Use your Head
Now for something quite contentious! I seeded a discussion on the Linked-In Choir group with this question: “The whole voice or just the speech register? There’s a view that school music is pitched too low to develop the upper register (“head voice”) because this has long since ceased to be “cool”. Well?”
Well indeed! Gratifyingly, perhaps, it granted me the accolade of “top contributor”. There was a good discussion, though I think every contributor was from the States. Come on you Brits! What’s wrong with you? (I seem to remember writing somewhere “nearly all the leading research on choral singing and adolescent voices has been done in the United States…” Could this apparent lack of interest from the UK be why?)
I was pushing the boat out and angling for some kind of peer comment, I suppose, because in both my forthcoming books I am often quite critical of the composers, arrangers and publishers who are responsible for “school music being pitched too low”. It feels like just one solitary voice versus the might of Faber Music and the rest of them, and this can lead one to doubt one’s sanity. Happily, I am not alone, it seems. Here are some comments from the discussion:
Personally, I hate singing pop choral music because as a Tenor it forces me to sing too low in my register. I take some issue with the idea of “registers”. Our voice should be shaped to have one register from top to bottom and bottom to top.
To the “too low” question, may I urge much more a cappella? Try various keys, listen for the sound differences, listen to what lead singers say, then settle on a key for the performance.
I have a kind of a theory: let us recall that not so long ago – something like 80 years? – the difference between a popular singer and a ‘classical’ one was very tiny or none at all… In my view the point is ‘head voice…ceased to be cool’. It called my attention because it is an issue I’m dealing with during the last 20 or 25 years and it’s getting worse. I’m convinced that with due training virtually anyone can reach high notes, but the problem is: people simply don’t want to, mainly the women; I have to stress that some men are prone to explore their falsetto. And all this, I strongly believe, is an effect of the media,
It is not the repertoire that limits the voice but the skill of the vocal trainer. After all, any song can be transposed if it is pitched too low.
My director had the foresight and understanding of the different genres that she was able to expose us to everything from pop and musicals to sacred and classical pieces. Of course, this was in the mid ’70’s. Nowadays, the garbage the kids listen to and think is “good music” wouldn’t have passed muster 3 decades ago as anything but noise.
Music education begins with the children. They are not opposed to “uncool” music. Teach them to sing whatever songs you choose in an appropriate for them key and the problem is solved over time. Expand their vocal ranges to the upper ranges by choosing songs with a broad range. There is, in my opinion, no conflict between classical and pop/rock music when it comes to singing with teenagers. I firmly believe that teenagers can and should be exposed to all genres of music with the appropriate singing techniques. It all starts with good breath and appropriate placement.
I am not alone then! My thanks to these, and to a number of other contributors to the discussion. I shall brace myself for when the storm comes and I’m accused of being a choral snob out of touch with youth music. (I have been critical of some in the “classical” field too, so I shall probably get kicked by both lots of protagonists!)
If we were to go back 80 or more years, we would find that texts such as Francis Howard’s The Child Voice in Singing or Benkhe and Brown’s The Child Voice: Its treatment with regard to after development are quite adamant that only the head voice should be used. The use of the “chest voice” in children’s singing is, according to Howard, “barbaric”. Moving on to the sixties we find that Herbert Wiseman expected the whole voice to be used, and music to be pitched high enough for this to be possible. In our own time and from the United States again, we have a clear exposition of the need for the whole voice to be used when “Teaching Kids to Sing” (Kenneth Phillips).
The problem, of course, is that none of this is “cool” –unless skilled and inspirational teachers make it so. Last week I found myself explaining to Edge Hill’s PGCE music trainees why most children in English state schools will never reach Level 5 of Joanne Rutkowski’s scale of singing development. “Able to manage the register lift and sing consistently across the whole voice.” Dream on!
Children in English state schools do still sing beautifully in their whole voice, but it is rare. I shall console myself with this quote from Contemporary Choral Work With Boys (forthcoming):
“Chest voice is a powerful voice we use here in the lower notes. It disappears higher up when it becomes the head. We use head voice more than anything else. That’s what we do. I don’t use the terms much. I say this is how I want it and I demonstrate.”
That’s Alison North, the teacher of Lyndley School Choir from Huddersfield that’s talking there. And she’s one of those “skilled and inspirational teachers”. Check this excellent choir out. You might also like to check this recording by an English chorister who won Chorister of the Year. I have still to find anything better to demonstrate the “head voice” and the “chest voice” of a talented and well-trained thirteen year old boy. But could he join those two registers in a beautiful, seamless whole?
Come on the rest of you Brits – what’s the matter with you? Are you going to let choral quality singing be killed by apathy? Tweet your answer to Boys Keep Singing @bykpsg. And start demanding music from composers, arrangers and publishers that requires children to use their whole voice.
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