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Music for adolescent voices and the nightmare problem of ‘cool’

Oxford University Press has taken the risk of providing for the UK what the Cambiata Press has for many years been providing in the US – “quality music for adolescent choirs containing changing voices.” I use the word “risk” because cambiata music is a small market and the music teachers and choir conductors who understand what it is and why it’s needed are a small proportion of the minority who might even consider that choral work with adolescent boys is important. A minority they may be, but they are a growing minority and through this growth comes growth in the market.

The editors of the new Emerging Voices choral series have had a difficult task. First, there is the question of developing for use in the UK authentic guidelines on writing for boys’ changing voices. Those I have created are based on the extensive research programme begun in the States by Irvin Cooper that I have sought to continue with English (and Scottish!) boys. Second there has been the task of finding composers and arrangers of sufficient calibre to craft good work that conforms to these research informed guidelines. Third, and this has been by far the biggest challenge, there has been the issue of pitching the series at the right level for the right users and negotiating the nightmare problem of “cool.”

Tim Bradley 14.01.2012 At QEGS - Boys Choir workshop. (l-r) Charles Burton from St Wilfreds, Barnaby Whiteside from QEGS and Ben Shaw from Clitheroe Grammer all in full voice
Image credit: Boys singing at a workshop. Used by permission of Martin Ashley

Many people believe that boys will only be interested in current chart and hit music. That’s a big mistake as anybody who works regularly with boys’ choirs will tell you. Nevertheless the culture gap cannot be too big and there has to be progression from the familiar and the accessible to the challenging and venturesome, particularly if boys from not necessarily musical families are to be recruited to singing. So there is a place for what some people might carelessly call “popular”. Unfortunately, if it’s in any way “popular” it comes with a huge price tag in terms of royalty payments and the like.

A small market of course means a small budget so it’s inevitable that the series has had to look to sources that are out of copyright. Folk songs, shanties and spirituals are there, first and foremost, because they are good music and boys need to know and appreciate them. We know that under the inspirational guidance of an enthusiastic conductor, boys will enjoy singing them. We are also confident that through them, boys will learn a lot about music and develop good musical skills. They are also there, though, because they are freely available for talented arrangers to re-work.

Many people believe that boys will only be interested in current chart and hit music. That’s a big mistake.

We have also, for similar reasons, invited our pool of composers and arrangers to submit original work. The result has been gratifying, but it’s another risk. People say they “know what they like” when actually they mean they “like what they know”. So once again, we are looking to the teachers and conductors who have the talent and enthusiasm to bring to life compositions that have never been heard before. My research tells me that they’re more likely to be successful than the timid and over-cautious who buy into the myth that boys will only sing “pop”. You’re more likely to succeed if you introduce music that comes without baggage, and in the insight and craftsmanship of Alan Bullard, Ian Crawford, Russell Pascoe, Sarah Quartel and Oli Tarney you have material you can use with confidence. We did have some budget to be carefully spent on royalties for a classic “hit”. We looked at many and finally chose Billy Joel’s Piano Man. (I’m listening to it whilst I type and lovin’ it!) It’s a great song and the arrangement by my co-editor Andy Brooke really shows off the extent to which Andy totally “gets” quality choral music, the adolescent male voice and psyche. My biggest problem as series editor was in sending Andy out of the room (so to speak) and selecting which of his brilliant arrangements to use. I am proud of all our composers and arrangers though particularly grateful to Andy for his contribution as co-editor. The next big project for Boys Keep Singing and BKS Media is a CD of all the songs in the Emerging Voices series sung by some of the choirs I’ve worked with over the years. That CD, I know, will bestow pride and esteem on the many boys who will be involved.

Meanwhile, here’s a podcast about what voice change and cambiata was like for just one of those boys. It’s just over twenty minutes in length and I would like to make it compulsory listening for anybody who’s contemplating the vital task of keeping boys singing or wants to get better at it. I have many, many times examined my conscience over cambiata. Is it the best choice? Each time I look closely at the development of a young voice such as that of Harry (featured in the podcast), I think “yes”.

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