There are two pieces of advice often given in the old texts on singing with children and young people. One is that children should sing only in the “head voice”. I don’t entirely agree with that, but only “head voice” is certainly preferable to only “chest voice” which is where most school singing now takes place. There’s plenty about this topic on this site! The other is “sing softly”. I pretty much agree with this and had a most interesting example of it last week. I was working with sixty or so boys, aged 11 – 14 and we’d split for a sectional rehearsal. I elected to take the cambiate and the baritones disappeared elsewhere. When they returned, they assured me they had learned their part and proceeded to demonstrate. The “roar” was deafening and, dare I be ungrateful enough to say it, somewhat “uncouth”. Well, at least they were singing – with gusto and enthusiasm. But there was no chance at all that my poor little cambiate would be heard over them. So I asked the baritones to sing softly. The transformation was instant and even I was taken aback by what had been achieved by one simple instruction. Soft singing produced beautiful tone and a tenfold increase in pitching accuracy. Of course, when all parts sang together, there was also an acceptable balance.
Why this obsession with singing loudly? The boys had no problem with being asked to sing quietly. Perhaps some of them even noticed they sounded better and were secretly pleased! I have a pet theory that the obsession with loud is related to anxiety. Too many people are anxious about whether boys will sing and loud singing reassures them. But this is so wrong! Constant, uncontrolled loud singing produces ugly tone, inaccurate intonation and poor blending. Young baritones, of course, do “roar” and can do so mightily powerfully. The real problem group is the cambiate (boys who are not yet baritone but are singing lower than treble). When a boy whose voice is not that far into change sings in the lower part of his range, there is much less acoustic power than when he sings in the upper part. This is a bio-acoustic fact and we have to live with it. The worst thing that can be done is to ask such boys to sing loudly in an attempt to balance voices that are either unchanged high trebles or changed baritone ones. The only answer is to get the other parts to listen and to blend. And they will do this!
The other thing that worries me about loud singing is the vocal strain that occurs in trebles when the number of boys available is insufficient to balance the lower parts. This can and does happen when trebles are hard to recruit (as they usually are in this day and age). I had a good example of this too recently. A boy who is normally one of my best pupils simply could not record in his top register during the intensive Easter period. After the Easter break, the voice was back! So, if you want singing from trebles that is loud enough to balance other voices, recruit more trebles and don’t over-force the ones you’ve got is what I’ve always said. Demographic management of the boy choir is my current research topic, so I’m collecting a lot of data on the acoustic complexities of logarithmic scales at the moment. But I just have a hunch that the old Victorian writers will be validated. Sing softly!
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