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Middle school boys' transition voices

Hi all!
 
I'm sure there's a forum for what I'm asking for, but unfortunately I don't have much time to browse, so I hope I can get some great responses.  I have a middle school choir of 42 girls and 25 boys that is separated into two classes:  one for girls, and one for boys.  This is HUGELY beneficial!  The boys sing out better without the pressure of "looking manly for the girls they are trying to impress, and the girls can focus on better blending by being separated.  It's a huge deal.  My boys are really pretty good.  We are singing in 3-4 part harmony when we work solely on male literature, and SATB when we're with the girls.
 
For warmups, I have 6-7th graders that still have not changed, and some 8th graders that have almost fully changed.  The boys that have already changed have trouble.  This I have expected, but I'm having trouble getting them to even attempt using their falsetto to work on their transition voice.  The exercise that works the best for me is to have them start as high as they can and slowly fall on a "hoo" taking their falsetto down as far as they can go and as light as they can.  My hope is to help them work throught their "transition" voice (sort of like helping to fix the "break" area in clarinet players).  I have read many topics on the subject of male changing voices, but am still looking for specialized warmups!
 
My warmup arsenal is becoming "old hat" and I would like to spruce it up.  Are there any more great exercises for bringing the falsetto or even their head voice to blend with their chest voice?
 
Also looking for girls warmups that help focus on 1) stregthening the "airy" sound that so many of them have, and 2) strengthen their chest voice for altos.
 
Any and all comments are SUPER WELCOME!!!  Thanks to everyone, and have a great Holiday Season whatever your beliefs!
 
Brian Hargrave
 
Replies (13): Threaded | Chronological
on December 20, 2011 10:16am
Here's a ChoralNet resource on breathy sound. Here's one about boys' changing voices. There are a lot of resources on warmups, if you want to get inspired.
on December 20, 2011 1:21pm
Wonderful!  Thank you!
on December 20, 2011 2:39pm
Hi, Brian.  Just a couple of thoughts, based not on my (nonexistent!) experience but on my late wife's with her youth choir at church.
 
Some boys will be able to keep their head voice going as their voices gradually drop, and others will not, losing a halfstep on top every time they add one on the bottom.  And of course a few will simply crash and burn, and be unable to sing until their voices catch up with their growth.  Expect that.  My wife asked the boys who COULD to sing with the trebles on unison or even 2-part pieces.  As it happened, both of our sons could do so, and one of them is now a professional countertenor with a beautifully-developed voice.
 
Terminology can be important.  Rather than calling the unchanged boys' voices "sopranos" (or even "altos"), refer to them as "trebles," an ancient and honorable term in English choirs of boys and men.  That neatly avoids the gender identification question.  (And in fact that's exactly the reason that our G-clef is called a "treble clef," since it came into use at about the same time boys were added to choirs in the 15th century!)  And PLEASE, don't assume that your boy trebles are all altos, just because they're boys!  (I only mention that because we had one music teacher in our schools who did exactly that, and who is now thankfully retired!)  And I'd also suggest not using the term "falsetto," a term that is dated and misleading since there is absolutely nothing "false" about it.  "Head voice" or "treble voice" works perfectly well, and doesn't sound like a put-down.  When Mary Goetze worked with choirs she told them (in head voice), "This is my singing voice," and then (in chest voice), "and this is my play voice."
 
When it comes to your cambiatas, my wife would often simply write additional parts for them to keep up with their changing status.  Of course that was very easy for her since she had been a composition major, but you can do it for pieces that don't already have a suitable part.
 
And regarding your girls, PLEASE do not push them to "strengthen the'airy' sound" or to "strengthen their chest voice for altos."  Girls go through just as much of a voice change at puberty as boys, but it expresses differently, and that airy sound is part of the change process.  They WILL grow out of it, and you can guide them through it, but not by asking for more than their voices can give you at this point.  No "Oscar Meyer Wiener" vocal production, please!!!
 
All the best,
John
on December 20, 2011 8:20pm
Brian,
 
There's a fine resource for vocalises and working with boys' changing, changed and unchanged voices you might want to check out:  Strategies for Teaching Junior High/Middle School Male Singers--Master Teachers Speak, published by Santa Barbara Music.   In Chapter V, vocalises submitted by 36 master teachers (junior high/middle school level) from seven states are grouped into seven categories:  (a) head voice downward through the passagio, (b) breath activators and breath management, (c) range extension and flexibility, (d) interior space (lifted soft palate), (e) ear training and intonation, (f) diction, and (g) resonance and tone placement.   I know I'm tooting my own horn, but this manual has been extremely helpful to hundreds of teachers who work with these special young men whose voices are changing, unchanged, and changed.   
 
It's fantastic that you have the boys and girls separated.   Never let go of that arrangement!
 
