There is a dramatic type voice change which occurs with some boys. Directors may encounter a few young men who appear to have moved completely through the voice change from boy trebles down to adolescent basses in a period of two to three months (usually over the summer). These young men may have a range of about F (below the bass clef) upwardly to F (fourth line, bass clef). When asked to move above the F (this pitch may vary slightly, depending upon the boy), it seems as if the voice is locked and can go no higher in modal phonation. They may have nice high voice phonation with the ability to sing with ease notes in falsetto upwardly from F (first space, treble clef) to F (top line, treble clef) or even higher. But the ability to phonate in falsetto seems to bottom out around the lower F (first space, treble clef). The pitches in the vicinity of middle C between approximately F (fourth line, bass clef) and F (first space, treble clef) are not present. They have this terrific gap in the voice with several pitches absent, possibly as many as an octave.
Often these young men have not had singing experience prior to the onset of puberty. There are known cases where they never used their treble voices as singing instruments. Therefore, it may be assumed that the presence and width of the gap is exacerbated because the muscles controlling phonation for the purpose of singing were never exercised and trained. Maybe these young men were coerced by a friend, or they noticed that the choir contained good looking girls; whatever the reason, they decided to join the choir after the onset of puberty. It is most likely that this type of voice change is predominantly genetic. At this point in time, research needs to be done to determine exactly why the gap occurs. With or without the facts, the reality is that they are an obvious presence in the choir and it is the director’s responsibility to teach them.
Usually these type voices change occurs with boys whose vocal maturation is fast. That is the good news because they should begin to add the upper pitches (using modal phonation) rather quickly, one at a time. The director simply must be patient. In the meantime, consider the following:
- Keep them singing, using the comfortable pitches in their individual ranges. Vocal rest only extends the maturation process.
- At cadence points when the baritone part is written soh down to doh, teach these young men to sing the soh an octave lower (they will sing soh up to doh). When, at cadence points, the baritone part is written soh up to doh, teach them to sing doh an octave lower (they will sing soh down to doh).
- Most importantly, when the baritone part moves above the F (fourth line, bass clef) pencil some optional notes in his printed music that are comfortable for them within the F to F octave. Sometimes, writing those notes in the part one octave lower will work, and it sounds okay for the most part. If this does not render a satisfactory sound, pencil in the third or the fifth of the chord for them to sing, whichever one is best suited for each individual range.
- Finally, read Chapter Ten, “Proper Vocal Technique for Adolescent Voices” (pages 184-204) in the book, Teaching Choral Music (Click on the title for more information about the book’s contents and reviews. It may be obtained from a favorite bookstore or music dealer, or it may be available from the local public library.) (Don L. Collins, 2nd ed. Prentice Hall, 1999.) Establishing good breath control and resonance will be most helpful for these young men at this point in their maturation process. Good vocal technique will be helpful for all choir members in freeing their voices in the upper areas of their comfortable singing ranges (it is best not to attempt to extend the boys ranges during the height of the mutation process, just keep them singing comfortably until they get through this stage of their maturation.) Range extension is okay with the girls at this age, with limits.
- Passing upwardly through the passaggio (from modal voice into falsetto) is very difficult, if not impossible for them. The “blank spot” around middle C is manifested because the vocal folds will not come together in modal phonation (possibly due to the fast growth) resulting in a very wide passaggio (passage) which is extremely difficult to negotiate. Hence it is important to keep them singing in modal phonation where it is comfortable. Asking them to move from modal phonation into falsetto usually results in the voice breaking or cracking. It is not recommend to vocalize boys in falsetto phonation until their voices have begun to settle after maturation which may be as late as their junior year in high school with some boys. In other words, for these boys who are experiencing this more dramatic type change, the technique of beginning an exercise in falsetto and singing downwardly through the passaggio is only helpful after their voices have settled . Exercises beginning in falsetto should only be used with boys who have been trained as treble singers, and with boys whose voices change smoothly and move gradually downwardly (and who experience minimal cracking and breaking). Many directors refrain from using this technique altogether until they are assured that the voices have settled.
Remember, usually this dynamic type change occurs quickly, so it should be a consolation that within a couple/three months, with good vocal technique, those upper notes will return to their voices — just be patient and keep them singing comfortably with modal phonation. It may be a good idea to share the thoughts in this article with them. They need to know that what is happening to them is quite normal, and that their future as singers is bright!