Middle School Tenors & Basses: Empowering Your Classroom!

Middle School Tenors & Basses: Empowering Your Classroom!

by Dr. John B Wayman ~ Assistant Professor of Choral Music Education

University of Texas at Arlington

Working with middles school male singers is both a blessing and a challenge. It takes an exceptional teacher to walk the line successfully and create an aesthetic experience for both the students and those listening to our choirs sing their hearts out. Who are we talking about? Typically, we are talking about male students from ages as young as 10 and as old as 14 and are unique all to themselves.

Physically ~
Physically they are fantastic little odd-shaped mutants! Their bodies are changing so quickly; they can hardly keep up. They often have short torsos, long arms, uneven legs, and wear a size 12 shoe. They are diligent but can have a hard time even walking across the classroom without tripping or knocking something over. And let’s not talk about their choice fragrance consisting of a mixture of strong cologne and gym class.

Mentally ~
Mentally males at this age tend to be very literal and need concrete examples. The need for tangible metaphors amplifies the uneasiness of the vocal maturation process because they cannot see and physically touch or manipulate the vocal apparatus. Concepts must be conveyed utilizing kinesthetic teaching and not just discussed in a theoretical manner.

Emotionally ~
Emotionally they are highly sensitive but are afraid to show their true feelings. They are often excited yet freaked out at the same time about the awkwardness of their bodies maturing, especially when their voice starts to change. Some of my students proclaim this to be the entry into manhood, and others declare it as a departure from everything they know.
Considering these three facets of the adolescent male in the choral classroom, how does one create an empowering experience for these emotional, literal mutant singers?

Empowering your Students ~
First and foremost, you must help establish a defined atmosphere of normalcy. You may find yourself asking, how can anything be “normal” in a middle school choir class filled with guys? Change is natural and inevitable and therefore becomes the element of stability. Change is going to happen mentally, physically, and emotionally! Therefore, it is important to create a safe-zone environment focusing on the positive aspects of change. Some changes are more apparent than others.
Many of the physical changes are obvious and easily observed, such as students getting taller, or hair appearing on their arms and upper lip. What is not always as obvious is their voice. The guesswork here can be somewhat minimized for both the students and the teachers if you utilize a system of identification. John Cooksey (1985) studied the changing male voice and established a system consisting of six stages of maturation. The identification of the stages is essentially a combination of not only the vocal range but timbre of the sound.








Rich, Soprano-like quality
Stage I-

Midvoice I

(Early Mutation)



Loss of tonal clarity and richness in the upper range (Average lasts 1-5 months)
Stage II-

Midvoice II

(High Mutation)



Huskier, thicker singing voice. Often breathy
(Average lasts 12-13 months)
Stage III-

Midvoice IA

(Mutation Climax)



Increased breathiness and strain in the upper range. “Pushing” can occur.

(Average lasts 4-5 months)

Stage IV-

New Baritone
(Post-Mutation Stabilizing)



Firm sound, still lacking adult sound. A blank spot at middle C. (Average lasts 3-5 months)
Stage V-

Emerging Adult Voice
(Post-Mutation Development)



Developing towards adult quality, lacking tessitura of tenor or bass. Clear falsetto.

Each stage contains a different set of characteristic timbres allowing the student to process the change more concretely. Students being able to self-identify where they are in the vocal maturation process and what is coming next is a game-changer for the boys. Knowing what type of changes are on the horizon allows for this nebulous mutation of a voice to become more predictable, and thus, anxiety associated with the voice change process often becomes less.

However, this does not mean students are always accurate in their identification. It was not unusual for a 6th grader to come and find me to declare their voice had dropped, and they were in the next stage. They would demonstrate their finest descending pentatonic scale ending with a thrust of air grunting out the tonic pitch and then state with excitement, “See, I’m in stage II.” I would then convey how proud I was of them to be listening so carefully to their voice and assure them they were almost there.

The Cooksey voicing process consists of three main steps. It is essential to not only listen for pitch but listen for the characteristics of the sound they are producing.

  • Speaking Pitch: The student’s speaking pitch can be identified by having them count backward from 20 to 1. The average speaking pitch is typically A3.
  • Upper Range: Starting on their speaking pitch, the students will sing a scale pattern of 1-5-4-3-2-1 on an open vowel (typically “ah”) ascending by half-steps until the top of the range is reached. It is important the student try to sing this in a legato manner connecting through the 1-5 scale pattern. This part of the pattern helps quickly identify the instability in the voice.
  • Lower Range: Starting on their speaking pitch, the students will sing a scale pattern of 1-5-4-3-2-1 on an open vowel (typically “ah”) descending by half-steps until the lowest part of their range is reached.

Students in the Unchanged, Stage I and Stage II classifications will have a more limited lower range often less than a third below their speaking pitch. It is also important to do this because the students are often excited about the continuation of their voice lowering after the change has started.
The voicing process should happen regularly, typically after each concert set. Initially, this process takes some time but becomes faster due to the boys being able to assist in the process after learning the stages by self-identifying. I often have the class help me identify the stage as a means of educating them about what to listen for and then celebrate each person into their vocal stage “family.” It is important they know they are NOT alone.

