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

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