Keeping the Boys Singing: How You Can Make a Difference
By Doreen Fryling, Ed.D.
You are not alone.
We all know that keeping a critical mass of boys in a choral program remains a yearly stress in most schools. What I’d like to offer is a simple framework for approaching your work with the boy’s changing voice. I’ve learned that even small changes in how you view working with boys can make a huge difference, regardless of your unique school environment.
How can you make a difference?
Focus simultaneously on building vocal technique and building self-efficacy beliefs.
Your job is not simply to get them ready to perform their concert repertoire. Your job is to help them get through their voice change from a technical standpoint, which is just as important. They already know how to sing. They just don’t always know how to keep singing with all of that wacky stuff going on inside of them.
Here are some strategies to build better vocal technique in boys:
- Sometimes boys just pick the wrong octave. They usually default to the lowest possible one. If that’s the case, use that note as a springboard to getting them to the right place. You need them to sing G below middle C, but they’re growling out a low G (because it’s safe and rumbly and low). Start on the low G and have them sing an arpeggio with the piano up to the higher G. When they get there, don’t let them leave! Start singing instantly so you don’t lose them. They need to feel that note and see what that note looks like on the staff so that they can return there again.
- Every day can be a new voice for a changing boy. That G below middle C they just found? It just might feel different from day to day. Help them become more consistent; don’t panic when it’s “two steps forward, one step back.” It’s like when babies temporarily lose one skill while they’re learning another. Sometimes the voice is like that. Just be patient and reassuring.
- Choose repertoire that allows them to sing in the right general area. Cambiata music may work well for the fall of 7th grade, but by the spring, you’ll need easy four-part. Don’t panic. It’s actually easier to divide the boys and put some on tenor (unchanged boys) and some on bass (no Russian choral music!) than it is to try to keep your basses singing way up high in 3-part arrangements.
- Don’t forget that boys go from singing melodic lines as kids to functioning as the harmonic structure in most choral music. Find repertoire that occasionally gives the boys the melody. With other pieces, help them understand that their part should become the “melody” to them. Also, let them sing solo repertoire in unison (find pieces with narrow ranges).
- When in doubt, match pitch to the boy and then move them around with stepwise motion within a narrow range. Assume that every boy is capable of matching pitch–some are just more consistent at it than others. Find EVERY boy’s voice and help them explore moving around in it.
- Remember they always have notes ABOVE. Don’t let them lose their falsetto by never having them access it. The voix mixte is a wonderful tool for any male singer. Do descending slides from the falsetto into the chest voice or work on exercises that move stepwise down from the falsetto into the chest voice. Have your girls sing with the guys while they are in their falsetto for support (and a sense of safety).
- It can be disconcerting if you struggle with figuring out what octave boys are singing in. Don’t be freaked. It’s like a house of mirrors sometimes because the timbre of their voices can be so different as they are changing. A newly changing boy may sound completely different singing an F below middle C than a 17-year-old bass singing the same note.
- Keep them singing by being flexible. I know it’s only two weeks until the concert, but that guy just grew a beard and dropped an octave. Let him sing bass. Or let a kid sing tenor on one piece and bass on another. Notes that aren’t there will be. Leaving one or two out because they don’t have the range is not a sin against humanity (telling someone to lip sync an entire concert, however, is).
- We all know men who refuse to sing in public. I’m convinced that these guys just missed out on someone getting them through their voice change when they were in school, which left them with a voice they didn’t know how to use. It’s only a coordination problem. It’s like suddenly having feet that are five sizes bigger. It takes a while to find your footing again. The only way to get better is to keep singing and searching for that coordination.
- Ladies, stop trying to sing everything with them. Teach them to respond to your voice at the octave. You will WRECK your own voice if you’re always frying out the baritone part. They don’t need your wimpy vocal modeling there, anyway. They need to internalize the pitch and feel it in their own body in their own way. Male teachers, sing on. Just remember your timbre may be WAY different than theirs. Don’t intimidate with your voice. Offer it for support when needed and modeling when appropriate.
