William Byrd – excerpt from ‘Psalms, Sonets and Songs of Sadness and Pietie’, 1588
“We don’t want to be cute, we can’t sing like men, so the answer is not to sing, or maybe to sing rap.”
Y9 (13/14 yr old) boy quoted on p135 of How High Should Boys Sing?
These two quotes say it all really! After the success of The Spiritual, the Moral and the Cultural, I experienced some post-doctoral wilderness years as I sought research grants. Triumph came when I proposed to look at all boys, not just choristers. The problem was that most boys of similar age to choristers (i.e. about 10 – 13 years) have often quite severe inhibitions about singing. The reason is made eminently clear by the thirteen year old quoted above.
I was eventually granted funding for a post-doctoral fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a year’s research leave and a project entitled Young Masculinity and Vocal Performance. A monograph, which I think of as my second PhD thesis, appeared as a result in 2008. The publisher insisted on re-titling it “Teaching singing to boys and teenagers: the young male voice and the problem of masculinity” which I think a great shame. It was not about teaching singing, – it was about, well, “young masculinity and vocal performance”. I hit upon the idea of researching commercial CDs recorded by boys aged between 11 and 14. I gathered together a representative collection of every genre attempted by voices that were neither those of children nor those of mature adult males (“Changing voices”, in other words). I interviewed a good number of the young artists concerned. This was fun and often very informative. Of probably greater importance were the visits to primary and secondary schools the length and breadth of Britain to conduct perceptual tests on the gender associated with the young male voice.
(1) Boys’ reluctance to sing is not so much a fear that they “might sound like girls” (though this can be encountered). More often, boys avoid singing (in public) because the majority believe that girls can do it better. Fear of feminine success is deeply damaging to the emerging male psyche. This, of course, is a problem for the male psyche, not a problem for girls!
(2) There is a significant problem with the audience for boys’ singing. Fundamentally, boys very rarely listen to other boys singing treble. The musical world for most boys is created by the female vocalist or the young male rock star (whose voice, of course, has changed.)