from the adult model. And knowing what the baby the infant model is helps us a great deal because we can then see how that changes, how that develops through childhood to give something that would enable us to speak rather than make sounds

So obviously once you know what the physical development and therefore the physical ability is, you’re going to know what an infant’s voice can do, what a young child’s voice can do, and then how the whole mechanism changes during adolescence to what the adult voice can do then.

JF: So are there any inappropriate techniques?

JW: There are but it’s a gradual process rather than anything more in definite ages. So if you look at it as a gradual developmental process from the age of about 5 or 6 to about the age of 23…

JF: 23 is quite old!

JW: Yes, but it’s still developing. The lungs don’t reach full maturity until 18 or 19 which is beyond the stages of skeletal maturity. So a girl will stop growing at the age of 15 or 16 but her lungs are still developing. And the larynx and the lamina propria of the vocal folds will continue changing right up until the mid 20s. And the cartilages of the larynx also are changing,. In fact they’re changing throughout our life – they never stand still.

JF: And I’ve heard that there can be a calcification of the cartilages as well later in life.

JW: Yes, well that starts by the age of 30.

JF: Really?

JW: So mid 20s – in fact as soon as you’ve stopped growing – then it starts calcifying, so the rest of it’s downhill! Except not for the singer because that calcification gives more resilience and strength which is why the really big dramatic singers tend to be in their 40s and early 50s because that’s when you can get the most strength and power from the larynx.

JF: Oh that’s really fascinating. I’ve always wondered why bigger voices seem to take longer to develop.

JW: It’s because they need that resistance of the slightly stiffer cartilages in order to be able to work at their optimum.

JF: Excellent. So going back to inappropriate technique?

JW: I’ve gone to sports training literature because there’s a lot more research into sports training and what is appropriate for children and for growing bodies to do in terms of sport. From that we can learn what is appropriate for their voices, as it’s the same types of muscles that grow in the same way and are capable of suffering the same kinds of problems whether they are big muscles or little muscles. So again we can learn from sports research. And the sports research says that technique is essential to prevent injury.

JF: Are there things specifically to do with the adolescent period? Boys going through the stages of change?

JW: Well the adolescent period throws up more extreme issues for boys because their range changes dramatically – it drops about an octave and it reduces considerably during that drop. So the repertoire available becomes very much smaller and the teacher has got to be quite clever to find pieces that have a range of an octave or maybe 9 notes, and be able to accompany in any possible key – and it might change from week to week. So to help the technique one always chooses repertoire with the lowest comfortable range. So in adolescent boys whose voices are dropping, I would strongly advise avoiding extended singing in falsetto.

JF: What that means is don’t let the boy carry on singing soprano even though he can and is quite happy to do so and it doesn’t appear to hurt. It’s not going to do him any good for his future development if he sings soprano while his speaking range is dropping into more of a baritone range.

JW: Right. So do you take the stages of change and where he is more from his speaking voice than from his singing voice?

JF: Yes, absolutely. That’s the way to tell the size of the larynx, basically. By listening to the pitch of the speaking voice you can tell where the larynx is most comfortable. And it’s always at the lower end of our range, nearly everybody speaks about a third higher than their lowest comfortable singing note.
Which is really right at the bottom of our vocal range but it’s where the larynx operates comfortably because the muscles aren’t working very hard down there. So find where the larynx is comfortable and work from there.
You can use falsetto singing occasionally and you can use it in warming up and occasionally in repertoire and that’s fine. The problem is when it’s extended use, when it’s the only singing they’re doing and they’re doing it a lot. They’re going to be developing habits that aren’t going to help them as adults.

JF: Is it different for adolescent girls?

JW: Yes it’s not so extreme. Some girls can go through adolescent voice change and nobody really notices. Other girls will have slight issues – they might have issues of breathiness, they might have reduced range. They’ll just notice that things are slightly different for them – what they used to be able to do comfortably isn’t so comfortable for them now, and things will change more subtly. One of the main issue that can be dealt with technically is that of breathiness.
And the breathiness in the developing voice is generally caused by the growth of the larynx and the relative size of the cartilages. And if you’ve got large arytenoid cartilages then you’re not going to get such good closure at the back which often happens in the growing voice. So at the back of the vocal folds you’re just going to get a little what they call a chink, which is a little gap where air comes through. And that’s what gives the breathy sound.
That is quite possible to teach out of the voice – you can do exercises that will help – completely safe, good, sound technical exercises that will help reduce that breathiness. Because otherwise what happens is that breathiness persists as a habit when the physical issue has moved on.

