An Abridged Choral Director’s Guide to the Male Voice Change
By NAfME Member Ryan Fisher
This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of
UPDATE: Applications of Research in Music Education.
The purpose of this Research-to-Resource article is to provide choral directors a short, practical guide to working with male singers throughout their voice change using research-based strategies. Practical recommendations regarding vocal range assessment, music selection, and vocal warm-ups are provided.
- Demystifying the voice change is one of the primary jobs of an effective choral director.
- Choral directors should regularly assess male singers’ vocal range throughout their voice change.
- Choral directors should assign voice parts based on male singers’ current vocal range and vocal characteristics rather than needs of the ensemble or gender-stereotypes.
- Vocal characteristics associated with the male voice change should be considered when choosing repertoire.
- Choral directors should work to establish a safe, educational rehearsal environment where male singers can make mistakes and vocally explore and experiment without criticism.
Though numerous articles and research studies have been published on the changing voice, many choral directors continue to struggle with how to effectively guide young males in their choirs successfully through the voice change. Intentions are pure, but evidence exists that many practices implemented within the choral classroom have not been optimal for maturing male singers (Killian, 2003). Potentially negative consequences of not using best practices for guiding the adolescent male through the voice change may include male attrition in choral singing, potential vocal health issues, and males feeling as though they can’t sing. The purpose of this article is to provide choral directors a practical guide to working with male singers throughout their voice change using research-based strategies.
During the 20th century, several theories have emerged regarding the male voice change. Previously, vocal pedagogues insisted males stop singing during the voice change for fear of breaking the voice (see Fisher, 2009). This theory led to a notable absence of male adult singers in choirs across Europe. McKenzie (1956) challenged this notion in the United Kingdom and advocated males should sing throughout their voice change in order to emerge from the change as more confident, competent singers. Cooper and Kuersteiner (1970) found that the male voice change was a gradual process and concurred that boys should sing through the voice change. They developed the Cambiata Concept which designated a new vocal part called the cambiata. This voice part was very similar to what McKenzie (1956) referred to as the alto-tenor, a singer whose vocal range was not that of an alto, but not yet fully a tenor. Cooper discovered that many males in middle school choirs were being labeled as non-singers and relegated to non-singing tasks in the choir. Cooper and his disciple Collins (1981) composed and arranged choral compositions with the cambiata voice part through the Cambiata Press in order to encourage young males to continue singing in choirs throughout the voice change. These compositions provided a much-needed resource for middle school choral directors since choral literature at the time was scant with appropriate vocal parts for changing male voices.
Though McKenzie and Cooper believed the voice change to be a gradual process, Howard (1898) and Swanson (1977) concluded that some males’ voices changed rapidly as if overnight. For those voices with rapid voice change, Howard advocated they not sing until the voice had settled. Swanson was the first researcher to identify some adolescent male singers could sing in a pulse register, which produces extremely low pitches more often referred to as fry tones. Swanson strongly believed music teachers and choral directors should adapt music to allow for changing male voices to continue singing, but did not subscribe to using alto-tenor or cambiata as voice parts. Swanson’s work was very important because he was the first to link the male voice change with male pubertal development. We now know the voice change is a secondary characteristic of male puberty.
All of these theories of the male voice change strongly influenced the work of Cooksey who collaborated with vocal scientists to develop a new male voice change classification system that identified five stages of development in the changing male voice: Midvoice I, Midvoice II, Midvoice IIA, New Baritone, and Settling Baritone. The last two stages were later reclassified as Newvoice and Emerging Adult. Cooksey did not identify these stages as voice parts, but rather unique stages of the male voice change that had specific vocal characteristics. His book, Working with the Adolescent Voice (1999), remains a valuable resource for choral directors because it clearly outlines the unique vocal characteristics of each voice change stage and provides helpful vocal warm-ups and advice for teaching the adolescent male singer. Research has validated Cooksey’s voice change stages (Cooksey, 1984, 1985; Cooksey & Welch, 1998; Fisher, 2010; Groom, 1984; Killian, 1999). Perhaps the most difficult (and frustrating) aspect of the male voice change is the irregular rate of change that varies from singer to singer. One male may change to Midvoice I and remain in that stage for a full year, whereas another male may remain in Midvoice I for one month and quickly progress to New Baritone in a few months. This can make vocal part assignment very difficult for choir directors since they may need to adjust voice parts several times for individual singers in the course of one year or semester.