Terry Barham
tbarham(a)sunflower.com 
on December 21, 2011 7:31pm
There is a great DVD put out by Patrick Freer-- Success for Adolesecent Singers. He shows lots of great ways to work with boys and girls.
on December 22, 2011 5:52am
Check Henry Leck's video "Take the High Road."  The focus is on boys' changing voice, many vocalises and wonderful source of info.
Joy
 
on December 23, 2011 6:44am
Check out Roger Emerson's "Sing 6-7-8!". Also his "Pop Warm-Ups and Workouts for Guys" and "Pop Warm-Ups and Workouts for Choirs." All are excellent resources!
on January 18, 2012 6:36am
Thank you all for your posts and advice!  I want to make sure that I say that I don't want to PUSH the youngsters into a type of singing that will ultimately be unhealthy, but I want to encourage a healthy thought process regarding the whole singing process and creating a positive rehearsal routine.  I don't want my girls to get a false sense of security in thinking that singing with a very breathy tone is "normal" in the sense that they don't have to work!  The two class system that I have right now has worked WONDERS for my boys!  I have read Sing 6-7-8 by Roger Emerson (and have forgotten that he had topics in there regarding some of my questions!  Thanks for the reminder!), and took his suggestion for splitting up the sexes there!  My boys are REALLY WORKING HARD - ending up creating a solid male section once getting to the high school level.  However, my girls have become stagnant, and some thing that I am trying very hard to remedy!
 
It seems that many of them (thankfully not all!) have the idea that "I know how to sing already - I do it to the radio every day, and you can't make me sing that way - it makes me look funny!"  As an auditioned choir at the middle school level, I have been very leanient in letting in students that I'm confident that I can teach.  However, now I am finding out that many of them are just in there to chat regardless of the grade they earn due to poor participation.  I am thinking of cutting the class size down to a more manageable number for the next school year (such as cutting down from 42 to 30).  If I do this, it would involve an audition process that would ultimately pick the top 30 singers.
 
Anyone have any thoughts on that subject???
 
Thanks again for all your posts and support!
on January 18, 2012 8:59am
Brian:  The first thought that comes to mind is a question:  What is your school's attitude and policy regarding accessibility for all students?  The middle schools here seem to have been very much into having students "experience" different things when our kids went through them, which meant mandatory includsion rather than exclusion, including for sports teams.
 
But if that isn't a barrier, having an auditioned group would do two very important things:  make competition part of the process (if your administration allows it) and making your own requirements for "making it" crystal clear.  You would probably have to have other ensembles available for those who didn't "make it," of course.  And keep in mind what happened to my younger son.  After one year in the trombone section of the lower-level high school band, he could count the number of players in the upper-level band who would be graduating, see that there was no chance for him to make it, and dropped out of band to audition for the top, select choral ensemble, which he immediately made.
 
The most critical transition is from middle to high school, so are you coordinating with the high school choral teacher to ensure the greatest participation across that dividing line?  The choral program has to be approached as a whole.
All the best,
John
on January 18, 2012 10:56am
Thanks again, John!
 
I teach in Lamar, MO, which is a rural community.  The district teaches about 1300 students, and my job is 6-12 vocal (so I'd say that I work pretty well with the High School director! LOL!).  The band program here has been enormous for years now, and since I've been here, I've taken a non-existent choir program to having a steadily growing reputation (now in my 6th year here).  The bands typically have 80-90 students per grade level in the middle school and then the high school band fluctuates between 80-100 students per year.  With a high school population of roughly 350-370, that's well over 1/4th of the school!
 
As far as the school's attitude and policy regarding students' experience with other classes, I think the school has a good middle-of-the-road policy.  Students have several choices.  Before I got here, students that were not interested in band, or that didn't pass the try-outs, were thrown into a "music" class.  Since then, I created a middle school choir of 6-8th graders (currently in 2 separate classes by gender), that need to audition for me in order to make it.  And in the past 2-4 years, they have been adding other elective classes for students to experience.  (I have had a few transfers from the band program, and most of those DO end up passing their audition!)  If they don't audition for band, and either didn't audition for choir or didn't pass their audition, they are placed in my music appreciation class in 6th grade - for that year only, a full year course.  7-8th graders, have electives available to them, and so many of the music app. students choose to explore other opportunities in those years.
 
To be honest, if I could swing it, I'd prefer to have a 6th grade choir, and then a combined 7-8th grade choir to focus heavily on fundamentals that first year.  Being the combined choir teacher for 2 schools and also teaching 3 music appreciation classes puts a BIG hamper on scheduling!  I have found that the biggest "pro" of having an inclusive 6-8 choir is that the 8th graders really help set examples and expectations for the 6th graders.  One of the many "cons" of that arrangement being that I have to take a slower pace as I re-teach fundamentals every year and try to "hook" the students into expecting perfection from themselves.
 
