Fifty-five years ago, a fourteen-year-old boy spent a week in the mountains of Snowdonia, staying at a youth hostel called Bryn Dinas. Ever since, that boy has loved the mountains, been a staunch defender of the natural environment and has led later generations of young adolescents on similar expeditions. Many other adults recall fondly a similar experience that set their life course and values orientation during those critically formative years. It is odd, then, that the choral world complains frequently about the relative shortage of tenors and basses yet devotes so little time and resource to thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys important to its future. Perhaps this neglect is a legacy of the days when it was believed that the voice should be “rested” after it had “broken”?
There are many adult men who sang as small boys but now either don’t sing at all or who have had long gaps in their lives with no singing. I met one of them yesterday. He told me of his childhood when he enjoyed singing, and of how he had been silenced at the age of 14 when a schoolteacher decided his voice had “broken”. Worse was to come. At the age of 16, he was allowed to sing again when the teacher had decided he was a “bass”. He wasn’t a bass. He couldn’t properly access the bass range, didn’t enjoy his singing as a result, so gave up. Rather belatedly, some decades later he has at last found the tenor voice he now enjoys in a large choral society. Many more never do.
“There really is no excuse for ignorance or carelessness with regard to the management of the adolescent male voice.”
All too often, we hear those tired old tropes, “it’s not cool” or “it’s peer pressure.” These are not the primary reasons adolescent boys won’t sing. It’s only “not cool” if adults make it so through a lack of knowledge, planning, and leadership. I can take you to choirs or into schools where the peer pressure is positive. The boys will sing because their mates do and it’s actually “cool” to be in the choir. I can guarantee that the common feature in every case is a leader who (a) believes in young adolescent boys and thinks it’s important for them to be in a choir and (b) who knows how to monitor their voices regularly and allocate them to an appropriate part, which may well be different in June from what it was in November.
The only real complication is that the “appropriate part” may be neither soprano, alto, tenor, nor bass. Most adolescent boys go through phases when their voice is none of those. Quite often, that phase is called “cambiata,” a term devised by the late Irvine Cooper in the United States. Cooper had witnessed the fact that boys would sing lustily at camp when they could choose their own tessitura but refused to sing in school when the teacher gave them pitches and parts that were inappropriate. A boy whose lowest clear note will be the E in the tenor octave but who cannot reach tenor C will be a cambiata. It matters less what the parts are called than that the ranges of those parts are comfortable for the voices that are to sing them. There are plenty of books, chapters, and papers published that explain all this for the musician who thinks it important to add the knowledge to their skill set.
“It matters less what the parts are called than that the ranges of those parts are comfortable for the voices that are to sing them.”
To return to my Snowdonia analogy, two weeks ago I was at the National Youth Boys Choir summer course. I took some boys out of rehearsal and asked them to sing the tune of Happy Birthday to the words “You owe me five pounds”. I gave them no starting note. I wanted to find out how each identified his own tessitura. Had he got it wrong, he’d have come to grief on that octave leap. None did. Most importantly, without exception, each boy chose a pitch range that matched closely the range of the part he had been allocated for the week. The music had been chosen carefully from the limited catalogues available so that the part ranges matched the unique “cambiata” ranges. That is not an easy task. There is so much music out there that is unsuitable. But the leaders had high expectations. They believed in the boys, had searched carefully for suitable repertoire, and checked each boy’s voice range.
Two other things stick in my mind from that week. Waiting in the queue to go into the concert I overheard a conversation between parents. It went something like this: “He so loves his singing. He so wishes he could do this all year, but there’s no choir at school and none in the area we can get to.” Later, whilst sitting in the car park arguing with the satnav, I witnessed boys dragging suitcases and chatting excitedly to the families that had come to pick them up. What a wonderful, memorable, and formative week each had had! How sad that such experiences are so rare and hard to come by.
It’s a good job that fourteen-year-old boy who was to remember his week in Snowdonia was also to remember singing Handel’s The King shall Rejoice and Kodaly’s Missa Brevis as a twelve-year-old. He attended a school where choral singing and the natural environment were thought to be equally important and necessary experiences for boys. This blog post would not otherwise have been written.