Though some may feel these theories of the male voice change are not practically helpful to practicing choral directors, without the important contributions of these scholars and researchers, we would probably still be recommending males abstain from singing during their voice change. These theorists confirmed that the male voice changes gradually throughout puberty and all of these scholars tried to equip choral directors and general music teachers with skills and resources to encourage healthy singing for all students in their classrooms. Because of their work, we have more choral literature available specifically designed for male singers who are not yet clearly a treble or tenor/bass voice part. These choral arrangements include the cambiata voice part (SAC), but have also evolved to SAB, SAT, and 3-part mixed voice arrangements that attempt to capture the limited vocal range of those male singers who have yet to fully classify as traditional tenors or baritones. Though we would like to believe that all choral directors are engaging their changing male voices in singing activities, Killian (2003) found that some secondary choir directors were still assigning changing male singers non-singing roles in the classroom. She also found many general music teachers at the elementary and middle school levels were allowing males in the voice change to simply sing the melody down the octave.
Researchers have continually recommended that choral directors regularly assess their male singers’ vocal range in order to ensure they are singing an appropriate vocal part. Various strategies have been recommended to choral directors to quickly measure male vocal ranges. Cooper and Cooksey utilized a group approach to more quickly assign voices to parts. You can see Cooksey’s (1999, pp. 24–26) step-by-step instructions for executing this approach. I utilized an individual voice classification assessment in my research (Fisher, 2009, 2013) that choral directors can execute fairly quickly utilizing a digital tuner like the app Cleartune (Bitcount, 2017). First, each student should be instructed to glide (glissando) from his lowest note to his highest note on an ah vowel. I have each student do this exercise three times with the stated goal of the student singing higher each time. Document the highest note the student was able to sing and could reliably sing with proper support (i.e., Highest Terminal Pitch [HTP] = C6). Then have each student glide from his highest note down to his lowest note. I usually have to ask the singer to hold the lower note in order to get a more accurate read with the tuner. Have them perform this task three times with the goal of singing lower if possible. Document the lowest note the student could reliably sing with proper support (i.e., Lowest Terminal Pitch [LTP] = A3). Also, quickly document some characteristics you hear during the vocal exercises. For instance, you may hear breathy tone or the student’s voice goes out for a bit while gliding up, which may be evidence of a phonational gap. If you hear the first emergence of falsetto, you will definitely want to document the occurrence as that is a strong indicator the student has entered the Midvoice II stage of the voice change. You may decide to assess five or so male students each day as to not take up too much class time. After you have assessed each singer’s vocal range, attempt to use Cooksey’s voice classification system to document which voice change stage the singer may currently be in. You should also identify which voice part may be the most appropriate based on the singer’s current vocal range and vocal characteristics.
Figure 1. Mean ranges for the Cooksey voice change stages.
Selecting appropriate music that contributes to the vocal development of each singer while also accommodating his changing voice can be very challenging. Evidence exists that choir directors may be assigning voice parts for males in seventh and eighth grades based more on gender stereotype than on actual vocal range. The prevalence of men’s choirs that solely perform tenor/bass literature in middle school and junior high may be inadvertently causing directors to assign unchanged voices to an inappropriate voice part, typically tenor. This practice results in beautiful treble voices being forced to sing in the lowest part of their range each day without developing and rejoicing in the unique phenomenon that is the boy soprano. Unchanged voices and boys in the early stages of the voice change would best be assigned to treble literature. Choir directors, especially at the middle school level, should consider having a variety of ensemble voicing options that are not gender-specific in order to accommodate proper voice part assignment. If you wish to continue to offer the men’s chorus, consider a Chanticleer approach, which still allows for treble voices in the ensemble. The director, regardless of ensemble voicing, will still need to alter vocal parts for individual singers in order to allow each singer to utilize his most optimal vocal range.
