Saturday 4 April 2015

The Continuously Developing Voice: Adolescence to Ageing Voice

Adolescence (16 to 19 years)

At this stage of development, the voice has usually gone through the most extreme changes that it will ever experience.  This phase is where stamina and consolidation should be the focal points of training.

In some cases, the voice can appear to be quite settled, but don’t be tempted to burden the voice with repertoire which is extreme in range and dramatic content.  It is an excellent time to be building in agility and length of phrase.

The choice of repertoire should be challenging, both technically and emotionally, but if you are training singers, do keep within your student’s capabilities as you try to extend them.  You can also challenge your students by introducing genres and styles which they would not ordinarily have considered for themselves. 

For the classical repertoire, the early composers such as Purcell, Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, as well as the popular collections of 17th & 18th Century Italian Songs & Arias provide ideal repertoire for the adolescent voice.  For musical theatre and more popular music, be careful about the range of the song, especially for boys’ voices.  You should be able to find songs in a variety of keys to suit the abilities of your students.

When choosing repertoire, be sure that the accompaniment is not too overpowering for the voice.  It can be discouraging for a young singer to feel swamped by the density of the accompaniment so that they strain to be heard.

Young Adulthood (20 to 30 years)

This is the period of life when much more vigorous training of the singing voice can be undertaken.  The pharynx has developed to its full length and width, and the cartilage systems with their accompanying musculature have now reached their full size.

The vocal folds have also reached their full length, and the muscles within them are now ready to take on harder work. The breath support system has now settled and can be worked upon to produce longer phrases and louder dynamics.

Everything is now in place for improving tonal quality and extending the range of the voice.  It should be remembered that from the age of 25 the soft cartilages of the larynx begin to harden and become more dense.  This is the first step of the aging process of the voice.

Later Adulthood (30 to 50 years)

At this stage of life, the singer should be able to access abundant stamina and vocal flexibility. The tone is at its peak of potential and the voice should be able to work with a wide variety of dynamic and energy.  The voice is also capable of sustaining longer periods of higher tessitura and louder dynamics without strain.

The teacher should feel confident in working with voices in this age range as they should be fully settled into voice type and capable of working hard.  The singer is also of an age where the emotional and intellectual life is flourishing, and so will be capable of a wide range of styles and musical challenge.

The Ageing Voice (50 onwards)

Please remember that the ageing process of the voice commences at about age 25, when the soft cartilages of the larynx begin to harden and become more dense.  The aging process can inhibit the function of the larynx, affecting flexibility, pitch and tonal quality. This can be counteracted by a greater input from the muscles which control the movement of the larynx.

Constant maintenance in the form of proper exercise will ensure that the voice will function at its best.  There is no reason why the voice should sound ‘old’.  Deterioration of muscular function is the true cause of a voice which sounds ‘old’.  Keep singing, as long as you are prepared to practise!

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Managing Director & Head of Singing & Music, Musical Theatre UK, London
MTI Award Winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available

Saturday 28 March 2015

The Continuously Developing Voice: Puberty (Boys & Girls)

Puberty (12 to 15 years)

The onset of puberty generally occurs earlier in girls than in boys, but most youngsters fall into the 12 to 15 age range.  This stage of development triggers a series of growth spurts followed by recovery periods.  The development is not regular.  An increase in hormonal levels produces an increased growth in the body as a whole, including the larynx, with resultant changes in the voice.

This age range will be enthusiastic about current popular music, a lot of which is not suitable for the developing voice.  If you can find the right popular song, which sits comfortably in a student’s vocal range, this will maintain their interest.  These songs can be taught alongside classical songs and songs from musical theatre.

·        Boys’ Voices

The vocal changes are most noticeable in boys.  The larynx grows so large that it can be seen moving in the throat.  It is commonly called the “Adam’s Apple”.  The vocal folds become longer and increase in muscle mass, with a consequent lowering of range of pitch.  The pharynx becomes longer and wider, adding depth of resonance to the voice.

Boys may try to speak and sing using the muscle memory of their pre-pubescent, unchanged voice.  This no longer works, resulting in squeaks and “breaks”.  New habits need to be developed to allow the fast-developing instrument to function properly.

At this stage, it is important for a teacher to realise that although vocal stability is difficult to control, this process of vocal change is entirely natural. It is also important that a boy should continue singing throughout this period of vocal change.  A boy is not told to stop playing football or give up all sports while going through the physical changes of puberty.  In the same way, exercising the voice by singing will help it to grow and be strong.

You should be aware that any of the following may happen:

1. In ideal circumstances, the pitch range of the voice lowers steadily without any break and remains intact.

2. In extreme circumstances, the boy wakes up one morning with a completely different voice functioning in a lower register, with access to a much weaker upper voice.
3. What is almost certain to happen is that there will be a definite change of register in the voice, with a limited thick fold sound of approximately one octave below the change, and an easier falsetto range above.

The job of a teacher should be to develop the middle range of the changed voice and extend this range both up and down the scale.

Repertoire choices become considerably limited, due to the loss of range, but you should select songs, or parts of songs, which cover the range at which the voice is working easily.  A boy should not be made to continue to sing as a treble or alto beyond a reasonable period after the voice begins to show change.  This may cause conflict, undue strain and slow down the development of the adult voice.