JF: Oh that’s very interesting. So in fact the original cause of the breathiness in girls particularly could be from a physical change that is going on, but they then get used to making that physical sound.

JW: They then get stuck in the habit. It’s a very common issue that you listen to 17 or 18 year old girls and you listen to them speaking and interacting socially and they’re obviously mature young ladies, and then you hear them sing and they sing like little girls. And that’s just habit. It’s just that they’ve got stuck in a certain way of singing and nobody has said “OK, now you could actually try this” or “You might like this” and move on a little.

And of course everybody is an individual. When I’m trying to help other people teach voices, it’s made things easier for me if I can categorise and compartmentalise to an extent. However, it is important to treat every individual as a completely unique package. And listen to them and watch them and assess their needs. Unless you’re conducting a choir, and that’s very different.

JF: This is fascinating. I was going to move on to that next. Do you have any particular advice for people who have to deal with children in groups? Particularly if they don’t have the opportunity to assess them individually? Well I suppose that’s one of the ways of doing that is to get to assess them individually!

JW: Well I think you have to. And all you need to do is two sentences of conversation to assess them individually. You know, “Hi, how are you this morning…” and then you get a sense of where their voices are. You can hear if their voice sounds a bit scratchy, a bit rough, and it’s important that you know that.
So you can say “OK your voice sounds a little bit rough this morning – you need to take it easy today”. And then maybe you listen to them singing a higher range and if it sounds uncomfortable, well then say OK don’t sing anything above that particular note.
And also you can assess what’s happening to their voices over a longer term. I think you do need to do individual assessments even if it’s only two sentences – just a few seconds. It doesn’t need to be… Actually it does need to be every day!
You’ve got a group of 40 children, and you’ve got to be able to sniff them out I suppose! But quite a lot of group teaching in schools goes on, and those groups tend not to be so large, so that makes it a little bit easier to assess people individually. And also to make sure that they are in groups of like voices, of similar voices.

JF: What age is a good age to start singing lessons?

JW: Well, in terms of development of muscles and brain and abilities to learn habits and that sort of thing, you can’t really do anything at all until the age of 6. All you can do under that age is enjoy singing and use lots of fun songs and action songs.
It’s really important to get kids singing a lot at that age because it helps them learn – it’s the best way they can learn their letters and their numbers and all of those sort of things. So it’s incredibly valuable as an educational tool, but in terms of the quality of sound they are producing, you can’t really do much with them.
Between the ages of 6 and 8 then their ability to control the muscles and whatever starts to kick in. After the age of 8 then you can start working, but obviously you can’t do a great deal at that age. What you are doing is very basic. Work on just making sure they are establishing the right habits from the start, so the right habits on how to stand and the right habits of how to breathe but only in very general terms. You can still have a lot of fun singing songs and learning songs. But heavy duty technique is not really going to get you very far at that age.

JF: Another question. Are there any types of repertoire that voices that are going through change should not sing?

JW: I would say that if you say to a child or an adolescent, “whatever you do you mustn’t sing that or you mustn’t do that or you mustn’t listen to that particular music”, the first thing they’re going to do when you turn your back is to go off and try it.

JF: Absolutely

JW: So what I say is “If you really love it, bring it to your lesson, do it with me, we’ll make sure that you aren’t doing anything terrible, but I really would like you not to do it in concerts or public performances”. So just be completely open.
I’ve had a 14 year old boy wanting to sing Ich Grolle Nicht [from Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe] and he was so passionate about it and had been listening to lots of Fischer Dieskau recordings. I knew there was absolutely nothing to be gained by saying you mustn’t sing it because he was going to be singing it anyway. Much better to go through it in his lesson and give him an idea of where the problems were.

And exactly the same applies to children doing pop and children doing musical theatre where they might be wanting to make sounds similar to belting. The jury is out on whether children are capable of belting in what we call belting. But they are certainly capable of shouting, and they’re certainly capable of shouting with bad habits just as easily as adults.

So if they want to sing repertoire that demands that it’s far better for them to do it in the lesson and make sure that they’re doing it within safe confines. And then a teacher can point out that a particular sound is really not helping, and if you do that you’re just going to make your voice extremely tired very quickly. And you point it out to them. But then don’t do it competitions and festivals and school concerts and things like that. If you’re going to perform in public you don’t want to fall flat on your face.

JF: Is there anything definite to avoid?

JW: Well all children’s voices have limitations. Again we can learn how they are caused by looking at the physical model and looking at the physiology of the voice and from looking at that we can see that they are not good at singing long phrases. You can’t give them repertoire with long long phrases and expect them to do it in one breath.

JF: So no Handel arias?