Several other vocal characteristics associated with the voice change should be considered when choosing literature. Because each singer is in a different phase of his voice change, the director should avoid selecting music with vocal parts with extensive range demands or that requires vocal register shifts. Transition from modal register (i.e., chest voice) to the newly emerging falsetto register is very difficult during the Midvoice stage. Requiring a singer to smoothly transition from upper chest voice to his vulnerable and inconsistent falsetto will only leave the director and singer frustrated. It may be best to work on vocal range extension and vocal register development during vocal warm-ups rather than primarily through the literature.
The director must be very vigilant to observe signs of vocal strain in singers especially when performing in their upper vocal register. Poor habits are frequently formed during the voice change, and the director must look for these signs. Reinforce proper breath support and management during each rehearsal understanding that as their bodies develop and grow, singers have to adjust their approach to proper breathing. The same is true with jaw position and facial muscle activation. Tight, clinched jaws or lifting of the chin to execute singing a high note are behaviors commonly exhibited by adolescent males and should be addressed quickly by the director. Exercises and reminders that reinforce concepts of proper body alignment and relaxed jaw position should be daily employed. If a singer has been successfully singing his assigned voice part, but you are starting to observe behaviors of facial or vocal tension, you may want to reassess his vocal range as his voice may have lowered again requiring a new part assignment or an alteration of his current voice part.
Due to the lengthening and thickening of the vocal folds, vocal agility can be greatly reduced, especially in the upper register, during Midvoice stages and the New Voice stage (Cooksey & Welch, 1998). Faster tempo can also negatively impact vocal agility in changing voices (Hooks, 2005). Directors should consider agility when selecting music. Songs that require quick, melismatic execution may prove difficult for changing voices especially if intervals greater than a third are required. This is not to say that vocal agility should not be exercised during puberty. Incorporating vocal agility exercises in the warm-up is strongly encouraged as long as the director is careful not to overexert the singer to the point of vocal fatigue before actual rehearsal has begun. Consider choral literature that requires some agility, preferably with stepwise movement, for smaller sections of the piece rather than extended throughout the full piece.
Choir directors should also be alert to challenging music that requires long phrasing or laborious sections of sustained pitches. Having the breath capacity and controlled laryngeal muscles to sustain good tone over long periods of time is an extreme challenge for any singer, but especially challenging for singers with changing voices. Vocal instability is one of the most well-known characteristics of the changing male voice and only exacerbated when asked to maintain an 8-measure phrase at a slow tempo. Phrasing is an important concept to teach the young male singer, but the skillful director may need to break up a larger phrase into two smaller phrases, if musically appropriate, in order to improve the vocal execution. Developing proper vocal technique for all singers is vital and should be done in the vocal warm-up sequence and reinforced through performance of the choral literature.
Finally, the most important thing a choral director can do to help guide emerging adolescent males successfully through the voice change is to establish a safe, educational rehearsal environment where male singers can make mistakes and vocally explore and experiment without criticism. A singer’s voice will crack at the most vulnerable part of a piece in your rehearsal or performance at some point. How the director responds to the crack or allows a student to respond to the crack is truly the test. Minimizing the vocal anomaly and focusing more attention on addressing issues that may have contributed to the vocal behavior is the better, more productive response. Just as teachers forbid bullying in the classroom, there should be zero tolerance for making fun of a singer’s voice or vocal behavior in the choral classroom. One critical comment from a director or a peer could result in a young singer forever self-identifying as a bad singer. It is important for directors of students whose voices are changing or about to change to educate their singers on the natural pubertal process and how that impacts the singing mechanism. Demystifying the voice change is one of the primary jobs of an effective choral director.
Choral directors have been found to play an essential role in developing strong, confident singers (Fisher, 2014). As Kennedy (2004) wrote, “… helping a young man navigate through the frustration that can occur when the voice is in the throes of change appears critical to his emergence out the other side” (p. 277). Directors who utilize research-based strategies to meet the needs of their male singers with changing voices can find greater success in their rehearsals and contribute to the positive self-esteem and self-identity of male singers, which will hopefully result in healthy, lifelong singing.
Bitcount (2017). Cleartune (Version 2.2) [Mobile application software]. Retrieved from https://apps.apple.com/us/app/cleartune/id286799607
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About the author:
Ryan Fisher, PhD Music Education, is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the College of Communication and Fine Arts, The University of Memphis.
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