A counter-tenor voice may be developed, but this will be at the expense of the emerging tenor, baritone or bass voice.  It is a matter of choice as to which type of voice you wish to develop through training.

·        Girls’ Voices

The vocal change in a girl’s voice is generally less dramatic, and begins earlier. A noticeable breathiness often appears, due to the temporary inability of the vocal folds to close fully.  This is because of the accelerated growth process occurring in puberty. As with boys, the vocal folds thicken, and there may be evidence of register changes, or transitions.  These give easier access to the lower notes in some girls’ voices.

Teachers and singers have even referred to having different “voices” (head or chest) on either side of these gear changes or transitions.  In truth, there is only one voice.  The singer must learn to control the transitions by controlling the relative thickness of the vocal folds and the position of the larynx in the throat.  Sirening is a great help here.

The notion of a “head” or “chest” voice arises from the sensations of resonance which are felt in these areas on varying pitches.  A teacher must strive to mix these resonances and sensations so that the tone quality is balanced throughout the range.  This will also help to smooth out any gear changes.

The transition from one area of the voice to another is called a register change.  The notes upon which the register change occurs is called the “passaggio”.  Notes in the “passaggio” often feel weaker but should never be forced.  If force is used moving from a lower to a higher register, the transition into the next register will not happen.  The voice will sound driven and pushed.  This is very unhealthy for the voice and can build up long term problems.  Some people mistake this for belt quality, which it is not.

In this phase of vocal change, it is important not to be quick to categorise the voice as either a soprano, mezzo-soprano or contralto.  You should listen to the tonal quality of the voice and  work on a variety of repertoire allowing the voice to settle into its preferred range in its own time.

Throughout the physical changes of puberty, a guiding principal of exercises for boys and girls alike should be the siren (“ng”), as well as descending scale work.  Girls at this age should be discouraged from over-developing the lower range of their voice.  This sound may be enjoyable and easy to make, but does not carry through to higher pitches with ease. They should work on the upper, middle and lower parts of the voice equally, to ensure the muscular development of all parts of the voice.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Managing Director & Head of Singing & Music, Musical Theatre UK, London
MTI Award Winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available

Saturday 21 March 2015

The Continuously Developing Voice: Baby/Toddler to Puberty

Baby/Toddler  (from birth to approximately age 4)
From the moment of birth, healthy babies use the larynx and lungs in a vigorous reflex action which is entirely safe.  Babies can cry loudly for extended periods of time with no damage to the voice, because of the way they support the breath.  Just observe the work in the abdomen when a baby is in full cry!  Re-discovering the link between breath support and the larynx, which is so natural to a baby, is fundamental to vocal health in later life.

The larynx in babies sits high in the throat.  It is very small with short vocal folds.  The cartilages are soft.  The noises produced are high in pitch, can be very loud, but lack wide variation of tone.

Babies then go on to amuse themselves by exploring the range of sounds they hear in their environment.  Adults encourage this by using a special language for babies, with cooing, exaggerated pitch changes and simplified words.  Babies respond by imitating these sounds and begin to gurgle tunes.  They experiment with pitch, volume and length of phrase.  A sense of enjoyment and play arises from the sheer physical act of making these sounds.  This is so often lost when the teaching of singing becomes formalised.

At this stage, gentle lullabies and nursery rhymes sung by their parents and older children will help to develop a baby’s musical ear.
Childhood  (age range 5 to 8 years)
As the baby moves into childhood, the larynx begins to grow and to drop lower in the throat.  The increase in the length of the pharynx allows for a wider variation of tone, and the increasing length of the vocal folds allows for a greater variety of pitch.

It is interesting to note that the vocal folds in boys tend to grow at a faster rate than in girls.  Despite the slightly larger vocal folds, girls and boys speak at around the same pitch, but girls tend to develop a wider singing range earlier.

Children in this age range will develop naturally by singing in groups.  They need to explore their voices to discover pitch, and they learn to sing in tune more readily by listening to others in their group.  At this stage, you should not insist too much upon accuracy of pitch or memory of words if this will interfere with the overall enjoyment of the experience.

The type of songs which children of this age enjoy, and respond well to, are nursery rhymes and songs with accompanying actions and repetition.
Pre-Puberty (9 to 11 years)

An ideal age for a child to begin individual singing lessons would be about 9 years.  It is advisable that children should not sing too high in their range nor too loudly for extended periods of time.

Your choice of repertoire is very important and should be influenced by the child’s musical experience so far, which can vary greatly from child to child.  The sense of enjoyment should not be lost in these early singing lessons, so find out what type of music the child likes, and build up a repertoire with this in mind.  Children of this age respond well to songs which tell a story, animal songs, character songs, and comedy songs. 

Generally, a child will learn the words of a song more quickly than the tune.  They will also learn more easily through the process of imitation.  To this end, you should sing the tune to the child rather than just play it on an instrument, and continue to sing along with the child as he or she learns the song.  You can then stop singing along when the child feels more confident.

A well-structured programme of training can produce very gratifying standards of achievement in this age group.

Ross Campbell
Professor of Singing, Royal Academy of Music, London
Managing Director & Head of Singing & Music, Musical Theatre UK, London
MTI Award Winning Author for ABRSM Songbooks 1 - 5
1-to-1 Vocal Training & Consultations available