JW: Well, you can do the Handel arias but you’ve just got to take more breaths!
Anything that is too high for too long is more of a strain for them. Anything that is too loud for too long. So loud, high and long I think you can avoid. But there’s plenty of repertoire that is in shorter phrases that doesn’t go into such extremes of range and remains within a more comfortable dynamic range.
In fact everything except for Strauss operas or really daft things.
We can laugh about it but I’ve had 16 year old tenors bringing Comfort Ye to a lesson saying “My teacher gave me this” and it’s hard enough for a 30 year old professional to do well, let alone a 16 year old. So don’t be seduced by the fact that you might have one very good singer in your group – they are still young and they still need repertoire that is appropriate for their young, youthful voice.

JF: Right. Now there is this folklore thing that boys stop singing. Is there any reason for it, have you found that yourself in the work that you’ve done?

JW: Well they certainly have a much reduced capability, and for some boys that might be extremely frustrating. Because if they are used to singing at a high level as a soprano, then to suddenly be grumbling around in a range of under an octave with a voice quality that has very little dynamic range and they can’t do much with it, that might be frustrating for them.
But I think that’s where it’s really crucial for the singing teacher to introduce them to the possibilities rather than the limitations. And to say “Isn’t it exciting that you can make these noises, that you’re going to be able to do this sort of repertoire.”
And actually 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.

JF: I know that a lot of people I’ve talked to have said that because there are sequential stages of change, once he knows what stage he’s at it almost becomes like a rite of passage. Because it’s like part of growing up.

JW: Yes, absolutely. And as they’re moving through, the possibilities of new repertoire and new noises are opening up, and it’s incredibly exciting for a boy to be able to sing tenor or bass, or even alto in a choir, And if you’ve been singing soprano in a choir for five years and suddenly you’ve got the possibility of singing harmonies and singing with bigger boys whose voices are further down the line than yours, I think that’s a very very exciting stage for boys to be at. And there’s no reason at all why they should stop singing.

The only boys I know who do stop singing during voice change are those in the German boy’s choirs. Places like Berlin and the Dresden boys choir and the Leipzig Thomanerchor and half or dozen or so. But they are in a boarding school where the boys stay up until the age of 18 so they take one year out when their voice is changing.

During that year they have a very busy role at concerts – they sell the programmes, promote CDs, bits of management and admin. But because they are in the boarding school already they go straight back in as soon as they are ready to sing tenor or bass.

Whereas in normal schools if you tell a 14 year old boy to go away and do something else and don’t sing for a year or two he’s just going to fill his time up with other things and he’s very unlikely to come back to singing having had time out. It’s going to be much more useful for him to carry on singing.

JF: I think that system sounds very sensible because if you have been used to having a very structured time that’s completely to do with music and suddenly the ability to make that music is “taken away from you” or at least disappears temporarily, then to keep them still involved with the whole musicmaking process is a very good idea.

JW: It is a very tricky one. And the same applies to kids who are ill. All kids get ill and maybe won’t be able to sing for two or three weeks. You need to keep their interest going and keep them part of the system and it’s possible that they may be ill over the time of a big performance or a big concert. And that needs to be dealt with very sensitively.

JF: The subtitle for your Developing Voice course in April is “0-30 in six hours”. [NB This course is no longer offered]. I know that you do an indepth overview of anatomy and the anatomical changes that people go through from the age of zero right the way through to adulthood. So we find out about the physicality of singing and the developmental aspect?

JW: Yes. I’ve looked at the development of the vocal mechanism in embryos as well – the foetus.

JF: And you’re going to show people how to find which stage of change a boy is going through – specifically.

JW: Yes. How to listen to the speaking voice, how to assess what stage they’re at. And when you know exactly what stage they’re at then it’s really quite simple to know what sort of repertoire might suit them and what sort of singing might suit them.

JF: You’re also using your own recordings?

JW: Yes. I think if you hear it, if you hear the voices at different stages, you can compare them directly. This is this voice six months later, listen to what’s happened. I think that is a very useful thing to be able to do.

JF: You are listening to somebody’s development.

JW: For example, I’ve got a recording of one pupil of mine who is now 31 and I’ve got recordings of her every two or three years from the age of 8.

JF: So on this day we cover boys and girls.

JW: Oh yes! Boys and girls, and different styles of music.

JF: And in fact we’re going to have live boys and girls on the day for you to help them find different ways of dealing with their singing voice. OK, one last question. What’s your top tip for teachers working with either the child or the adolescent voice?

JW: Listen with fresh ears at the beginning of every lesson. Because things may have changed. Things will be different.

JF: That’s excellent. Thank you.