You are on page 1of 8

Vocal Mutation in the Adolescent Male:

Assisting boys through vocal change

Many vocal teachers have experienced the delight of teaching boy singers and bringing
them to a level of competence which brings the young treble much satisfaction and
possibly some acclaim. Equally devastating, then, is the loss of their treble voice which
occurs during the adolescent years. For many young boys, this may be the end of their
singing career. They cease vocal lessons, leave the boy choir to which they may have
belonged, and take up other interests. By the time their new voices have settled, they
have frequently moved on to pursue other pastimes, and may never return to any formal
singing context.

Certainly, vocal mutation in young male voices is a challenging time for the singer and the
teacher. The adolescent voice may be unpredictable in pitch, uneven in tone, and very
limited in range. Singing in choirs, the boys may be unable to stay on pitch, swapping up
and down octaves and fifths to produce a quasi-organum sound most choral directors will
consider very undesirable. Often, the young singers are encouraged to drop out of choir
or voice lessons during this time of change, leaving them to cope with feelings of rejection
and frustration at a vulnerable point in their development.

This paper investigates the phenomenon of vocal mutation with particular regard to the
trained boy soloist. Much of the literature on this subject deals with the changing voice in
the context of a school or boy choir, where there will typically be a large number of
changing voices who may be taken into a class by themselves and given repertoire
particularly geared towards the changing voice. With the aid of a trained teacher, they may
be encouraged to keep singing in a way that protects the voice and avoids the “break” in
the voice through a system of encouraging the gradual lowering of the voice.

However, for a previously trained boy treble, it may be more advantageous to seek another
approach. These young musicians may have attained a high standard of vocal ability and
technique, and often retain the motivation and enthusiasm to continue to sing during the
time of vocal change. Their previous training gives them an advantage over their untrained
peers, in that the change may be smoother and their interest more easily stimulated in
search of the emerging mature voice.

Individual singing lessons can provide an ideal context in which to do this - without the
negative pressure of peer judgement, and with a sympathetic teacher who can tailor
exercises and repertoire to meet the very individual requirements of each changing voice.

Physical aspects of voice mutation

During adolescence, the most obvious sign of change in the boy’s voice is the lowering of
pitch and the increase in vocal power. This is initially apparent in the speaking voice, after
which the singing voice tends to also lower. These audible changes are the result of
several physical mutations during adolescence:
1. The vocal folds lengthen under the influence of testosterone, from a pre-adolescent
length of approximately 17mm to an average of 29mm in the adult male.
2. The folds thicken due to the accumulation of collagenous and elastic tissue.
3. The “Adam’s apple” becomes visible, as a result of the lengthening and tilting of the
thyroid cartilage, which lengthens to more than three times that of an adult female.
4. There is a two to three times greater increase in the weight of the thyroid, cricoid and
arytenoid cartileges.
5. As part of a general growth spurt, the pharyx, oral cavity, skull sinuses and thoracic
cavity all expand, increasing the resonance and power of the adult voice compared with
that of a child.

Vocal growth is not necessarily gradual - change may be rapid and inconstant through the
adolescent years. Additionally, while certain changes are common to all boys, they may
happen in a way that is highly individualistic.

Characteristics of the voice in mutation

While each boy’s voice may change in a unique way and at a unique pace, there are
typically a number of identifiable stages that most boys’ voice pass through. Different
researchers have used different nomenclature for these phases, but most seem to agree
on the general characteristics of each stage - I have chosen the nomenclature which I
believe to be the most descriptive.

Stage 1: Mature treble


Just before adolescence sets in, a trained boy’s voice may take on a particularly beautiful
quality, richer and fuller than that of younger boys, with the highest notes having a
brilliancy only heard in an older boy soprano voice. This is an indication that the voice has
peaked and may shortly change. The speaking voice changes first - there will be a
change in tone quality - it becomes fuller and deeper and may sound husky.

Stage 2: Cambiata
The boy may find the higher notes become more difficult to sing, while additional notes are
added at the lower register. Eventually, the boy will begin to lose the higher notes. This
gradual lowering of the voice continues throughout adolescence. The voice may initially
approximate that of a female alto, although without the depth of the contralto voice. An
untrained voice may sound raucous during this time, and the boy may have difficulty
pitching notes as he finds his way around this new, lower voice.

