YES, they should! – return of an old theme
YES! They should!
My plan, for the new year, was a blog about my academic residency at Trinity College Dublin and the exciting work we’ve been doing on sixteenth century meane voices. We now have the results of some practical investigations with boys from Romsey Abbey and Blackburn Cathedral. I am very grateful to those boys and their respective parents and choir directors. It’s as well, though, not to rush into print, even in a blog. A day’s field work with live boys is hard and costly to organise – but it can yield data that takes several months to analyse and really understand. So, let’s not be hasty!
Meanwhile, an old chestnut resurfaced very inconveniently when I was supposedly on holiday in Cyprus. Hotel Wi-Fi is perhaps not an unmitigated blessing! A post on the Choral Evensong Appreciation Society asked:
Should a boy (13) with a voice starting to crack pause singing or carry on? He says he can hit the high notes fine if he properly warms up (they get only a little warm up time).
If I’d had a penny for every boy I’ve met who can still hit the high notes but not the ones at the lower end of his range, I could buy Trump Tower (not that I’d want to). But the question is still being asked and is as deserving of a careful reply now as it was when I first started writing books on the topic. The considerable response on FB was as near unanimous as it could be. “Yes, carry on singing”. Here’s my own reply:
Spare a thought, then, for the poor singing teacher who started it all by suggesting the boy should take a break to avoid spoiling his adult voice, and that he shouldn’t start alto too early. Several people queried where the old idea of “resting the voice” came from. It was interesting that many respondents knew that used to be the advice, but couldn’t put their finger on where it came from. I said I’d “put something up” when I got home. Well, here it is! First, I checked what I’d written in Contemporary Choral Work with Boys. I quote from page 28:
Neither Howard nor Benkhe and Brown, in spite of the latter’s positions as lecturer on vocal physiology, and senior throat surgeon respectively, conducted systematic observation and measurement in the empirical tradition. Their understanding of vocal mechanisms, particularly tract resonance, was clearly quite limited by today’s standards. Their methods, rather than scientific, were what we might call those of pre-scientific ‘natural philosophy’. In other words, they synthesised the prevailing opinions of their time. In this way, they did much to bequeath us with the legacy that boys should stop singing when the voice ‘breaks’. They received replies from 190 experts of the day of whom they asked the question ‘Do you consider it safe for a boy to continue singing whilst his voice is breaking?’ Of these 190 replies, only two stated that it was completely safe whilst 158 stated that it was decidedly not safe for a boy to sing whilst his voice was breaking. (Martin Ashley, Contemporary Choral Work with Boys, 2014).
The methods of “natural philosophy”, (the synthesis of opinion as opposed to experimentation and empirical investigation) seem to have delivered a decisive volte face at the beginning of 2018. Now we have 200 replies stating it is safe (either completely or provided it is done without strain), whilst only two raise more significant notes of caution. So were the “experts” of 1885 completely wrong whilst we, in 2018, who advocate keep on singing, completely right? The end of the nineteenth century was a prolific period for technical writing on boys’ voices. Three major texts stand as important historical landmarks in the development of our understanding. Benkhe and Brown (already mentioned), Francis Howard and John Curwen. They were writing at a time when medical science was making rapid advances. If we consult a similarly significant text from the sixteenth century, that of Richard Mulcaster (1597), we find discussion of earth, air, fire and water. The old theories of the humours held sway and boys’ voices cracked because the moistness of childhood was giving way to the dryer heat of adult life.
The nineteenth century was a century of careful observation and much is owed to Manuel Garcia who had published in 1854 details of the examinations he had made with his newly invented mirror laryngoscope. Garcia is often considered the originator of modern laryngology and the first to observe the process of phonation as we now understand it. Unfortunately, Garcia’s imagination went beyond what he had actually seen and he formed the opinion that the voice actually “broke” and healed itself during the transformation of adolescence. One should not run with a broken leg. Neither should one sing with broken vocal folds! Garcia was opposed by a contemporary English laryngologist by the name of Sir Morrel MacKenzie who saw no breakages of tissue and concluded that there was no good reason for boys not to continue singing. Rather intriguingly though, had there been Facebook in the 1880s, McKenzie would have got short shrift and few “likes”. Nearly all the people, who by virtue of their experience as choir directors considered themselves expert, sided with Garcia. From the epistemological viewpoint (what is to count as knowledge) and the whole social media thing about “fake news”, I do find this rather interesting!
The second caution relates to the preservation, not of the boy’s voice, but of the man’s. There is no doubt that it is undesirable for a boy to continue to sing after his voice has shown signs of “breaking.” What are the first signs of this change? Choirmasters notice that the middle register becomes weak, without any diminution in the power and quality of the upper notes, but that at the same time the thick register grows stronger, and the boy can strike middle C with firmness. “The striking of middle C,” says Mr. G. Bernard Gilbert, “is usually sufficient to decide the point.” The tradition of teachers is in favour of rest at this time, and a well-founded public impression counts for a good deal. The fact is that during the time of change not only do the vocal cords lengthen, but they are congested. An inflammatory action, like that which takes place during a cold, is set up. Hence rest is desirable. Nature herself also counsels rest because she reduces the musical value of the voice at this time to a low ebb. It becomes husky and of uncertain intonation. No doubt cases can be quoted of boys who have sung on uninterruptedly and developed into good tenors or basses, but there are cases equally strong in which the man’s voice has completely failed after such a course. Sir Morell Mackenzie is the only medical writer who has advocated singing during change of voice, but not even his authority can upset the weight of evidence on the other side. (John Spencer Curwen, The Boy’s Voice: A Book of Practical Information on The Training of Boys’ Voices For Church Choirs, &c., 1891)
When, where and how did all this change? Not, generally in England until relatively recently. Most of the research that underpins the present-day preference to sing at an appropriate pitch and level throughout the period of voice change was undertaken in the United States by pioneers such as Stubbs, Swanson, Cooper and Cooksey. We have been far more conservative in the UK than our colleagues in the US and one still hears even on the BBC talk of voices “breaking”! This is in part due to the English preference for adult lay clerks over young men of eighteen or so. My favourite quote on the topic remains that of Bairstow:
‘My experience is that if a boy uses his voice naturally and without forcing it, he never goes through a period when he cannot sing at all but, while in such cases it does very little harm for him to sing, it is no use him trying, as his voice is gradually changing in compass and in timbre.’
