Teaching girls to sing through voice change
If you’re teaching adolescent girls to sing, you already know that there can be some vocal challenges.
The singing voice of a teenage girl will change quite substantially between the ages of 10 and 16. The changes can be subtle, but they are usually sequential.
Here’s what you as a singing teacher need to know about girls, singing and puberty, to help them keep singing through voice change.
1. Share information: Take time to point out the 4 broad changes in girls, connected with menarcheal states. I’ve written about them in this article. Most teenagers will be relieved that what they are going through happens to other people and that it’s predictable and finite.
Start by explaining that a developing voice in a teenager is not yet the same as an adult voice. It’s useful to draw an analogy with sports – there are particular categories in competitive sports for young athletes (the sports coaches don’t expect 13-year-old sprinters to break the world record) and we need to have the same attitude towards singing.
2. Abdominal breathing: There is so much pressure on both boys and girls now to be physically attractive (and this includes ‘thin’). Couple that with a body shape that can change by the month due to growth and hormonal developments, and it’s no wonder teenage singers lose contact with their abdominal wall.
For most singing, abdominal breathing is still the most efficient way of getting the breath into the body, so use voiced and unvoiced fricatives in their lessons or choir practices to get the abdomen moving – gently in for the sound and (more importantly) releasing for the breath
3. Airflow: Remember that as the vocal folds gain new length and mass, the amount of airflow needed to move them for vibration may need to be adjusted. With girls, the back of the vocal folds sometimes come apart during growth phases, meaning many teenage girls find themselves with breathy voices. Adjusting the airflow for a phrase is a personal thing, so allow your singers to experiment with more or less flow.
4. Comfort zone: As teachers, we need to be aiming for stability in comfortable singing range first (I call it Comfort Zone) and between the ages of 12 and 16, that Comfort Zone itself is a moveable feast. Find where their Comfort Zone sits (usually about an octave in the middle of the range), and check it regularly.
5. Average speaking pitch: Work with students to track their average speaking pitch on a regular basis, and explain that singing warm-ups need to start either on that note, or up to 3 semitones below it. The average speaking pitch is the single most useful thing to focus on when training a developing voice
Then help your singer to explore her easy lower register (it’ll be new to her, and if she’s been praised for high singing she’ll want to stay there, which might not be the healthiest thing for her voice). Working on finding a comfortable chest voice will really help to settle the voice into its new territory.
6. Posture: Posture, and particularly the relationship between the head and the shoulders, can be tricky to sustain when the body and voice are changing. Keeping a vertical alignment, and using slightly more energy than usual to keep the head upright and away from (above) the shoulders can help with resonance, power and the ability of the vocal folds to close at the back for a clearer sound
7. Avoid categorising. During voice change, it’s important not to classify voices as soprano/alto. According to Gackle, “the most accurate and vocally healthy voice classification for all voices is light midvoice or rich midvoice. There are no real sopranos or altos at this age.
A note of warning
In choir situations, it’s tempting to allocate strong low voiced girls to the alto line and leave them there, but their low-note strength may only be temporary. Keeping them on the bottom line (because they have the power and can hold a harmony line) may not be suitable for their long-term voice use. If you’re using standard SSA arrangements, allow the girls to swap parts.
When you are working with teenage girls, expect changes in the comfortable singing range, changes in voice quality, and reduced control over gear changes and volume. Use the seven tips here to help your young singers keep singing healthily, whatever the style of the music they sing