It's hard to imagine the music director of the Grammy Award-winning, all-male vocal ensemble Chanticleer failing an audition. But when Matthew Oltman, who sang tenor with Chanticleer for 10 years before becoming the group's artistic leader, tried out for a spot as a tenor in Iowa's All-State Chorus at the age of 14, he didn't make the cut.
Oltman had recently graduated from his children's chorus and the All-State group was the next logical step for a promising young chorister growing up in Des Moines. The only problem was that the choir only admitted male vocalists as tenors and basses and Oltman's voice was still in flux. Just two months before, I'd been singing first soprano," said Oltman. "I would have been more comfortable auditioning for the All-State Chorus as an alto, but that wasn't acceptable. So I auditioned as a tenor and didn't get in."
"Unfortunately, too many teachers, especially choir teachers, believe students in the stages of change should not sing at all."
It used to be that as soon as boys' voices began to break, their opportunities for group singing suddenly dried up. With children's choirs only catering to pre-pubescent voices, and high school glee clubs and youth choirs seeking full-throated male tenors and basses, boys going through the period of vocal transition entered a choral "blind-spot." Their choices essentially amounted to being forced by their instructors (or forcing themselves, like the young Oltman) to sing in a grown-up register before their time, or, more commonly, stopping singing altogether.
"Unfortunately, too many teachers, especially choir teachers, believe students in the stages of change should not sing at all," said Leslie Leedberg, a Boston-based choral and vocal instructor. "Even worse, teachers may ask the students with changing voices to force or belt through breaks in the vocal register."
Lacking encouragement not only from choral institutions but also from their communities, adolescent boys have been quick to turn their backs on singing. "They're torn because many parents and peers would prefer that they played sports," said Francisco Nunez, artistic director and founder of the Young People's Chorus of New York City. Of the nearly 500 choral teachers surveyed in a 2007 research study conducted by the National Association for Music Education (MENC), 69 percent replied that they had seen a drop in boys' participation in chorus in grades six to nine and 50 percent blamed the fall in attendance on the boys' embarrassment about the change in their voices.
A New Day for Boys Who Sing
These days, however, enlightened choral organizations have started to recognize the value of keeping boys singing—and singing healthily—throughout the period of vocal transformation. "Our goal is to make as many lifelong singers as possible," said Jena Dickey, founder and artistic director of Young Voices of Colorado, which runs a Boychoir for young male singers of grades 4 and up alongside its mixed choruses. "We hang onto those boys, helping them through the changing voice so that they don't lose confidence in their ability to sing. They are welcome to say, 'I'm a soprano' one week and 'I'm a low alto' the next. The boys are greatly rewarded by their expanded ranges and their admiring friends."
In recent years, ensembles dedicated to nurturing boys through this major upheaval in their musical lives have started to spring up all over the country in cities as diverse as New York, Los Angeles, Charlotte (NC), and Minneapolis/St. Paul. These young men's groups are singing a wide-ranging repertoire, from Thomas Tallis motets to covers of songs by the indie rock group Radiohead. And far from treating the developing singers like cocooned larvae, many choral directors are putting their young men's choruses under the spotlight to great acclaim. The Graduate Chorale of the San Francisco Boys Chorus, an ensemble of around thirty 14-to-18-year-olds that rehearses once a week and was founded in 2002, sang in the Glinka Capella in St. Petersburg, Russia. The 50-member Young Men's Division of the Young People's Chorus of New York City sang with James Taylor at a gala at Carnegie Hall and earned standing ovations for their appearances in Switzerland and Japan.
"Many children's choir programs are very successful with the treble voice and provide wonderful experiences for singers who use that part of their voice, but we wanted to provide a place to foster the growth of the changing and changed male voice," said Joseph Stillitano, conductor of the Handel and Haydn Society's Young Men's Chorus. The Boston-based ensemble has 31 students ranging in age from 14 to 18 and meets for weekly rehearsals on Saturday mornings during the school year. "Instead of thanking boys for singing and sending them on their way when their voices begin to change or lumping them in with treble instruments and demand that they sing in their falsettos all the time, we provide a place for boys to become young men. We teach them how to use their instrument, guide them through this tough transition, and build healthy, musical, and confident male singers so they will continue to sing for the rest of their lives."
A proliferation of workshops, conferences, and festivals catering to the changing male voice are further helping to foster knowledge about and enthusiasm for choral activities for teenage boys. The Providence Singers of Rhode Island and the Handel and Haydn Society run annual Young Men's Choral Festivals. In February 2012, Cambiata Institute of America (a University of North Texas-based early adolescent vocal music research organization) and the American Choral Directors Association will co-host the first national conference designed specifically for middle school and junior high school choristers. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Children's Choir's yearly Boys to Men Choral Workshop encourages boys in grades 8 through 12 to participate in musical activities. "Current male members of the choir serve as mentors to the boys who participate in the workshop, which focuses on developing performance techniques and allows the boys to learn songs in a non-threatening, all-male environment," said Nancina Pope, executive director.
