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Constructing an Identity As It Pertains to Adolescent Males in a Music Classroom

Garrett Kheshtinejad
SP-408 Undergraduate Voice Science
April 20, 2015

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In 1977, John Cooksey released what was considered to be groundbreaking


research on the developing adolescent male voice. As if all teachers did not already know,
puberty and hormonal changes affect the timbre and pitch of the adolescent males
singing and speaking voice. For music teachers working with adolescent males, it is
important to understand these stages of change as it pertains to each male individually.
While all males experience this physiological change in the laryngeal anatomy, they also
deal with this issue psychologically. The purpose of this essay is to further understand the
males changing voice and how this contributes towards constructing a self-identity.
Furthermore, to inform others of factors that directly affect the missing male problem
in choral music. I will also investigate how social identity theory as well as possible
selves theory have contributed to this problem. Lastly, I will provide some insightful
strategies for music teachers that may help them instruct adolescent singers as they go
through these changes.
John Cooksey discovered that boys progress through a sequence of stages as they
experience the adolescent voice change. Cooksey identified that this change occurs in
five stages. Stage I (midvoice I) marks the initial period of the voice change and the
young male begins to lose notes in his upper range. Stage II (midvoice II) marks a higher
mutational period and the young male begins to notice a reduction of the entire range.
Stage III (midvoice IIA) marks the climax of this mutation and males are able to sing
more notes in their lower range. Moreover, the hormonal secretions that activate puberty
also initiate the process of vocal change.1 At Stage IV, a new voice emerges (normally a
young baritone voice) and this is considered a stabilizing period. The final stage, Stage V
1 Freer, Patrick. Boys Changing Voices in the First Century of MENC Journals. Music
Educators Journal (Sep.,2008), 44.

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(the emerging adult voice), is when males begin to be classified as bass or tenor and the
voice is more agile to manage2. However, this sequence can begin at different times for
different adolescent males. For example, my voice did not begin to change until I was a
sophomore in high school (16 yrs old) while my college roommate John describes his
voice change occurring when he was in seventh grade (12 yrs old). The cracking in
adolescent boys voices is simply a result of the laryngeal muscles growing at different
rates.3
Middle school and or high school music teachers should know this information as
it pertains directly to adolescent males in the music classroom. It is very important that
teachers select repertoire that is appropriately voiced and that accommodates this natural
physiological change. Additionally, they should also be sensitive to the social and
emotional trauma this change causes in many male students. Tony Porter states that while
he was growing up, he was always taught that men had to be tough, strong, courageous,
dominating, experience no pain, and have no emptions. The collective socialization of
men in society is better known as the man-box.4 This man box includes things like do
not cry or openly express emotions, do not show weakness or fear, demonstrate power
control, and do not be like a gay man.5 Despite the transformative powers that
accompany learning and performing music, research suggests, that students and their
music teachers, both male and female, consider singing to be a feminine activity and

2 Abrahams, Frank. Singing in General Music Classes. Engaging Musical Practices: A


Sourcebook for Middle School General Music (Plymouth,UK: Rowman &Littlefield), 35.
3 Freer, 44.
4 Porter, Tony. A Call to Men. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=td1PbsV6B80 (accessed on April 17, 2015).
5 Ibid.,

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playing in band to be more suited to boys.6 Adolescent males avoid singing based on a
fear of being ridiculed by their peers. Boys that are harassed often chose to participate in
sports instead of joining choir. Green concluded that for a boy to join choir involves
taking a risk with his symbolic masculinity7
Most psychological research has focused on how people arrive at their self
definitions through looking backwards towards past experiences that influenced and
shaped an individuals present view.8 While theories of this nature are valuable for the
information they provide, I do not believe these ideas directly influence the choices
young adolescents make when choosing whether they want to pursue singing. In 1986,
Markus and Nurius believed that others were neglecting the future-oriented aspects of
self- definition.9 They proposed a theory known as possible selves to explain how
adolescents construct their own identity by analyzing what they hope to become, expect
to become, or fear becoming in the future. 10
There has been limited research done on how this directly effects music
education, but a long history of research has noted a large decline in the number of
adolescent males who participate in singing while in middle school. Studies indicate that
boys withdraw from choral singing because of a lack of male role models, the changing
voice, choral musics relevance to career goals, and issues surrounding male identity.11
The construct of possible selves directly correlates with a social constructivist view of
6 Abrahams, Frank. Changing Voices-Voices of Change: Young Men in Middle School
Choirs. Perspectives on Males and Singing (London, UK: Springer), 80
7 Green, Lucy. Music, gender, and education (London, UK:Routledge), 15.
8 Freer, Patrick. Two decades of research on possible selves and the missing males
problem in choral music. International Journal of Music Education (2010), 17.
9 Ibid., 17.
10 Ibid.,21.
11 Ibid.,

