Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Boys Choirs Cope with Voices Deepening at a Younger Age

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Boys Choirs Cope with Voices Deepening at a Younger Age

Article excerpt

LEIPZIG, Germany -- For 800 years, the St. Thomas Boys Choir has been filling churches with pure young voices. Now it's confronting a confounding phenomenon: Every year, those voices are cracking with teenage angst just a little earlier than before.

Other boys choirs have been noticing it, too, as an unrelenting march of puberty sweeps voices into rebellion. Over recent decades, the already short careers of their sopranos have started to end between six months and a year earlier, challenging them at times such as Easter, for which choral music such as J.S. Bach's St. Matthew Passion was written with difficult lines for boys free of hormonal woes.

At the venerable St. Thomas Boys Choir, where Bach once drilled pupils in their musical scales, leaders have redoubled their recruitment efforts and taken in boys at a younger age to make sure that the choir has a full stock of voices ranging from the deepest bass to the most clarion-pure soprano, while children whose voices are changing wait it out by manning the ticket booth.

The cause of the shift remains unclear, but some choir leaders say it is having a subtle effect on their music, and it's not just that they have to buy more acne medication. The younger the boy, the less life experience and maturity underpins the complex emotions in what they sing, even if they're more willing to study their scores instead of pining about romance.

"We have only a short time, from age 9 until 12, to squeeze in all the musical training for the boys," said Stefan Altner, manager of the St. Thomas Boys Choir and once one of its singers. When he started working at the choir in 1993, most voices broke when boys were 14 or 15, he said. Now the average is closer to 13.

Since most boys join the choir when they are 9, even small changes are felt in the balance of the singers, he said, because after their voices deepen, the boys sing lower lines or drop out of the choir completely. In 2008, the choir added a nursery school, and in 2010, it opened a primary school as a way to identify and attract talent at a younger age.

"We want to find a way to have them from kindergarten all the way until Abitur," the German high school graduation, Mr. …

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