Bairstow knew that voices did not “break” but change, and he knew that boys could sing without physical risk – he just considered it not worth their trying. How times have changed now that we are so short of young men to sing in choirs! Cooksey died in 2012, but his work (the most recent major publication being dated 2000) is far and away the most scientific and is still cited today in many publications – including the RSCM’s Voice for Life. My own recent contribution to the new edition of that text is based upon my “standing upon the shoulders of the giant”. My research has sought first to replicate Cooksey’s and then if possible go beyond it. The results verify most of what Cooksey says, but raise one or two new doubts. This is how science proceeds – until there is a total paradigm shift by an Einstein.
So, what did Cooksey say? He said a resounding YES to carry on singing (and was passionately opposed to saying voices “break”) – but he also said no to a practice that is still common in England today – singing treble after the speaking voice has changed to baritone. One or two FB correspondents alluded to this. What’s the evidence for and against? The main evidence for seems to be something like “I sang treble until I was 17 and it never did me any harm”. Well, I was caned and hit at school (when not thrown into cold showers) and it “never did me any harm”. But I don’t think we’d cane and hit children today, would we? If 148 out of 150 people testify that they sang treble until 15, 16, 17 or so without harm, we have 148 opinions, but we do not have scientific evidence. We are back, in other words, to the natural philosophy method of the 1880s. Is there any conclusive empirical or experimental scientific evidence of long-term harm? It would be very hard indeed to set up the extensive, longitudinally based random control trials that would be necessary. Meanwhile my own position is quite clearly set out in my recent paper Beautiful Swansongs of English Cathedral Music in which you will find detailed physical measurements and analysis of the singing of four baritone voiced treble choristers. The boys (or should I say young men) did indeed sing treble beautifully, and no evidence of physical harm was found. But that was a sample of four and no attempt has been made (yet) to study how these boys might sing as thirty-year-olds. Still less is there any prospect of an experiment to identify any difference attributable to singing or not singing treble in any one individual after puberty.
The most I am able to do is to cite the work of academically well-qualified and highly experienced and successful singing teachers to whom I generally defer in this matter. Jenevora Williams’ detailed doctoral study of the vocal health of the St Paul’s Cathedral Choristers is a monumentally important work in the field. Janice Chapman’s book Singing and the Teaching of Singing, co-authored with Ron Morris (of accent method breathing fame) is also seminal and I have had a fair few conversations with each of these authors. The essence of what they are saying is that, whilst there may be no lasting physical damage, there is damage to technique. Fine if all the boy wants to do is sing as a not particularly distinguished baritone in a church choir, but if he desires to become an excellent classical singer, then expensive remedial singing lessons are going to be needed.
I leave these authorities to have the last word:
“There has been research into this, in the USA, Germany, Sweden, Australia and in the UK. . . All of the research concludes that boys should not sing exclusively in the upper ranges during voice change . . .Occasional use is fine, in fact it can encourage flexibility in the upper range . . .what is crucial is that the main body of the singing is within the fundamental comfort zone – as a tenor or baritone, at the lower end of the pitch range.” (Jenevora Williams, Teaching Singing to Children and Young Adults, 2012, p65)
“A much greater and longer-term problem for choristers is the accumulation of bad habits. These can become so set after a few years that a potentially good singer has very little chance of reaching the level of which he is capable. Having said this, I do believe that the bad vocal habits often associated with ex-choristers are more often due to the way in which they have sung through adolescence and not as children. In this period of rapid change, the teenagers are often supervised by music teachers with far less specialist experience, and can be left attempting to sing in an inappropriate pitch range. How often have we heard “but my choirmaster needs me to sing tenor”. (Jenevora Williams, Why and How? Intensive Training for Child Choristers, ‘Singing, Voice of the Association of Teachers of Singing’ Issue 44, summer 2003.)
“In the international classical singing arena, when a voice is described as ‘English’ there is usually an implied negative criticism of the voice production. For example, the Intendant of a German opera house, telling an Agent that his client’s voice is ‘an English voice’ is also probably about to add that he is not going to get the job, especially for Italian or German operatic repertoire. However, he might be being favourably considered for a production of baroque opera, or an early music project. I will go further…and describe the voice production of what is often perceived as an ‘English tenor’. Small, beautiful, artistic, flexible, but may also be damped, constricted, restricted in range, lacking stamina, lacking carrying power, unsupported, lacking vowel clarity, ‘held in the mouth or throat’, etc. For baritones and basses you can add ‘over-covered’, unfocussed, etc. If I am correct, and this particular type of ‘English’ voice production model comes largely from the cathedral tradition as epitomised by the case study, then the retraining which needs to be done post-Oxbridge is radical. (Janice Chapman, AN ENGLISH CASE STUDY: The Journey of a Boy treble to Oxbridge Choral Scholar to Adult Professional Soloist, 1995).
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