Why a whole page on repertoire? The simple answer is that the most frequently asked question is “what repertoire will motivate boys?” I can understand why this is asked. If there is insecurity or doubt as to whether boys will sing at all, anxiety to find repertoire that will motivate them is an understandable reaction.But maybe you’re asking the wrong question. Boys will sing almost anything given the right leadership. Maybe you should be asking this:
Why do I doubt that boys will sing at all?
Chapter 8 of Singing in the Lower Secondary School begins with these words:
FEAR, anxiety, embarrassment, shame, humiliation. These, not repertoire, are the primary source of apathy and hostility. They are therefore the main obstacles to the class chorus and it can take strong leadership to overcome them.
Repertoire has to be chosen that boys will enjoy singing, not primarily because somebody thinks it’s a “cool song”, but because it lies within the tessitura of the voices that will sing it. The melodic contours and the location of prominent intervals such as the fifth and the octave also have to be right for the stage of development of the voice. Octave leaps are best avoided altogether because of the loss of agility during voice change. I call repertoire that is right for the voice, teaches boys something about music and is enjoyable to sing “mutually acceptable”.
The next thing about repertoire is that repertoire conditions the voice. As far as the voice is concerned, what you sing is what you get. This is tremendously important when working with boys because you are shaping lives and futures. Thought has to be given to whether or not the repertoire will develop the whole voice or only the lower register. Much of the music supposedly written for younger children is pitched too low to develop what is sometimes referred to as the “singing voice”.
This results in young adolescent boys arriving in secondary school having never developed their whole singing voice. They sing in the modal register only, often near the bottom of that. Under such circumstances, the only really viable approach is the Cambiata one.
If the Cambiata approach is used, the second big problem of the phonational gap is avoided. Whilst primary school music is pitched too low, secondary school music is often pitched where boys cannot sing at all.
You can’t rely on music publishers! Music publishers print what will sell at a profit. This is not entirely unreasonable because they have to make a living too, but music for boys’ voices that satisfies the above conditions is a limited market. Commercial material for SSA, SAB voices or similar combinations is often conceived with female voices in mind. Once you understand the principles of writing for boys’ voices, you will soon see what’s wrong with so much published music. Sometimes it is possible to adapt mainstream publications. I particularly like the way this piece from Patrick Allan’s Singing Matters has been made to work for cambiata boys. It’s also a good example of “mutually acceptable repertoire”.
Why not have a go yourself? If you really want to understand boys’ voices, one of the best ways is to arrange music for them. It’s time consuming, but hugely satisfying. To reduce the burden, I have been trying to promote a co-operative for writing and sharing arrangements. It’s slowly beginning to get results!