Stage 3: Young Baritone


The early adult voice begins to appear - usually in some form of baritone range, but
without the full, confident baritone resonance. A voice destined to be a bass is likely to
lower rapidly, and for these boys, the priority will be to develop the lower range while
adjusting to the new clef and radically changing pitch. True tenors are rare during the
adolescent period - typically this voice will not appear until mid- to late-20s, as the tenor
voice tends to mutate more slowly and takes longer to settle.
Challenges of the mutating voice

Boys in the “cambiata”1 stage of change may experience the most difficulty as their voice
may be changing from week to week, particularly if they are destined to be basses. This
will make it difficult for any choir master to be able to properly accommodate them within a
choir, as the tessitura of their voice may be lowering faster than they can be assigned to
new parts in the choir.

Additionally, as the voice lowers, the former treble register becomes the “falsetto” register,
while a gap may develop between this upper, changing register, and the full modal voice of
the future tenor, baritone, or bass. It is quite normal that a cambiata voice may be unable
to pitch certain notes around middle C. This may be very disheartening to a young singer
who is used to contributing, and possibly leading, a section in a choir, and may also lead to
vocal damage where they strain to achieve these notes in a choral context.

Most choral literature for SATB or SSA voices contains no part which the cambiata voice
can easily sing - the tessitura of the Alto line is typically too high and the Tenor too low -
while no accommodation is made for the missing notes in the middle. The comfortable
voice range for the cambiata voice may be as little as a fifth - and often will not extend
beyond an octave. The particular octave within which a cambiata singer is comfortable
one week may not be the same one the following week.

The limited range of the cambiata singer often causes pitching problems as the singer
attempts to locate the correct pitch, sometimes having to swap back and forth between
octaves as they do so. This problem can be exacerbated by the muscles of the larynx,
which may not yet have developed sufficiently to control the voice. For a previously trained
treble, this may be less problematic and they can be reassured that these difficulties are
only temporary.

Finally, for boy choristers and soloists who may have been singing challenging choral
music prior to mutation, there will be a considerable “dumbing-down” in the repertoire they
are able to handle. Their voices will not be as flexible with melismatic phrases, or as
nimble where leaps in pitch are needed. Repertoire must be carefully chosen to allow the
voice to move smoothly within its comfortable range. At the same time, the boys may be
learning to deal with reading music from new and unfamiliar clefs, while all the time
familiarising themselves with their new voice.

Psychological considerations of the changing voice

The psychological aspects of voice mutation should not be under-estimated. The boys,
particularly those who have previously received a lot of attention for their singing, may be
feeling rejected and confused at having suddenly lost a skill at which they so recently

1 Term coined by Irvin Cooper, who worked with and classified over 114,000 adolescent voices in his lifetime.
His work is extensively cited by Don L. Collins in his books The Cambiata Concept and Teaching Choral
Music. (cf. Bibliography)
excelled. They may also be feeling some peer pressure that singing is for girls and is not
tenable with the more “macho” image now required of them.

While this is a social pressure not likely to be addressed by any single teacher, giving the
student a knowledge of the physiological changes happening in their voice may help to
address both insecurities. Many boys are fascinated by science, and understanding
something of laryngeal development will reassure them that the changes in their voice are
completely normal, and even desirable in their new quest for the mature male voice
categories of tenor, baritone and bass.

Good role models of adult male singers can be invaluable in this regard, and teachers
should keep in mind that this may well be some popular singer that commands the respect
of the teenage population, rather than a classical singer who may seem more remote.
However, where the boys are or have been choristers, there may be role models within that
sphere that can serve as ideal mentors. Internet sites such as Youtube and iTunes can
also be exploited to find examples of music that stimulates the interest of young singers -
possible even from among their own age group - for example, Jean Baptiste Maunier of
“Les Choristes” fame is a young singer/actor who stayed in the public spotlight right
through his changing-voice years, and is now performing as a young tenor.

The changing voice in the vocal studio

From the above, it can be understood that the boy’s voice during mutation will offer many
challenges within the context of individual lessons, and that teachers who wish to assist
boys during this time of change will need to be thoroughly familiar with the physical
aspects of the changing voice. But the private voice studio also offers the ideal
environment to adjust to the often rapid pace of change and to offer the individual attention
needed.

The teacher will first need to understand the adolescent boy’s “comfortable range”, and it
may be useful to chart this on a week-by-week basis, particularly when the voice is
changing rapidly. Frederick Swanson, in his book The male singing voice ages Eight to
Eighteen2 describes a method of graphing the comfortable range using “Voice graphs”
which uses columns across double staves to indicate comfortable voice range. He
emphasizes the importance of graphing both the emerging modal voice and notes that
remain in the treble/falsetto range. The graph also indicates any missing notes in the
middle.

