What voices have “emerged”?
The project to record the first twelve pieces in OUP’s ground-breaking Emerging Voices series is complete. The CD is now available (order yours now here!) and a detailed analysis of the recording process has been undertaken in order to inform the next series as well as add a further increment to the available knowledge on changing voices.
Yes, there is to be another series! Production has started at OUP but it’s a little too early to give details. I can hint, though, at some big name composers, and some big innovative ideas. Together with forthcoming work on sixteenth century meane voices (more on that next month), the prospects for adolescent male singing are looking decidedly better than they were when we first launched Boys Keep Singing.
What Voices Have Emerged? Lessons on vocal health and choral tone from a new choral leaflet series is the title of the technical paper I have written. It will be some time yet before the peer-reviewed edition appears in print, but I can use this blog to reflect a little more informally upon what has been learned.
Emerging Voices is based upon Irvin Cooper’s cambiata system. I am not, though, a missionary zealot for cambiata. I have simply sought over the years good, research informed solutions to the problem of the male changing voice, desiring all the time to understand better and advance knowledge. Science is always skeptical and I aired some of the developing questions I had in an essay called Putting the C in Cambiata. You can still read that, but What Voices Emerged? has gone some way towards providing answers as well as (inevitably) the next questions to be asked.
We in the UK share much in common with our colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic, from where, of course cambiata comes. But there are differences. The UK stands largely alone in its current belief that boys only sing “treble”. The influence of the English “cathedral system” where the alto line is almost invariably taken by adults is pervasive and has led, I’m sure, to a certain skepticism with regard to the need for choirs where boys cease to sing treble as soon as the early signs of voice change become apparent. That’s one source of the great divide between the elite choirs of the cathedral system and the struggle in large areas of state maintained education to provide any singing at all.
In between these two extremes are the youth and community choirs and the trail-blazing, inspirational schools that stand out above the non-singing crowd. These are the places, almost certainly, where the market for Emerging Voices is strongest. They are also the places I turned to for the CD recording. So what did I find? Of the choirs participating in the CD project, only 50% actually used the term “cambiata”. Of those that did use the term “cambiata”, fewer than a quarter contained dispositions of singers that I would have created as an ideal paperwork exercise in constructing a “cambiata choir”. So what “lessons on vocal health and choral tone” have been learned?
Let me start with a positive for our sponsors (OUP)! Cambiata part writing does promote vocal health and it potentially does so for whatever type of choir you might have. You might call your singers “tenors” and “altos”, or you might call them “cambiata”. The end result is the same if the parts are written to cambiata guidelines – less likelihood of such evils as tongue root tension, excessive sub-glottal pressure, bad posture, poor tuning and a need to strain for or omit notes out of range (whether too high or too low).
That said, I wrote at some length in Singing in the Lower Secondary School about the difference between the US grade system and the UK system of National Curriculum years. A key difference is that the majority of English boys are at least a year younger than their US counterparts when they start secondary school. I had reasoned on the basis of previous work that this should matter. What Voices Have Emerged? has provided the evidence with regard to just how much it does matter. The cambiata system was devised with the American middle school/junior high school in mind. That means, effectively, that boys newly recruited to choir on moving school compare to our Y8 or Y9, not our Y7. To quote directly from my paper, the first type of voice to have “emerged” is:
unchanged treble voices singing too low in their range.
This is a really challenging dilemma. Of course we want to hit the new Y7s on day 1 with “you’re at big school now and we all sing here – especially you lot!” But those Y7s are never going to develop their voices properly or to best effect if all they do is attempt to growl out a cambiata part in their low speech register. Setting aside all sorts of organizational difficulties, the best place for these boys would be in a SSA boys’ choir (or a choir with first, second and third treble parts if you prefer). Dreaming on, in a thriving music department we would have an SSA boys’ choir, a junior girls’ choir, a boys’ cambiata choir (for ex SSA singers), a senior girls’ concert choir, a mixed gender SATB chamber choir, a whole school choral society (yes we had one when I was a boy!) – as well as whatever music theatre activities, barber shop, rock choirs etc. might also co-exist. How many hard-pressed heads of music could support such a level of activity?
So what should we do with all those Y7s? We certainly don’t want to discourage them from using their unchanged voices to best effect – and this does mean singing across the full mezzo-soprano range (whether on a soprano or alto part as in Germany, the US and elsewhere). In the early days, I promoted the four-part disposition of TCCB (Treble, Cambiata I, Cambiata II and Baritone) suggested by Terry Barham and Darolyne Nelson in The Boy’s Changing Voice: new solutions for today’s choral teacher. We decided that this was not a good solution for reasons explained at length in Putting the C in Cambiata and you can read that if you’re interested in the formants of “ring” and the quirky acoustic profile of the human voice. We can’t go back on that decision, but neither can we just ignore all those Y7s. It’s the “English problem” and we haven’t yet solved it!
Returning to more secure ground, we had unqualified success with the young baritone voices in Emerging Voices. The parts worked handsomely and showed that teenage male voices can be truly beautiful in their own right. Broadly, I think we can claim to have promoted both vocal health and good choral tone. Judge for yourself by buying the CD! In Putting the C, I wrote about another phenomenon frequently encountered but to be avoided in good choral work – that of “roaring baritones”. Well, thanks go to our conductors for curbing the over-exuberance of which Cooper warned and fashioning these raging, untamed, hormone driven singers into something “uniquely beautiful”. But this leads us to the second of the two really big problems we have to continue to work on.
Quoting from my paper, I wrote of those occasions where baritones did tend to “roar” in these terms:
Stage 4 (new baritone) voices singing stridently and obliterating more subtle stage 3 voices on CII parts.
Yes! What of those subtler stage 3 voices? What do they actually sound like? The problem is that we don’t often hear them because, as I wrote
“. . .straddling as it does the most volatile stages of voice change the CII part can present real dilemmas. The vocal stage with the most perfect theoretical fit is stage 3 (midvoice IIa) but this is a weak voice, easily overpowered in its light, upper range by stage 1 and 2 voices, and in its lower proto-baritone range by stage 4 and 5 voices.”
Now you’re just going to have to buy the CD if you are going to understand what’s being missed if conductors don’t bring these voices out – by choosing the right singers, treating them the right way and controlling “roaring baritones” and “shouting trebles”. A particularly interesting learning point from the CD recording experience was that the best conductors did this, irrespective of whether they called the choirs “cambiata”, “TTBB” or just “changed voices”. Now where have we heard something like that before?
In February, I shall be taking the “English problem” across the Atlantic and sharing it with the San Antonio Childrens’ Chorus, supported by boys and young men from a nearby large and thriving church choir at the Texas Music Educators Association Convention. I look forwards “understanding better and advancing knowledge”. And I am absolutely confident that they are going to enjoy Emerging Voices in Texas!
Comments are closed