Reprinted with permission from the fall 2018 issue of the Missouri School Music Magazine.
Adolescence presents many challenges for students navigating through middle school. Choir teachers comment on the lack of interest of boys in their choral programs and challenges of retaining the boys they do have (Koza, 1993). Boys do not stay in choir past elementary school for many reasons: voice change, social status, time constraints, and academic pressure, for example. However, I have found that our young boys who feel supported in their middle school choir programs will have the drive to consider sticking around throughout the voice change and even going on to sing through high school.
Janice Killian (1999) found that on average, boys’ voices begin changing in seventh-grade. However, more recent studies have shown that boy’s voices begin changing in fourth- and fifth-grades and at a much more rapid pace (Fisher, 2010; White & White, 2001). With the five stages of the voice change that our young male singers experience during the middle school years, music educators must be informed about the changing voice to help guide our male singers to be successful in middle school choir.
The voice change
A major problem in supporting changing voice students may be the boys’ lack of knowledge of voice change issues. It is important to discuss this information with them. Teachers should not be afraid to talk about what is happening as boys’ voices are changing and help them to feel comfortable being honest about what they are going through. Here is some helpful information to share with young male singers about their voices and the process they are going through during this time, which will allow them to be informed of the vocal changes they are experiencing. We all know that there are visible physical changes to the body during puberty but it may be less obvious that as the human body grows and matures so do the muscles and cartilage of the larynx. Thus, the singing voice also changes during this time in range, power and tone. The larynx grows at different rates and in different directions according to gender. The male larynx grows primarily in the front-to-back direction, leading to the angular projection of the thyroid cartilage, the Adam’s apple, a visible indication of the impending voice change. The vocal folds grow at a rapid rate during puberty and a shift occurs from a boy soprano to new baritone during the five phases of the voice change (White & White, 2001).
Support boys through social and emotional issues
Children are curious about the world around them, enthusiastic about learning, and eager to try new activities (White & White, 2001). White and White explained that in regards to music, the child’s attitude, family members, entertainment, and exposure to music at school influence preferences. With this in mind, young singers need to continually have positive reinforcement at school in the choir classroom. Choir needs to be relevant to them and what they experience on a daily basis, not just ‘quality choir literature’ (Kennedy, 2002). With these students being at such an impressionable age they will be strongly influenced by many people in their lives, and if the music teacher is not among this group of positive influences, these students will shy away from the choir programs and move to places they feel more accepted and that are perceived as ‘cool’ by their circle of influence.
Furthermore, it seems to be more difficult to get boys into choir in middle school because students begin to make elective choices rather than going to music class every day as in elementary school.
To reiterate, it is critical that music educators support our boys with the social and emotional challenges they face. Even if a young boy has a love for music, he will often agree with his peer group’s opinions rather than sharing his own. Students who are getting ridiculed for their interest in music from family members and peers often shut down and slowly disconnect from music ensembles. But we can fix this problem! The choir teacher should have a strong presence in the school. Allowing all students and staff to see who they are and what a great choir teacher is about makes a statement to the naysayers in the school. In a study with a group of junior high boys, Kennedy (2002) found that one of the three motivating factors for all of the students was the teacher. “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care” is a quote often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (http://www.theodorerooseveltcenter.org/). This advice should be the center of every middle school choral director’s philosophy of teaching. Making connections with students will allow them to be comfortable talking about issues they face being in middle school and in the choir program.
It is important to make choir relevant! If your boys feel that being a part of choir is of great benefit to them as they mature through middle school, hopefully they will decide to continue enrolling in choir. According to the findings of one study of male adolescent singers, the boys “felt more engaged with choral singing when they realized that their vocal identity was a powerful tool for constructing their male gender identity” (Elorriaga, 2011, p. 318).
Finally, provide great opportunities for your boys such as choir festivals, choir trips, school performances, solo opportunities, and musical theatre opportunities. Having these opportunities will show your boys that choir is relevant and important to their musical growth.
Support boys through voice change in the classroom
Once we have made our young males feel comfortable in choir, choir teachers need to be prepared to handle all of the many changes that these boys will go through vocally. The only way to tackle these challenges is to be informed about the voice change process. Four main researchers who focused on the voice change initially were John Cooksey, Irvin Cooper, Duncan McKenzie and Frederick Swanson. These authors have identified characteristics of the changing voice, developmental stages, comfortable singing ranges and strategies for working with changing voices. In addition to these researchers, who created the foundation for changing voice research, more contemporary scholars who have added to the body of research such as Janice Killian, Ryan Fisher, Patrick Freer and Mary Kennedy also have great insights into working with students through the voice change (see reference list for suggested resources).
One tool that might be useful in helping young males feel supported in the choir room is creating a private chart for each that tracks their development, and have them keep track of where they are in the voice change process. This is a visual reminder for boys of their progress and shows them your concern as they go through these changes.