Going into high school... I would say most students seem to enjoy middle school choir, but when entering the high school, they end up choosing something else for an elective because they want to try other things.  We have an outstanding Vocational Technology school that offers many classes specializing in "hands-on" things that will allow them to have some job-related skills once they graduate.  At the end of their 8th grade year, students take a tour of the Vo-Tech facility, which ends up being a major recruitment tool for the school.  Many of these classes become available to the students at the start of their Sophomore year.  Therefore, I have a lot of freshmen every year with decreasing numbers for each consecutive year, leaving my total numbers to fluctuate anywhere between 25 and 35 in a given year.
 
My situation is interesting to say the least.  I DO have students that will re-join choir their senior year simply because they have tried other things and regret not staying in choir!  Still others that try choir for the first time in their senior year, and regret not having done it sooner!
 
I hope that helps clear up what I'm working with, and while I didn't intend on submitting a reply of this length, it really sums up what the norm is here.  Thanks for any and all comments!
on January 18, 2012 6:43pm
Brian,
"Building Beautiful Voices" by Paul Nesheim and Weston Noble. (This is published by Lorenz-30/1054R). FANTASTIC Book!! Tons of great exercises that will help all ages.
"Daily Workout for a Beautiful Voice" by Charlotte Adams w/DVD (This is published by Santa Barbara Music Publications- SBMP21) - Demonstration group Cheery Creek High School Girls Choir . My middle level students LOVED these because they all are connected to physical motions that help free the voice. The motions take the mind off of the voice - perfect!! . One comment though, I would watch the video and have the movements learned for your guys. (They wouldn't want to imitate a ladies choir.) The girls though, loved it!! The guys had no problem doing the physical movements and sometimes came up with some of their own that worked great too.
 
I understand John's point, but I always called my boy sopranos – ‘boy sopranos’ and my boy altos – ‘boy altos’. Once I explained exactly what those terms meant, there was never again a problem. The girls were also given the same explanation and they never made fun of the guys. If a boy was still a soprano, he sang in the soprano section, same with the alto. Where ever their voice was is where they sang. I learned this from my voice instructor who speaks all over the U.S. for NATS and is a specialist on the boy’s voice. He could come into my classroom and make more things happen in 10 minutes that would connect with the guys then you could imagine. I became the sponge!! He taught me so much. He also let the guys know that boy sopranos could sing higher than the girl sopranos. Needless to say that didn't hurt any of the guys’ egos!! :-)
 
One of his best warm-ups for bringing the voice through the passagio and helping make that break from head voice to chest voice so seamless was 5-3-4-2-3-1-2-4-5 (ee-oh-ee-oh-ee-oh, etc.etc). Start up in the head voice and go down, never the other way around.
 
Keep with the yawn-sighs from high to low and then low to high.  Make sure you remind the young men (ladies too!!) to keep their diaphragm connected to the vocal mechanism and the soft palette lifted.
 
Most importantly, allow the guys to sing where their voices really are. Do not try to force any of the men to sing lower or higher than they “naturally” can.  At this age, they all think they can sing lower. (Come to think of it, my high school men think the same thing. I just smile and say, “Not today, but maybe tomorrow.” )
 
Choose music to showcase the voices you own, not the voices you wish you had. By doing this you will fit the ensemble to the music, not the other way around.  Test the students (ladies and gents) ranges and tessitura at least once a semester and be prepared to assign singers to a different section.
Please feel free to contact me if I can be of any more help!!
 
Laurie
 
on January 21, 2012 3:31pm
Hi Brian,
 
I just want to encourage you to do everything you can to have a 6th grade only choir.  When I added 6th grade choir to our curriculum it was WONDERFUL.  I was able to train my students at a slower rate. Since I don't take these kids to contest, the class is oriented toward training and not as oriented toward performance.  Thus, I can include so many more things in the curriculum for them.
 
I also have a select choir of mostly 8th graders that I wouldn't trade for the world.  It's an accelerated class to the point that they are singing high school literature much of the time.  It's remarkable what they can achieve in the allotted class period.
 
Good luck!
 
Cathy DeLanoy
on January 22, 2012 11:43am
Brian,
 
It was great to see what your entire program is like. I do have one comment though...I believe it is essential to offer a period of choir that is open to any student with a desire to sing. No audtioning, just a desire to learn and grow. You can use this as a training choir for those students who are new to singin or want to really learn how to sing.
 
You will be surprised at the number of students you will touch in a choir such as this. I chose to teach this class over msuic appreciation and it brought more students into my choral program than I could have ever imagined!! You can easily find quality music that is accessible for these singers. Music and the final performance in this ensemble is not the be all end all, but just the vehichle you use to meet a need.
 
When I taught middle school, this was my 6th grade choir! I had 100 students in this ensemble - divided into 2 periods.  These students also had the oppotunity to try other classes also. (I also have this in my high school program and those two ensembles happen to be my largest and sometimes the most enjoyable!! In my high school they are divided by a ya'all come ladies and a ya'all come men's ensembles.) You might find that you will have as many students each year as the band stay in your program!!
 
 Just something to think about!!
 
All the best,
 
Laurie
 
 
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