Technique or Testosterone? an Empirical Report on Changes in the Longevity of Boy Singers

By Ashley, Martin | Journal of Singing, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

Technique or Testosterone? an Empirical Report on Changes in the Longevity of Boy Singers


Ashley, Martin, Journal of Singing


INTRODUCTION

THIS ARTICLE ARISES OUT OF an ongoing program of work to address boys' reluctance to sing. Its author, though a trained music teacher with many years of experience with boys' choral singing, is by profession a social scientist and professor of education. Boys, their choir directors, their singing teachers, their advocates, and those who express skepticism with regard to their performance are thus observed through social scientific methods as actors in the arena of young male identity. The central thesis advanced is that something of a stalemate is arrived at through conflicting interests and strongly held opinions with regard to how long young teenage boys should continue to sing in the soprano register, not infrequently referred to as "treble." The task of resolving this stalemate, rather too often perhaps, is left to the boys themselves. A key observation that the author has advanced in all his work on boys and singing is that, when confronted with conflicting advice by the adults associated with his singing, a boy may resolve the situation through his own preferences.

In this discussion, the age of fourteen will be taken as the base line against which tensions and trends relating to the time of "change of voice" are assessed. This is a field in which significant polarization can be encountered. One view that has gained some ascendancy is held by scientifically minded teachers who draw principally on John Cooksey's six stages of adolescent voice mutation.1 It has exerted something of a downward pressure on the time of "change of voice," typically in the direction of eleven, twelve, or thirteen, rather than fourteen years of age. An alternative perspective, to which by no means negligible attention has been paid, is that associated with the Better Land series of remasterings of prewar boy sopranos. This view draws on arguments about technique and has the tendency to push the age of change upwards toward fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen.

Although the UK is well known for its tradition of boys' choral singing in professional cathedral choirs, it applies to the treble line only. Treatment of the changing voice is surprisingly less well developed than in Continental Europe or the USA, where boychoirs comprising all the voice parts are more common. Some English cathedral organists can be given to degrees of skepticism concerning the zealous application of Cooksey's work they sometimes encounter. Moreover, pragmatic concerns with the daily problem of turning out a choir capable of the routine liturgy, to say nothing of avoiding the ignominy of being "dropped" by BBC Radio Threes flagship Choral Evensong program, are understandable.

Evidence will be presented to support the contention that boy singers can be victims of conflicting advice and perhaps inadequate pastoral care or career planning at the time of voice change. Boys in English cathedral choirs do not necessarily receive the kind of vocal pastoral care during voice change that is provided in the UK National Youth Choirs of Great Britain or described by Kennedy as a feature of the American Boychoir School.2 In some cathedral choirs, boys are still summarily dismissed as being of no further use once their voice has "broken." Others take more care over a boy's progression into a youth choir associated with the cathedral.

This variability of practice, it will be argued, is bad for boys directly involved with singing, but the whole dispute takes little notice of the far wider issue of boys' understandings of vocal identity in mainstream schooling. The methodology employed is one of detailed case study of boy soloist career histories.

TECHNIQUE OR TESTOSTERONE?

Ernest Lough recorded Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer three times during the 1920s. The first recordings were made when he was fourteen and a half, but he went on to make a third because the original wax had worn out. By this time, he was almost a year older and described his voice as "fruitier" when interviewed as an adult many years later. …

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