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Male soprano in advanced women's chorus?

Hi All
I have a fascinating issue: I have a young man who is a 15 yr old freshman with an unchanged, beautiful soprano voice (he sings in a local professional men & boys choir). I also have 2 incoming freshman with unchanged voices, one of whom is very proud to be a soprano (as he should be.) We are currently auditioning for our groups for next year. I have a group called Varsity Women's Chorus - they are an advanced all-women group. In reality, they are a treble chorus. Is it appropriate for me to consider placing him in that group? I think it would benefit the girls to hear someone with such a beautiful tone and I feel it is the most appropriate placement for him as well, repertoire-wise. BUT, I am concerned with his voice changing over the course of next year, he IS 15 and at times I have heard the tell-tale crack in his speaking voice. He is a very talented singer, strong musician, and has great music reading skills. The other option for him is the top group - a mixed SATB group that will be a combination of show choir/advanced concert choir next year. Right now, vocally, I feel he is best suited for the advanced treble chorus, but if his voice changes, that won't work so well. At this point, I don't feel that he's ready for the top mixed group either - maturity, dancing skills, seniority. What are your thoughts on this?
 
Thank you
Emily McDuffee, Indianapolis, IN, USA
Replies (12): Threaded | Chronological
on March 7, 2013 8:19am
Emily: Musically, there's no question but that he belongs in your advanced treble chorus.  But music is only part of the equation.  Since you've called it "Varsity Women's Chorus," will he be embarrassed to be assigned to it?  Probably a question worth asking him!  Or are any of your "women" feminist enough to resent having a boy brought into their group?  Group identity can also be important at that age.
 
And I write as someone who did conduct a Sweet Adelines barbershop chorus for a couple of years, but who was forbidden from joining the organization because no men are allowed to be members!!!
 
And yes, assuming that he is simply late going through his voice change, it is something you will have to deal with, just as every middle school vocal teacher does.  And it may happen over the summer and take the choice away from you, which can be a problem if class schedules have to be locked in six months in advance.  But of course it's also entirely possible that he is naturally an haute-contre or countertenor whose voice will NOT change in the conventional way.  That would be unsual, but by no means unheard of.  The good ol' bell curve describes AVERAGES, but there's always SOMEONE out there at one or two standard deviations from the mean.  And every human voice is unique.
 
So your question is really whether it's more important to fulfill the MUSICAL expectations of a treble choir, or the SOCIAL expectations of a women's choir.  (Have you brought up the question for discussion by your ladies?)
All the best,
John
on March 8, 2013 4:53am
And of course, don't forget to do the easiest thing, which is to change the name of your treble chorus to something gender-inclusive.
 
(You've left us in suspense about what *his* preference would be.  Do tell!) 
 
Even if his voice changes, that's no guarantee that he will not be able to continue as a treble.  I always remember the case of a high-school, changed male who had continued to practice as a falsettist.  It was his preference to sing soprano, and he was quite gifted at it.  He was hurt and outraged when his state's MEA or CDA (?) forbade him to participate in festivals as a soprano, stating their remarkably anti-evidential position that "men don't sing soprano."  Western Wind gave him a full scholarship to come to our workshop as a soprano, where he excelled and then went on to lead his college's outstanding a cappella ensemble as a falsettist.
 
Good luck navigating the choppy waters of adolescent biology, social conventions, and course scheduling!
 
Kristina Boerger
on March 8, 2013 6:03am
Kristina:  I'm sure you didn't mean "falsetist" as any kind of insult, but it is older teminology and does tend to have a negative connotation.  "Treble" is more neutral, and so is most of the stack of 18th-century and modern terminology:  countertenor, sopranist, haute-contre, and so on.  The only problem with "falsetist" is that it implies something "false" or unnatural about the vocal production. 
 
My son has written on this subject and you might find his thoughts interesting.  Google Ian Howell Countertenor.
All the best,
John
on March 8, 2013 6:06am
Changing the name in a high school may not be as easy as one thinks.  In California, for instance, there are certain course titles and descriptions that will allow the credit to be accepted by University of California.  I could not change my mixed choir from "Madrigals" to "Concert Choir" for that reason.  Perhaps "Women's Ensemble" to "Treble Choir" could cause a similar problem in your state, so be careful. 
 