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identity development. People actively create their personal realities as they interact with
others, and these realities can influence what experiences are engaged in, reshaping, and
reinforcing that reality in a continuous cycle.12 These experiences define what someone
may become in the future. They make up our possible selves and well-elaborated
possible selves are particularly motivating13
Another prominent theory that may help identify why males chose not to
participate in choir is social identity theory. Tajfel and Turner state that social identity
theory is based on the idea that belonging to particular groups, called in-groups and outgroups, impacts a persons construction of his or her social identity. Students believe
that identifying with the in-groups (sports, cheerleading, popular clubs) will make them
feel accepted and happier amongst their peers. By conforming to social norms, young
men are not mocked or made fun of. Research confirms, young men preferred the ingroup, describing it as more fun, more masculine, more sporty, less boring, and less weird
compared to the out group (something like singing in choir).14
Teachers who ignore the struggles that young men face in middle school while
developing their self-identity validate the peer pressures outside the choir that influence
[them] in negative ways.15 However, there are many strategies that teachers can enact
with their students in order to foster and develop a safe climate where students feel
supportive of one another and feel comfortable singing individually as a regular part of
the class/rehearsal.16 Also single-gender environments are advantageous. In one recent
study of adolescent male choristers, each boy who persisted in choral music noted that
12 Ibid.,
13 Ibid.,
14 Abrahams, 81.
15 Ibid, 86.
16 Holcomb, Al. Success with Adolescent Singers (2014), 1.

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the inspiration of an older male singer was the strongest influence on his success.17 Male
role models can help young singers become motivated to take action towards the
realization of that possible self.18
I believe that it is important to explain and discuss this process of change with
young singers. While I was student teaching at Crossroads Middle School in South
Brunswick, there was a natural curiosity amongst males and females to understand the
process of the changing voice. By explaining this to students, they can document their
range on a chart that is kept in their folder or on a big chart on the choir room wall.19 By
holding them accountable in this process, students will be able to know their range and
vocal limitations; moreover, showing them the part classifications on a piano can allow
them to check their range independently. Music teachers should set their students up for
success through the process of selecting repertoire. Specifically this means adapting
music to fit the needs of the individual male singers in the ensemble. These adaptations to
repertoire could include things like part pivoting (males switching from part to part as it
fits their range), alternate chord tones, and key changes. While music teachers should
look at the musical elements that affect the changing voices in their ensembles, they
should also consider the hidden messages in many librettos that reinforce established
gender roles and the collective socialization of men. While on the surface, some may
argue that texts are innocent; to an impressionable young man they include hidden
messages.20

17 Freer, 21.
18 Ibid, 22.
19 Holcomb, 1.
20 Abrahams, 90.

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There are numerous other strategies to help adolescent males navigate through the
change in their laryngeal anatomy. Most importantly, through understanding the problem
of missing males in choral music and how this relates to theories of self-identity, we can
consciously become aware of how we as educators influence this. Adolescent males do
not seek to repeat experiences in which [they] have not enjoyed success unless something
about the experience motivates them to continue striving for that success.21
Personally, I had my own difficulties with deciphering whether or not I wanted to
pursue learning how to sing. Like others adolescent males before me, I was made fun of
for wanting to sing instead of participating in other things like sports. With that being
said, I had experienced success with music and this was due to strong male role models
that helped me along the way. As a freshman in high school, my voice still had not
changed but I envisioned myself as someone who wanted to continue pursuing music
because of the transformative powers that it contained. As teachers, it is crucial that we
understand how are actions can impact and affect others. We must continue to seek out
new understandings of what adolescent males experience physiologically and
psychologically.

Bibliography

21 Freer, 20.

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Abrahams, Frank. Changing Voices-Voices of Change: Young Men in


Middle School Choirs. Perspectives on Males and Singing
(London, UK: Springer), 79-93
Abrahams, Frank. Singing in General Music Classes. Engaging
Musical Practices: A Sourcebook for Middle School General Music
(Plymouth,UK: Rowman &Littlefield), 31-45.
Freer, Patrick. Two decades of research on possible selves and the
missing males problem in choral music. International Journal of
Music Education (2010), 17-30.
Freer, Patrick. Boys Changing Voices in the First Century of MENC
Journals. Music Educators Journal (Sep.,2008), 41-47.
Green, Lucy. Music, gender, and education. London, UK:Routledge,
1997.
Holcomb, Al. Success with Adolescent Singers (2014), 1-9.
Porter, Tony. A Call to Men. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=td1PbsV6B80 (accessed on April 17, 2015)