Beyond boys charting their voice change and feeling important in the choral program, the final piece to this puzzle is making them feel successful in the music they are singing. Choral directors must find music that is in a comfortable range for their changing voice students and must be willing to do whatever it takes to make the students feel successful with their music. Sometimes this means rewriting a few parts so that all the boys in the different places in the voice change process will feel successful singing in class. Furthermore, the choir teacher’s job is to be practical about the music we select. It is very likely that all the boys will not be able to sing an entire piece as written. Therefore, it is necessary to encourage cambiata singers to sing stronger through the higher parts of the song or maybe even sing alto, and the new baritones to support the lower sections of the song. There also may be singers who have unchanged voices in 7th– and 8th– grade and can sing in the same octave as the girls. The point is to make all of your boys successful regardless the phase they are in vocally. Crocker (2000) also suggested finding simple SATB arrangements for those boys who need to sing more in the tenor range and having the opportunity for the boys who sing everything an octave lower to explore a bass part. Another consideration for the choral director is to prepare warm-ups that the boys will be able to sing successfully. Research shows that young males are more successful on descending warm-ups that are in the middle of their range (White & White, 2001).
Safety in numbers
Even with the best advice and many techniques to build strong male musicians during the changing voice years, it is always best if there is a community of singers for them to lean on during this transition. If you get boys to sign up with a buddy or a group of friends they will usually work through this voice change together. Furthermore, creating a boys’ choir in your program will allow for these boys to feel important and rise to the occasion of performance situations (Zemek, 2010). If your schedule doesn’t allow for a boys’ choir, at least have a boy’s sectional rehearsal time for all the boys to get together and work on music without the girls from time to time during the year. Not only will this be a more productive use of rehearsal time, it will also give the boys a comfortable space to take risks with their singing. Finally, especially for female choir directors, make sure to let your middle school boys see other males who are successful musicians. Introduce your middle school boys to high school buddies they can ask questions and sing with, bring in male guest speakers to work with the boys or talk about singing techniques, invite other male choir teachers to come and work with your students, find male role models that your students can connect with who are in the industry. Hitting this challenge head on is the only approach to retaining your boys through the middle school years.
Every middle school choral program has its own unique set of challenges that cause students to not stay in choir. Unfortunately, it seems to be much harder to retain our young men than our young women. There are many factors that need to be in place for young boys to feel successful in choir, including parents, counselors, administration, other teachers, elementary school programs, and many more. But at the end of the day, we as music educators need to be well educated about the changing voice and be prepared with an informed process for guiding our young men through their voice change. We also need to be flexible to meet the needs of all students to ensure that each one feels important in the choral program. If your boys feel comfortable in your choral program there is a better chance they will stick around through middle school and continue singing in high school.
Crocker, E. (2000). Choosing music for middle school choirs: How can choir directors identify appropriate, challenging, singable works for young choirs, many of whose members will be undergoing voice changes? Music Educators Journal, 86, 33-37. DOI:10.2307/3399603
Elorriaga, A. (2011). The construction of male gender identity through choir singing at a Spanish secondary school. International Journal of Music Education, 29, 318-332. DOI:10.1177/0255761411421091
Fisher, R. (2010). Effect of ethnicity of the age of onset of the male voice change. Journal of Research in Music Education, 58, 116-130. DOI:10.1177/0022429410371376
Freer, P. (2007). Between research and practice: How choral music loses boys in the ‘middle’. Music Educators Journal, 94, 28-34. DOI:184.108.40.206
Kennedy, M. (2002). It’s cool because we like to sing: Junior high school boys’ experience of choral music as an elective. Research Studies in Music Education, 18, 26-36. DOI: 10.1177/1321103
Kennedy, M. (2004). “It’s a metamorphosis”: Guiding the voice change at the American Boychoir School. Journal of Research in Music Education, 52, 264-280. DOI:10.2307/3345859
Killian, J. (1997). Perceptions of the voice-change process: Male adult versus adolescent musicians and non-musicians. Journal of Research in Music Education, 47, 521-535. DOI:10.2307/3345420
Killian, J. (1999). A description of vocal maturation among fifth- and sixth-grade boys. Journal of Research in Music Education, 47, 357-369. DOI:10.2307/3345490
Koza, J. (1993). The “Missing Males” and other gender issues in music education: Evidence from the “Music Supervisors’ Journal” 1914-1924. Journal of Research in Music Education, 41, 212-232. DOI:10.2307/3345326
White C. & White D. (2001). Commonsense training for changing male voices. Music Educators Journal, 87, 39-43. DOI:10.2307/3399691
Zemek, M. (2010). Where’s the evidence? Finding support for separating middle and junior high school choirs by gender. Update: Applications of Research in Music Education, 29, 15-21. DOI:10.1177/8755123310378451