 
Donna
on March 8, 2013 7:36am
Thank you for your thoughts! He DOES want to be in Varsity ifnnot the top group ( and I have not spoken to the girls in that group about it yet, but will thanks to your advice. And I/we can definitely change that name (in fact, I'm sure they would love to help with that.) The men & boys' choir he is in generally moves boys to alto after their voices have changed if they can do it, so that's some thing to consider as well. 
 
On a totally separate note, getting my son in that group was one of THE BEST decisions I have ever made. Watching my 8 yr old sing through all the choral numbers and sit through the entire Messiah, Byrd, Whitacre, Lauridsen, etc...
 
Thank you
EM
on March 8, 2013 12:04pm
Emily:  I'm glad that you're including your ladies in your decision making.  Yes, I'm not surprised that most of the boys in his choir of men and boys move to alto.  For one thing that's the English tradition, with the unchanged voices continuing to sing as "trebles" (which we call soprano).
 
But it's also true that a majority of countertenors DO have alto- or mezzo-range voices, if we really HAVE to cram individual voices into little boxes.  That's even true in Chanticleer, 12 men, half of whom are countertenors!  But even with them, half the countertenors sing soprano--the ones who can handle the range, of course.
 
My son auditioned as an alto, but that year they needed to replace a soprano so they asked him to try it.  And he ended up as their third-highest voice, when it turned out that he COULD handle the range, just not on a continuous basis.
All the best,
John
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 9, 2013 7:48am
Emily, John, Kristina, Donna,
Great discussion on what Emily termed a "fascinating issue."  ... thanks to all for sharing your insights.
Rich
Applauded by an audience of 1
on March 17, 2013 3:55pm
I have an alto in my choir that is undergoing a gender transition from female to male, and going through hormone replacement, so I've basically told him that we'll keep him as an alto for as long as that range is comfortable, and then re-evaluate over time if and when things change. 
 
For the male soprano, let him sing soprano as long as he can. There's also a very, very small chance his voice won't change. Michael Maniaci is a professional male soprano (NOT a countertenor) whose voice is a natural, beautiful soprano. Has amazing range and colour. 
on March 18, 2013 2:45am
Melissa, you may be interested in the work of Alex Constansis, a singer who has undergone this transition, and did his PhD research on how to make it work while preserving the singing voice - something that doctors might not always pay attention to apparently. 
 
An article can be found here:
on March 25, 2013 12:29pm
As a person who did not have his voice change until his JUNTIOR year in HS, I understand what is going on here.
 
First, let's understnad that an unchanged voice is not soprano or alto or anything else other than treble.
 
That out of the way, of course he NEEDS to be included into this group,  I was in a siimilar group whtn I was a Freshman and Sophomore in HS.  Obviously, the young man needs to know that his situation is not singular, but indeed is unique.  He will need to get support, especially in the face of those who will undoubtedly tease.  Have this perosn be in touch with me if necessary.
 
As an aside, note that I was able to have a retirement from singing treble after my final performance in Bernstein's Chichester Psalms when I was 1 month shy of my 16th birthday!
 
 
on March 26, 2013 5:07am
Emily-
 
I teach at a two-year college and this year organized a "Women's Choir", although I was not allowed to call it that.  They told me I had to keep the language neutral so I called it "Treble Choir".  The wisdom in that soon became apparent as I had a 20-year old male soprano sign up for the class.  He does wonderfully.  I have tried not to pick repertoire that sings to only one gender, but other than that have had to make no other accomodations.  It has been a great expererience. 
 
Steve Scott
on March 26, 2013 5:54am
THIS is the sort of thread I enjoy reading, though I do not have the challenges involved.  THIS is what makes singing (and music-making in general) such a wonderful, inclusive art - we CAN and WILL accommodate with the realities we are dealt, and try not to force ourselves or others into little pre-arranged boxes.  You want to talk inclusivity?  Talk to musicians - involved in the best team "sport" where everybody "scores"! =:-)  Bravissimi!
 
Ron
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