Too Loud, Wagner!
It’s been a while since my last blog. Two reasons for that. First, I’ve given up thinking I must find something to say every month regardless of whether or not I have anything of much use new to say! Second, summer tends to be busy on the railway and quiet on the choir side of things in my two-hatted double life. That doesn’t mean nothing’s happening choir and singing wise. All sorts of interesting recordings have been made and analysis is ongoing. The result of this is that more recordings are needed to answer questions raised by the first ones! More of this next time I blog – probably in September when choir research begins to take more time up than engine driving and signalling.
Something has cropped up, though, that prompts a blog. There was an interesting piece by Bernhard Warner in the Guardian’s “Long Read” series entitled Why do stars like Adele keep losing their voice? It’s well researched and (unlike what the Daily Mail and Telegraph tend to publish) generally reliable in what it says. The short answer given to the question the article poses is “because they abuse them”. The article is not, however, a tirade against “pop” or TV shows such as The Voice (much as that might be justified). The greater portion is devoted to classical singing and opera. Blame for a not insignificant rise in surgical correction of vocal fold pathology is directed at Verdi, Wagner and Puccini. Again, to reduce a lengthy argument to a phrase, the problem is “too loud for too long and often out of range”.
Well, this sounds remarkably what you’ll read in my books about children’s (particularly boys’) singing. You might like, for example, to look at pages 41 and 42 of Contemporary Choral Work with Boys. To subject my own writing there to the same précis as Warner’s, “too loud and too low”. As readily acknowledged in Contemporary Choral Work, this is not new knowledge. The end of the nineteenth century was a prolific period for texts that dealt with the abuse of children’s voices in singing and all of them advised soft singing in the upper register (or so-called “head” voice) – sadly the opposite of what most children experience in schools and certainly the exact opposite of the vocal abuse too often celebrated in shocking scenes on The Voice Kids UK.
But this blog must not turn into a rant! I myself am currently engaged in research that is, broadly, aimed at encouraging boy choristers to sing lower! If you are a regular visitor to this site you will know that my current efforts are directed at a revival of the sixteenth century meane voice, the replacement with lower editions of copies of Tudor music erroneously transposed up a minor third, and the commissioning of a modern work for what all this research may reveal as the boy meane voice. You might like to read Putting the C in Cambiata for a (fairly lengthy) technical discussion of what happens when boys with unchanged or not very far into change voices are asked to sing lower. The instant précis of this is something along the lines of “they can’t be heard against the higher voices of trebles, so they try to sing too loud.” The simple acoustic and psychological facts behind this conundrum lead to all sorts of considerations that need to be and are being addressed by this research. However, as I said, work is in progress and we have some early pointers. There are reasonable grounds to hypothesise that there may two kinds of lower range singing by boys that can be simply classified as “good” and “bad”.
“Good” is when the boy first learns to sing with natural ease (i.e. not Wagner loud) in his upper (“head”) register, and then transfers what he has learned to a lower singing range (either by selection and training or by the natural process of voice change, or a combination of both).
“Bad” is when the boy never learns to use his upper register and just belts out whatever might be thought “cool” in his low, speech register.
You can see an early hint of this in my newly published video discussion with Andy Brooke (my co-editor in the Emerging Voices series). But this is only a small sample of much, much more to come. There is going to be plenty to blog about over the next twelve months!
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