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Your Son’s Voice
If you are like most of the parents of Boychoir boys, you probably have a lot of questions about your son’s voice and its development, particularly as he reaches adolescence and his voice (and most of the rest of him!) begins to change. This is a development which is, of course, unique to males, and one which the Cincinnati Boychoir is equipped to address. However, it is important to remember that all boys are different, and each one will develop at his own pace.
The Voice Change
As a boy approaches puberty, lots of changes begin to occur. The first sign of this, of course, is when he begins to sprout like a weed. In most cases, first the arms grow, then he gets taller, and then his musculature begins to fill out. At the same time, his vocal folds (we used to call them vocal ‘cords’, but ‘folds’ is a much more apt description) will thicken, altering the way he creates sound and changing the register of his natural speaking voice.
Girls, when they undergo this change, often experience a period of breathy singing while their adult voice fills in. For boys, on the other hand, this is often the point at which their voice becomes the most beautiful. When a boy has just begun to enter puberty and his musculature and vocal folds are filling out, he is able to support a very solid and beautiful tone. So, when a boy says, “my voice is changing!”, it is important to note that this is not always a bad thing! Usually boys’ voices start to change long before they notice anything.
The change continues, however, and eventually a boy may find the upper notes more difficult, and he will add lower notes to his range. As the final stage, it is likely that the boy will lose completely the notes of his upper register for a while; not to worry – they will return!
How long will all of this take?
Good question: it’s anybody’s guess! In some boys, this change will happen gradually over 1-2 years, with the final change to the adult register happening over a period of several months to a year. For these boys, they often find it quite easy to transition to the tenor and then possibly the baritone part in their choirs. In other boys, the change can happen quite suddenly, over a few months, with the final change happening in a matter of weeks. Often, these boys will find it frustrating to sing in their newly acquired adult voice, but with work will certainly become healthy adult singers. Occasionally, an illness can jump-start a voice change. It is also important to keep in mind that the voice is always changing, and will continue to change to some degree into the twenties and thirties.
The age at which your son will experience this change varies tremendously from boy to boy. While most boys begin the final stage of the voice change around 13 years old, there are many cases of full voices changes in 11- or 12-year-olds, and just as many cases of voice changes that last well into the teens. (As a side note, the voice change has begun earlier and earlier in boys; there’s evidence that several hundred years ago boys’ voices didn’t change until 17 or 18 years old.)
How will I know this final stage is happening?
Physiological signs: Are your son’s arms getting longer? Is he getting taller?
Vocal signs: A boy may have trouble singing in his upper register, and may sound a little hoarse when speaking. He will likely be speaking a little lower than before, and will have added notes to the bottom of his range.
My son can still sing all the high notes; can he keep singing in the Boychoir?
As the voice change progresses through the last stage into adolescence, the male vocal tract no longer produces sound in the high register in the same way that it did before and during the voice change. The voice of the boy treble is very different from the young man or adult singing in what is generally referred to as the ‘falsetto’; that is, a ‘false’ voice created by using the vocal tract in a slightly different way. The sound it produces, while pitched at the same level as the true treble voice, has quite a different quality than the unchanged voice.
There are a number of challenges that a boy faces when his voice changes, and at the Cincinnati Boychoir we choose to address them earlier rather than later. Allowing a boy to sing in his newly changed adult voice, rather than asking him to (only) use his increasingly uncomfortable treble register, makes the transition that much easier. In addition to becoming acquainted with the new mechanism at his disposal, it is also best for a boy to begin audiating in his new register before he is through puberty. (Audiation is the ability to hear and reproduce a pitch). Much like learning a language, the earlier in life you start the better!
At the Boychoir, we closely monitor each boy’s vocal progress so that we can determine when and if he should transition to a tenor or baritone part.
What do we do now?
Most importantly: DON’T STOP SINGING! This is a crucial time, and if the boy stops singing it will be much more difficult for him to start again down the road. It is tempting to ‘wait out’ the voice change as if it were a rainstorm, but this only causes trouble. A better idea is to enroll in a very good choral program, one in which the teacher is able to give individual attention to each singer, and understands the changing voice. Furthermore, it is important that the boy continue to sing in all of his registers – high and low. Much like an athlete, he will perform better if he works out all of his vocal ‘muscles’ than if he just works out a small set.
At the Boychoir, we encourage boys whose voices have changed to join our Men’s Glee Club; in this way, they can get individual attention from the conductor, and they also have adult male singers around them to use as a model for healthy adult singing.
What about voice lessons?
Voice lessons can be a wonderful tool for boys whose voices have changed completely (17, 18, or even older). Put frankly, very few voice teachers specialize in or understand the boy’s changing voice, and can cause vocal health problems.