Empowering your Curriculum ~
Music is the heart of our curriculum. We attach music literacy, cross-curricular connections, and programming expectation related to festivals and other annual events in addition to the alignment of our state-regulated curriculum and student learning outcomes. Regardless of the connection, if the literature is not appropriate, the success of the students will be lost. When selecting literature for adolescent male singers, the primary starting point is looking at the ranges. If it is out range for the singer, it will be out of tune or even non-existent. During the onset and initial stages of the vocal maturation process, students’ ranges are very limited. The limitations of the student’s vocal ranges alone make it difficult to select appropriate literature.
One tip to assist with greater musical opportunities and student success is to have the students sing in three to four parts. Take a moment to explore the validity of this option. The average song’s melodic range is an octave. If a person has a working singing range of a fourth, how successful can they be at accomplishing this goal? Then you as the teacher and the student both become frustrated and unhappy — the result yielding the student not wanting to sing and quitting the choir. If you divide the octave into three or four parts, then the range becomes more manageable for your singers. They become more confident and perform more successfully. This type of success not only helps with the retention of the male singer in the program but also helps with recruiting additional male singers.
What happens if you have done your homework and selected the perfect music for your singers, and the student’s voices start shifting. First and foremost, do not panic! Remember, change is the cornerstone of your classroom at this group of singers and must be celebrated even when it throws you a curveball. The most damaging response is to have the singers not sing at all. Having your students not sing can instill a negative validation of their voice changing and their self-worth. Looking to the music for a solution, try changing the key a half or whole step. Changing keys is a bit more complicated with accompanied selections, but technology can be used to resolve this issue rather quickly. Another solution is doing a minor re-write in the music. Additional pitches can be added if they are part of the chord. Your prize tenor may no longer be able to sing the high tonic, but they can sing the fifth. If modifying the key nor modifying the chord structure doesn’t work, consider changing the piece. If you are too far into the learning of the selection and a singer is unable to make adaptations, have them omit the pitches that are not phonating and focus on the articulation of the consonants. This keeps the singer involved, and their core engaged even when not singing.

Empowering your Teaching ~
Although change is the one true facture everyone can count on, stability in routine is highly recommended. The stability you create in your classroom allows students to more easily handle the other changes occurring within them and around them. When teaching, it is important to be direct but loving. Sarcasm is best kept at a minimum. It can easily be misinterpreted and have long-lasting effects. Remember, adolescent males are concert learners. It is always best to show and do rather than to discuss and pontificate.
Kinesthetic learning techniques are highly successful for adolescent males. When the students are engaged physically, it is more likely that they will be engaged mentally. For example, when talking about placement. Having the students breathe hot air on their hands allows them to feel the sensation of the raised soft pallet. It is important they now demonstrate the sound of singing in this backspace. Have them describe the sound. Then explain how this back, muffled sound is only part of the sound we use in singing. It is important to now have them show the forward place in which to focus the air and sound. Finding this placement can be done by having the students sip air between their top teeth. They will know they are doing right when their teeth are cold. Then have them demonstrate singing towards the “cold tooth.” The sound will be forward, blatty, and lack warm. Although neither sounds created at this point have been aesthetically beautiful, it is necessary for them to hear and feel the difference between the two. Then have them combine the sounds, warm air space with the “cold tooth” placement, to create a more resonant, forward, and desired choral tone.
Another quick kinesthetic exercise for stabilization of tone is to have the students hold up their fingers, acting as if they were candles, and blow out the flame. Have them describe the air. Was it fast or slow? Was it hot or cold? The air should be fast and cold. This airflow, combined with the proper placement, can be used to help stabilize sound. It does so by helping the core of the body engage and providing enough air to carry the sound. Proper vocal placement and stability of sound are common, yet challenging goals for adolescent singers in our choir.
Setting goals are an important part of our teaching. Long term and short term goals should be established, reflecting what you want to accomplish professionally — knowing where you are as a person and teacher helps create an even more stable classroom. It is also important to create goals for your students. Have them be apart of this process. Collaborating in this process will create an additional element of ownership and motivation for your students. Adolescent males thrive on reaching goals and celebrating their accomplishments, especially if they can achieve it quicker than another colleague.
Above all else, learn to laugh with your guys. The choir is often their protective outreach when they are nervous or feeling awkward. They are here to become better people and be a part of something bigger than themselves. Music is important, but often not the main reason why they are in our classrooms. We, as teachers, help them grow into not only passionate musicians but good people of the world.

Cooksey, J. M. (1985). The male changing voice: Some new perspectives. Proceedings: Research symposium on the male adolescent voice. State University of New York at Buffalo.
Cooksey, J. M. (1992). Working with the adolescent voice. St. Louis: Concordia.
Freer, P. K. (2016). The changing voices of male choristers: An enigma to them. Music Education Research, 18(1), 74-90. DOI:10.1080/14613808.2015.1014330
Killian, J. N., & Wayman, J. B. (2010). A descriptive study of vocal maturation among male adolescent vocalists and instrumentalists. Journal of Research in Music Education. 58, 5-19.

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