- Bigger bodies require more air and more energy. You know how young kids run effortlessly everywhere while the very thought of running tires you out? Well, as kids age, they need more physical engagement (i.e., more breath support) to move their voice around.
- Provide good repertoire that they enjoy singing. This does not mean that every piece you sing is a big testosterone fest. This does mean that you are selecting high-quality literature that celebrates their voice with appropriate ranges, interesting lines, and meaningful text. I realize this is a scary endeavor, but whatever you pick, give it some time. Usually kids end up liking pieces that they can sing well, not just pieces that instantly appeal to them.
The other big part of your job is to help them build self-efficacy beliefs. If they don’t think they can sing well, they’re not going to continue. Help them correctly assess their abilities so they can feel pride in their strengths and address their weaknesses. Nobody likes to do something they’re not good at. Help them find the good and get better at the rest.
Here are some strategies to build strong self-efficacy beliefs in your boys:
- So many boys think they can’t sing. You have to help them correctly assess their ability. You can’t just tell them that you think they can sing. You have to help them see it by giving them ways to evaluate themselves, either against their own growth or in comparison to others. Help them identify that they are (or are not) matching pitch. Help them improve their technique and then teach them how to realize that they are growing and changing in a positive way. If you can de-mystify the process, it’ll become more of an attainable goal.
- De-stigmatize any hierarchy. Celebrate the change (or normalize no change yet!). Like foot size, voice change is beyond anybody’s control. It is what it is and will happen when it happens. Don’t let the boys who change first tease the unchanged boys. Some changes happen suddenly, while others take years.
- Record your boys occasionally and have them reflect on their voice. They are usually surprised to hear how they are transitioning. With the increasing availability of high-quality recording devices (phones, tablets), you can quickly record singers and create vocal portfolios for them to listen to.
- Remind them that whatever is happening is only temporary. They will not sound like this forever. If range narrows or timbre thins out, it’ll come back. It may get worse before it gets better. Persistence will pay off.
- Every day may be different. Don’t make them feel like they’re a burden to you. Eliminate your frustrations with changing voices by managing your own expectations. If you, yourself, are accepting that this is all normal, you’ll be less likely to see it as a negative thing–which it’s not. It’s just a thing.
- There’s nothing wrong with unchanged boys singing soprano or alto. You are responsible for setting up the environment. If you do have guys singing soprano or alto, just be really careful about using gender specific language.
- Be aware of identity issues. Your voice is a very personal thing. Boys may end up sounding different from their fathers. They may have relished being a boy soprano and now they feel they’re not special anymore. Give them love.
- Evaluate the social dynamics in your environment. Do everything you can to make singing accessible, safe, and accepted. This sometimes also involves educating parents that their child is not, in fact, a bad singer–rather, they’re simply going through a voice change.
- Take the fear out of what’s happening by reassuring them that this is all normal. If they feel like they are the only one who has ever gone through this, dropping out seems like a logical conclusion and the easiest remedy. Don’t let them feel alone. Build a band of brothers in your choir.
It’s a long road from fifth grade to young adulthood. There are many of us along the way who are responsible for supporting the young singer. You can be an integral partner in the journey. Be an unrelenting supporter of your boys and you’ll be amazed at their progress and persistence!
About the Author:
NAfME member Doreen Fryling, Ed.D. is a 2016 Grammy Music Educator semifinalist, and had a student in our 2015 All-National Honor Choir. She is in her twentieth year as a public school music educator. She currently teaches IB Music and chorus classes at South Side High School in Rockville Centre, NY, and has previously taught K-5 general music and middle school chorus. She frequently serves as a cooperating teacher for student teachers. Doreen is a founding member of the eVoco Voice Collective, works as a professional chorister in NYC, and also maintains an active schedule as a collaborative pianist. She recently earned a Doctorate of Education in Learning and Teaching from Hofstra University. Doreen shares her love of music making with her husband, David, and their two children.
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