Teaching boys through voice change can be a challenge
What can you do as a teacher working with adolescent boys’ voices? Adolescent changing voice is going to happen whatever you or they do, so how do you make the experience as good as possible?
The singing voice of a teenage boy will change quite substantially between the ages of 11 and 17, but the changes are sequential and natural. I’ve written more on what happens physiologically in another blog post
Here’s how you as a teacher can help them keep singing through voice change.
1. Monitor their speaking voice pitch
It’s a relatively reliable indicator of where their singing voice needs to start. Use the backwards counting exercise – you can decide whether it’s something to do individually in the group or privately. You could even award badges as they progress to the next stage
2. Use vocal warmups as part of the class
No extended classical vocalises please! Three or four note phrases starting a tone lower than their average speaking pitch, moving up in semitones to cover around a 6th-8th. Remember that warmups during adolescent voice change are not about increasing their range, they’re designed to help boys discover how their new voice feels and sounds
3. Experiment with the new voice
Singing is as much about feel as about sound, and since boys’ bodies change so rapidly, the feel element of vocal production can be overlooked. Singing might feel like uncharted territory, so it’s important to keep boys making vocal sounds. Try getting boys (in a group or individually) to sing down a straw – there is less focus on the type of sound or the diction, and more on the sensation. Incidentally, this is an effective and fun thing to do with a choir singing harmony – sing with the straws, then sing without the straws and notice the effect.
Keeping boys making sounds – vocal slides, sound effects, phrases, melodic contours – is a practical way to help them get used to the feel and sound of their new vocal personas.
4. He ain’t heavy…
Adolescent voices do not sound like adult voices, even when they are singing adult pitches, as the vocal mechanism is still growing and settling. Do not attempt to make them sound older, richer or heavier than they are – keep them sounding their age!
Explore music that caters for the changing or “Cambiata” voice and get them to change part as their voice develops. Your arranging skills will come in very useful here but unfortunately your knowledge of standard choral SATB or TTBB repertoire may not help. Do an internet search for Cambiata music or check out Cambiatapress.com below.
Your best friend is transposition. Experiment with giving a different starting note for unaccompanied songs, or take advantage of the transpose button on your keyboard!
7. Advice for female teachers
Many boys are taught music by female teachers, and have trouble matching their tone, timbre and pitch. So if you are a woman teaching boys, especially during puberty, here are a couple of suggestions to make your (and their) life easier:
The obvious one is to drop an octave if you’re demonstrating a phrase or giving a start note, so they can find your pitch more easily.
The less obvious but equally effective one is to make your tone darker – this seems to help boys match the type of sound you make, even if you’re singing in your own comfortable octave. Conversely, if girls are being taught by male teachers, the men can brighten their sound without jumping up an octave, which gives the effect of singing higher without actually raising pitch.
Keep boys singing. If you ask them to rest for a few weeks their lives will fill up with other activities. In exceptional circumstances of vocal health, take advice from your local Voice Clinic. Whatever happens, keep the boys involved in the organisation and community of singing.
We go into much more detail on dealing with the male adolescent voice change (often called cambiata voice) on our Singing Teacher’s Retreat.