The American choral world's increased attention on adolescent boys is clearly starting to pay off. Retention rates are quite high. Since Stillitano launched his Young Men's Chorus in 2006, the group has lost only five students other than graduating seniors. As many as 45 percent of participants have stayed with the ensemble for at least three years or joined the group after participating in one of Handel and Haydn Society's junior choruses. "Most of our Graduate Chorale members stay for four years, and others, having decided to leave before the four years are up, miss it so much that they come back to continue," said Claire Quinn-Duggan, program manager of the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
Meanwhile, participants appear to value the experience of singing in a chorus that caters specially to their needs. "The teachers have great ways of helping us overcome difficulties as our voices change, and because I was surrounded by friends going through the same thing, losing my soprano voice wasn't traumatic," said David Kerns, 15, a member of the Pacific Boychoir Academy in Oakland, California. The institution boasts a Changed Voices ensemble for boys aged between 13 and 18, and Continuum, a more select 16-member group encompassing the same age range. "I enjoy singing in my choir because it is a different experience from singing in the SATB choir at my high school," said Jeffrey Hammonds, 18, who sings in The Handel and Haydn Society's Young Men's Chorus. "I enjoy the ability to be further divided into TTBB vocal ranges which better suits some of us young men who are not exactly tenors or basses or feel comfortable hitting the notes in the extreme ranges."
The Anatomy of Change
Both girls and boys go through a period of vocal change during puberty, but the transformation is much more pronounced in males. "The vocal folds grow in length and bulk and can increase in size by as much as 60 percent," said Sarah Schneider, a voice-speech pathologist at the University of California, San Francisco. "The instability or pitch breaks that boys experience in the voice are secondary to the rapid growth of cartilage and muscle and inability to balance opposing muscle groups that are required for speaking, and especially for singing. Because of this, boys have to constantly recalibrate how they produce their voices."
On average, the voice-changing process in boys takes from one-and-a-half to three years and occurs between the ages of 12 and 15. However, because youngsters' voices can begin transforming as early as age nine, and still not be fully developed as they graduate high school, working with adolescent young men requires special skills and carefully chosen repertoire. According to Steven Kronauer, emerging voices choir director with the Los Angeles Children's Chorus, who founded a Young Men's Ensemble in September 2009 to cater to children's chorus members who were experiencing vocal change and wanted to continue singing with the organization, instructors working with adolescent boys must possess, "an intense knowledge of the physiological changes the boys are undergoing, strong knowledge of vocal development, knowledge of choral repertoire suited to this unique time, and a sensitive, kind soul who builds an environment of trust alongside artistry."
Tony Marx, a professional singer in his 20s, credits the care and sensitivity of his chorus director for helping him navigate the challenging vocal change period. As a member of the Kantorei boys' chorus during his formative years in Rockford, Illinois, Marx moved between no fewer than four different parts during his time with the group, switching from alto to second soprano to baritone before settling on bass, where his voice sits today. "Being in an all-guys choir, all anyone wanted to do was sing the lowest parts—the 'real men's' parts—as soon as our voices started to change," Marx said. "Of course, it takes a lot of work to build your support up and to tailor your tone. Our director, who was very supportive, helped me figure out the steps to get to where I needed to be."
Working with boys at this stage of their development is undeniably intense. Keeping teenagers singing healthily requires constant monitoring and flexibility, qualities that are especially hard to maintain alongside a performance schedule where voices typically need to be locked into parts. "It's a matter of finding where their voices sit, putting them on a part that matches the notes they can sing comfortably, then checking in monthly or so. We often ask certain guys not to sing certain notes so they're not straining their voice," said Kevin Fox, the founder and director of the Pacific Boychoir Academy. "Aside from the initial voicing and constant monitoring, going through and making sure every guy marks which notes in which measures of which songs he shouldn't sing, or should sing a certain way, is definitely labor-intensive."
Repertoire must also be specially tailored to suit these voices. Directors like Fox use a combination of pre-existing arrangements of songs for boychoirs and often transpose pieces themselves to suit the singers' shifting ranges.
Although a few music publishing companies like the Arkansas-based Cambiata Press distribute works transcribed for voices in transition, there isn't yet a tradition of composers writing specifically for choruses comprised of adolescent boys. But the growing wave of interest surrounding this area of choral activity—more children's choruses, such as the Vivace Youth Chorus in San Jose and the Silicon Valley Boychoir either recently launched or are exploring the idea of launching their own teen boy ensembles—suggests that it might not be too long before there's an entire canon of original works devoted to boys with changing voices.
"It's encouraging to see so many more opportunities that fill the gap between children's choirs and high school ensembles than there were when I was young," said Oltman. "After all, it's not like every single person turns 14 and magically becomes a tenor or bass."
This article is adapted from The Voice, Summer 2011.