It's one of the unique aspects of working with a middle school or high school youth choir and it's a process - one that takes understanding, patience, and flexibility.
Voice change occurs during adolescence when the larynx and vocal cords lengthen and thicken (source). For boys, the change is dramatic; for girls, more subtle. However, it is important to recognize the changes that occur in all voices and ways to encourage and support singers throughout the process (and keep them singing!).
Encouragement is vital to the process. Do what you can to make singers feel comfortable experimenting and trying things, help them learn how to be flexible and support one another throughout the process.
Voice change differs from person to person (source).
For boys, it may begin as early as age 9, though it occurs most often between ages 12-15 (source). The complete process may take anywhere from 18 months to three years, depending on the person (source).
For girls, voice change often occurs between ages 11-15 and may take up to four years.
Stages of Voice Change (Boys)
Researchers agree that voice change occurs in stages, though there are a few different schools of thought on the process.
In the mid-20th century, there were four main theories: Cooper's Cambiata Concept, McKenzie's Alto-Tenor Concept, Swanson's Baritone-Bass Concept, and Cooksey's Contemporary Eclectic Theory. Considered one of the leading authorities on this topic today, Cooksey outlined five stages of vocal change and transformation in the adolescent male voice (source):
Age: 10-11 (Grade 5/6)
Description: full and rich; soprano-like
Range: A3-F5 (A below Middle C to F above Treble C)
Tessitura (average range of vocal part): C#4-A#4
Age: 12-13 (Grade 7)
Description: breathy; singing range decreases by about four half-steps
Length: 1-5 months, sometimes up to a year
Range: Ab3-C5 Tessitura: B3-G4
Age: 13-14 (Grade 7/8)
Description: higher pitches are more challenging; register changes between chest and falsetto voices begin to appear
Length: around a year
Age: 13-14 (mostly Grade 8)
Description: husky, less agile
Length: 1-10 months
Age: 13-15 (Grade 8/9)
Description: solid sound, still lacking adult richness
Length: 3-5 months
Age: 14-15 (Grade 9/10)
Description: range expansion beginning to emerge (though still not quite full tenor or bass); more consistent voice
The Importance of Falsetto
Renowned choral conductor Henry Leck noted that all of the classifications mentioned above leave out the falsetto or upper voice, which in most cases, can extend the male range to at least E5 (E above Treble C).
Myth: The high register disappears as the vocal range expands lower.
Fact: The vocal range actually expands (higher and lower) as the low range develops (source).
Leck observed, "In most instances the high voice or 'falsetto' does not disappear but, conversely, can give crucial assistance to the new voice. Oddly enough, the high voice becomes the foundation for the low voice." (source)
Stages of Voice Change (Girls)
Similar to the changes in adolescent male voices, girls also experience voice change, though the transformation is not as dramatic as it is in boys. Still, the process may take several years and is often characterized by breathiness, inconsistencies between registers, and the development of vibrato (source).
Description: light, flute-like
Description: breathy, register change between chest and falsetto begins to emerge (generally between G4 and B4)
Description: heavier; comfortable singing range decreases; easier to sing lower pitches
Description: less breathiness, fuller tone; early vibrato development
Working with changing voices is not for the faint of heart. It takes dedication, patience, encouragement, and creative problem-solving to keep singers engaged and active during voice change and continue making music together. Here are a few common challenges you might face with your choir and ideas and strategies for overcoming them:
Some of my guys sing everything down an octave.
Begin by matching their pitch and stepping or skipping up to the desired note. If it's in a comfortable range for them, begin singing the line immediately, at the correct pitch. (source)
Also, it's important to help singers develop good breath support, especially during this time of change and development. Here are a few exercises and warm-up ideas you might use.
My singers have gaps in their ranges and places where their voices crack.
Help singers learn to connect their head voice (falsetto for guys) to their lower voice. Use a top-down approach in warm-ups - vocal slides or glissandi and descending patterns (source).
"Vocalises that descend and employ some movement with the body are more helpful, those with a narrow tessitura of a fifth or a third are easier, and descending patterns are easier than ascending ones." - Henry Leck (source)
Suddenly, this part seems out of range for some of my guys.
Adolescent male voices may change quickly or slowly, depending on the individual. Ensure that all male singers are singing parts that fall in a comfortable range for them by frequently checking their voices and making necessary adjustments. You might observe a noticeable change from week to week!
Myth: Singing through voice change means pushing the voice or attempting to sing notes that are out of range.
Fact: Singing through voice change means continuing to use and develop the upper range and singing notes that fall in a comfortable range.
Be flexible (source). It's better to move guys around from week to week or adapt a part to their voices than keep them on a part that is uncomfortable to sing.
I'm having trouble finding music my choir can sing.
If you have guys with changing voices in your choir, it seems only logical to choose music that has a men's part. You may not have enough guys to split into tenors and basses, so a common thought is to choose SAB music. However, a baritone part may be one of the more challenging parts for adolescent males to sing, as it is often written right around the break. It's also very different from singing the melody or a harmony part, as singers are accustomed to in children's and treble choirs. (source)
Bridge the gap by choosing music written for equal parts or music written for treble voices. Transpose or adapt the parts, as needed to accommodate the voices you have in your choir at the moment. This allows guys to sing the melody at times (in a comfortable range) or sing a harmony part that is a little more accessible.
"Seek out simpler music (for example 2- or 3-part treble) and be flexible in adapting parts in those arrangements to accommodate ranges that are comfortable for each singer."
- Henry Leck (source)
Voice change is an ideal time to continue developing musical skills and good singing habits, so spend some time focusing on vowels, good breaths, posture, music-reading, and internal listening.
What are your best tips for working with changing voices in youth choir? Please leave your comments below!
Working with Boys & Their Changing Voices
Changing Voices Recommended Sources: Annotated Bibliography
Tips for Working with Middle School Youth Choirs
Male Adolescent Transforming Voices: Voice Classification, Voice Skill Development, and Music Literature Selection