While this technique is recommended for cambiata voices in a choral context, it will also
provide a visual representation of the changing voice for a young soloist interested in how
his voice is changing from week to week.

This graph should then inform the range chosen for technical exercises. These should not
be extensive during this time and the teacher should avoid any activity likely to tire or strain
the voice. Generally speaking, the voice should be encouraged in its downward descent.

2 Frederick J. Swanson, The Male Singing Voice Ages Eight to Eighteen. Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Laurance
Press, 1977, pp 84-94
Descending half-scales (sol-fa-mi-re-doh) will assist the development of the emerging
lower tones. Beginning in the treble voice and using descending scales through the often-
problematic passagio range will assist the boy in closing the gap between the falsetto and
modal voice ranges. 3

All vocalises should encourage smooth movement from note to note, avoiding leaps and
rapid rhythmical passages requiring the flexibility of a more settled voice. Keeping the
student within his comfortable voice range while gently attempting to extend it will avoid
problems with pitching. These problems regularly noted in classroom situations are often
caused by an inability to sing notes at the particular pitch requested.

Choice of repertoire

The teacher undertaking to teach a boy singer through the years of vocal mutation will
need to research appropriate repertoire that keeps the voice within a comfortable voice
range. At its most restricted, this may be as little as the range of a fifth or a sixth, and the
teacher may need to be able to transpose these simple melodies from key to key
depending on where the voice is sitting on any one day.

Swanson argues that repertoire meeting these requirements can be found with a little
research - hymn tunes, folk tunes and spirituals will often meet the criteria. For a boy
soprano who has previously received a lot of vocal training, these tunes may not seem to
offer much challenge, so the teacher will need to be imaginative in focussing the attention
of the student on mastering his new vocal apparatus, and learning to read from the new
clefs - the bass clef, or the treble clef transposed down an octave. It can also be an
opportunity to train would-be choristers in reading music in short score or to help improve
their facility in reading from gregorian chant.

As the comfortable range extends, so will the options for exploring more vocal repertoire.
It may be helpful to use a digital keyboard with a transposing function which allows the
teacher and student to explore music written for other voices in a key suited to his
individual requirements. Often, slow airs will be more suited to this voice than songs
requiring any degree of vocal flexibility.

To retain interest in any subject, goals must be set and achieved, but careful consideration
should be given to goal-setting for the young boy during this time. Previous goals may
have included recital performances, church solos, or vocal examinations, but such
ambitions may need to be put aside for the duration of vocal mutation.

Setting goals more closely related to the intellectual understanding of the vocal apparatus;
fluency in reading music; aural exploration of song repertoire or introduction to the major
foreign languages may be more successful in giving the student a feeling of progression

3 Kenneth H. Phillips, Teaching Kids to Sing. New York: Schirmir, 1992. This book contains over 90 vocal
exercises for use throughout childhood and adolescence.
and achievement. Researching of the many different genres of song may be particularly
rewarding to ex-choristers who may not have much experience of secular music or music
from other cultures. While written work may not previously have had a place in the vocal
studio, it may be advantageous now to set exercises aimed at increasing the student’s
knowledge of the world of song.

Conclusions

With careful consideration of the boy’s abilities at each stage of vocal mutation, young boy
singers can continue vocal lessons without harm to their voice right through the changing
years. The teacher must be aware of and sensitive to the physical limitations of the voice
at all stages, and will need a stock repertoire of simple but interesting songs to use during
this time. Vocalises and repertoire should be restricted to the boy’s comfortable range,
and this range should be consistently monitored during all stages of development. The
boy’s intellectual interest should be stimulated through study of the vocal apparatus and
supportive studies such as sight-singing in new clefs, and research of different genres of
song.
BIBLIOGRAPHY

Brunssen, Karen. “The Evolving Voice: Profound At Every Age” Choral Journal 51, no.1
(August 2010): 45-51

Collins, Don L. Teaching Choral Music, 2nd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1999

Collins, Don L. The Cambiata Concept. Conway, AR: Cambiata Press, 1981

Kay Friar, Kendra. “Changing Voices, Changing Times” Music Educator’s Journal 86, no.3
(November 1999): 26-29

McKenzie, Duncan Training the Boy’s Changing Voice. New Brunswick: Rutgers University
Press, 1956

Phillips, Kenneth H. Teaching Kids to Sing. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.

Swanson, Frederick J. The Male Singing Voice Ages Eight to Eighteen. Cedar Rapids, IA:
Laurance Press, 1977