Finding the correct range for boys to sing in is absolutely fundamental. If you don’t get this right, your boys will experience failure and frustration and you’ll lose them. You’ll have read elsewhere on this site about the changes voices go through between the ages of ten and twenty. The purpose of this page is to offer practical help to anybody who leads singing for boys aged between about ten and fifteen. People often forget how hard it is for a boy going through change. He has to cope with a significant loss of vocal agility, at least two new ranges before his voice settles, a different timbre and, of course, he has to learn to read inner parts or from the bass cleff. Little wonder it’s easier for girls.
One of the most important things to appreciate is that there’s a very big difference between boys who sing regularly and intensively as choristers (for example in cathedral choirs) and boys who sing more occasionally. There just isn’t a one size fits all rule. Add to this the many different techniques of vocal pedagogy and choral training that are found, each with its own convincing and committed advocates, and the field is a veritable minefield. One of the most influential works on this topic in recent times has been John Cooksey’s “eclectic” scheme. Nobody should attempt to work with adolescent boys in singing without familiarity with Cooksey’s research.
We talk a lot about “cambiata” on these pages. The term was devised originally by Irvin Cooper in the United States and the Cambiata Vocal Institute of America is still very active today. Cambiata is similar in principle to Cooksey’s midvoice ranges, but is arguably a more practical way of working. If you want a good, short practical text book, try Barham & Nelson: The Boys’ Changing Voice: new solutions for today’s choral teacher. Hard to obtain in the UK, but worth it. Barham & Nelson acknowledge Cooksey’s work, but also suggest that working separately with five or six stages of voice in one class or even choir is not very practical. They suggest four ranges: Treble / Cambiata I / Cambiata II / Baritone. This can sometimes work if it is necessary to accommodate boys at every stage from 0 to 5. Cambiata North West use this arrangement. However, my preference would usually be to keep trebles and cambiate apart. The needs are different. It is a shame to deprive trebles of the full range of their voices and equally a shame to brighten the uniquely dark “boy” sound of cambiate.You can read here a new paper by Alan McClung that has good advice on how to allocate boys to singing ranges.
Finally, it’s important to acknowledge the possible limitations of all these schemes. The more boys sing and exercise their vocal apparatus, the less likely they are in my experience to fit these ranges, although I have to say that when working with Y8 boys who don’t sing that much I’ve found that pretty much exactly what Cooksey says will happen does happen. However, you need to be familiar with ideas such as those of Henry Leck, who advocates not a contracting range but one that actually expands during change to as much as three octaves. In my experience, boys who sing a lot (such as choristers) have much bigger ranges and retain their treble voices for longer than is suggested by Cooksey. They are usually also better able to manage the transition to new voices, having some understanding of the need to develop control of passagio.
In keeping with Leck but unlike some, I don’t believe that Cooksey is the last word on the topic! One objection which has become increasingly plain to me during the 1000 voices research is that developmental schemes pay insufficient attention to what I call vocal agency. When all is said and done, a boy’s body is his own and his voice is very much an expression of his body and indeed soul. Boys can and do exercise considerable will and agency with regard to the singing range they choose to represent themselves and also with regard to the other singers or parts within a choir where they feel comfortable. This is both an ethical and a practical issue. There is very little music, of course, written with a three octave vocal range in mind. Boys confident of their own ability, secure in their self-esteem and strong in agency might sing i different sections of the choir at the same concert!