My son’s a chorister. He went on a course with the Antarctica National Youth Choir over the summer and they told him he wasn’t a treble any more. Now he’s gone back to school the cathedral choir is telling him he is a treble. What should I do?
This blog, dear chorister parent, is addressed particularly to you, though I hope it will be of interest to anyone who enjoys or is involved with boy “treble” voices.
There have been a number of posts on Facebook choral groups recently about the time of voice change for boy choristers. One theme has concerned the ages of boys returning to choir as “trebles” after the summer break. Another, perennial as the grass, has concerned the age at which voices were thought to change in the time of J.S. Bach. Well, I don’t expect everybody to have read my books, still less my research papers, but I do feel it might be helpful to address some of the misconceptions, grey areas and controversies in straightforward language that deals with the science, not people’s opinions. Hopefully, a rehearsal of the following five key concepts will be sufficient to hit the nail on the head as far as the welfare of boys in choirs is concerned:
- The first concept that needs to be clearly understood is that a boy’s voice begins to change at the very first sign of puberty – long before he grows any whiskers! The timing of this is determined by biology and biology alone. No amount of vocal training and no amount of singing in any one choir or other will have the slightest impact upon on pubertal onset.
- The second concept is that there are two broad dimensions to biology – the genetic and the environmental. The genetic, of course, is given by parental line. Environmental causes can result in demonstrable periodic variations at population level in the timing of pubertal onset, though popular reporting tends to exaggerate these. At the present time, the average age of pubertal onset is about 10 or 11, early enough to impact significantly on Y8 (age 12.5-13.5) choristers. Back in 1960, a similar impact was not felt until Y9 (13.5 -14.5).
- The third is that the entire process of change from child voice to mature adult voice is a protracted affair, beginning around age 10 or 11 and lasting anything up to ten years. This is longer than most people realise. In particular, a voice does not suddenly “break” when a boy “hits puberty”.
- The fourth, and key to the whole process, is that it is possible for a boy to sing in the mezzo-soprano (“treble”) range throughout the period from pubertal onset at 10 or 11 to pubertal completion at 14 or 15. During this time, his speaking voice will gradually lower in pitch, but his singing range will apparently remain the same. This can only happen as a result of changes in singing technique. A chorister’s voice will gradually move through a quasi-falsetto stage until it eventually splits into two halves – a baritone voice that is not used and a “treble” falsetto that is. Unlike pubertal onset, this situation is not a product of biology. The extent to which an apparent “treble” range is preserved is a direct consequence of choral experience and vocal training. Save in cases of genuine medical need we can’t influence testosterone, but we can influence technique.
- The fifth and final key point is that singing teachers and vocal coaches are divided in opinion with regard to whether boys should be allowed to continue as “trebles” in a falsetto voice, or one that is becoming falsetto. Some see no harm provided there is no obvious strain or discomfort. Others discourage or attempt to prohibit the practice.
This last point is often the cause of significant controversy. On several occasions over the years, I have been asked to arbitrate in disputes between choir directors and singing teachers. Such disputes not uncommonly arise when an ecclesiastical chorister takes a week off to sing with a secular youth choir. Assessors for the youth choir may well tell him that he is no longer a “treble” and should sing with an alto or “cambiata” section.
Whenever I have been involved in a dispute of this nature, the singing teacher (or youth choir assessor) has invariably been proved right in a technical sense through independent, comprehensive scientific testing of the boy. However, there is a caveat to this. Some boys, though sounding like young men when they speak, can and do sing with varying degrees of falsetto that sound “very beautiful” at treble pitch. There is, to my knowledge, no conclusive proof that boys who are fortunate enough to enjoy such an Indian summer at the end of their treble career suffer any harm in the medium or long term. Nevertheless, some well-respected vocal coaches do insist that poor technique is learned for which remediation will be required if the young man subsequently desires a professional singing career. It is a weighty responsibility on the shoulders of any choir director who retains a boy as treble throughout puberty.
Those are the basic facts that everyone who is responsible for a boy’s best interests needs to have at their disposal. I’ve not cited any scientific references, but you’ll find plenty in my various books and papers, which explain and justify all the five principles above in depth. The most relevant and recent of these is currently “forthcoming” with NATS Journal of Singing. It’s called Beautiful Swansongs of English Cathedral Music: adolescence and the boy treble voice.
Listen to a “beautiful swansong”
Check out Boys Keep Singing for comprehensive links to knowledge on this topic.
As for J.S. Bach and the fabled puer tremendus, read last month’s blog!
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