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Boys singing in the Basement

Hello Choral Directors!
Our high school and elementary choir has a few young men who sing a full octave below the written notes. I am looking for techniques to help them be more aware of their sound and for encouraging them to sing up with the rest of the choir. All suggestions welcome!
Annelies Harmon
on September 13, 2013 3:50am
This is a good question that I hope gets answered by someone who knows. As a student, I'm helping teach freshman choir at my high school, and the only thing I've found is to have them sing the low pitch and bring them up by half steps until they get to the correct octave and hold it. That way they remember how it feels to sing up there, and it tends to work sometimes. Does anyone know a better way?
on September 13, 2013 6:07am
Have you voiced them? I just voiced my grades 5-8 students, and was shocked to actually find a few basses in the 5th grade! Puberty is hitting kids earlier and earlier these days. Their ranges will probably expand upward with range-expansion exercises which we will be working on...But for now, these fellows can't sing much above the G below middle C. They physically cannot sing up with the rest of the guys. (I had chosen mostly SA music for the grades 5-6 ensemble, along with a single SAB piece. It's obvious now that I may need to adapt my plans, if their ranges don't expand enough with the exercises.)

Before asking them to sing an octave up, maybe check their ranges and see if they can even hit those notes at all. It could be an ear training/pitch matching problem, but it could also just be a matter of those pitches in that 8va not being within their current range.

With guys who CAN reach those pitches yet sing 8va below, I've had the most success the most time-consuming way, unfortunately...Working individually with them, asking them to sing a pitch that I give them, then when they sing the pitch that is 8va below, I strike that key on the piano and ask them if they can hear that this is a different pitch than the original one I gave them. (Usually I give them the initial pitch vocally so they have the best chance of hearing it well.) Sometimes they can hear it, and sometimes not. Then, I ask them to sing with me up the scale to the next 8va above while I play the scale on the piano. They almost always can sing slowly up the scale with me and arrive at the pitch first requested. Then I play again for them the lower pitch that they had sung at first, and play again the higher pitch, and ask if they can hear or internally feel the difference. They usually say "yes," at that point, and then I know we're on our way to good things. I work that way with them for a few times, and then they usually begin to get it.

After they have become predictably aware of the higher pitch, I then work with them on phrases, then entire sections of music to have them transfer this new hearing/matching ability to their actual music. Once they nail it reliably, one-on-one with me, then I will position them within the choral rehearsal next to a guy who sings accurately ajd who projects well. (They have to be personally cognizant of the difference in pitches, first.) Eventually, they get it and can be weaned from having to stay next to the loud guy.

If anyone has found a shortcut to circumvent all this individual work, I would welcome the opportunity to accomplish all of this within the choral rehearsal without putting individual singers on the spot. However, I certainly haven't found anything that ultimately works as effectively and efficiently as this individual coaching, and then a "partnering" seating plan after that. It usually doesn't take that long, though. I'd say, 2-3 individual sessions of 10 minutes each, and sometimes they just need one individual session and it clicks.


on September 13, 2013 6:13am
Siren, siren, siren. And keep them close to those who can do it successfully. Then praise even small successes!
Applauded by an audience of 3
on September 14, 2013 5:22am
I'm lucky to be up from 7 guys to 10 in this year's high school choir of 50.  2-3 of the new guys are droning down at C below middle C or south, though.  I agree that some beginning male singers in 7th/8th/9th grade really do have a comfortable tessitura of C below middle C or lower (a lot of guys seem to start from A or Ab in voice tests).  As I select music, I often start thinking I'm after SAB or SAAB voicing - that way we have a chance at blend and balance with 10 guys and 40 women.  But I'm always frustrated when 1.) the lyrics or pieces as a whole are too juvenile for the high school crowd, and 2. the SAB or "three-part mixed" (I know they are slightly different voicings, in theory) pieces have the traditional tessitura of F-below-middle C up to D-above-middle C.  It's way too high for these guys who, when I ask them to hum a comfortable pitch, start somewhere an octave-plus below middle C.
Workable solutions for repertoire for me (I know that's not exactly the original question, but I think getting these guys parts they can actually sing is vital) have included finding the rare SAB piece that has a tessitura of C-below-middle C up to Middle C, finding SATB music with bass parts in the same tessitura BUT have tenor parts that can be excluded without hurting the piece too much (not many independant tenor parts, and parts where tenors sing lots of 5ths and doubled roots - which I don't miss, as opposed to 3rds, which I do miss), or - once or twice - finding SSA or SSAA music and just selecting the part with the most comfortable tessitura for the guys that still works in the voicings (not too many 5ths, so as not to create weak second inversion voicings where they weren't intended to be) if it's an octave down.  I know this isn't how the composer intended the piece, but I hope most composers would support having their pieces sung in choirs where the men in the choir feel succesful!
Then I think the gradual process of ramping them up involves helping them find more efficient closure of thier vocal cords, and finding/strengthening the muscles that are going to support higher pitches (names are escaping me!).  When I asked my voice teacher about helping these guys, he suggested having them swallow, try to hold that sensation, then 'ping' higher notes/sounds on sounds like 'nging' or 'ngeng'.  This worked for one guy in my choir last year - a natural bass who went from sounding totally strained starting around G-below middle C, to later in the year singing up to D-above-middle C with a pretty workable choral tone.  Come to think of it, the flip side of the solution for him was also lots of work starting in his falsetto (starting around A-above-middle C) and carrying his head voice further down than he initially thought.  Eventually this yielded a sweeter (though not loud) sort of mixed voice he could use around middle C.
I encourage all my guys to experiement with different vocal tones, and make choices for the genre.  Pavarotti and Bobby McFerrin sing their high notes very differently!  There may be times/styles where I really need them in a head voice dominant setting around middle C.  There are other times I need them to let loose and go for it in their chest voice.
A final thought that many of these guys who start off droning around an octave-plus below middle C are actually already in the register I need for music where the bass part is imitating a bass guitar - ie, collegiate-style pop a cappella and a cappella jazz choir pieces, both of which play a part in my choral program.  I'm thinking of parts that go down to A, G, F and occasionally E an octave-and-a-half below middle C.  If these guys can feel succesful in these styles, they lose some of the inhibitions that are getting in the way of their air support, etc. to sing the choral music in my curricular choirs.
Good luck and let's keep up discussion on this topic that I'm facing a lot this year!
Dave Piper
on September 14, 2013 6:51am
Sirens, yawn sighs, "use your making fun of your sister" voice - every day they MUST attempt falsetto. Most boys who can't find falsetto are not breathing well - check breathing carefully. I strongly agree with Cherwyn - their voices are changing earlier and earlier these days. I now regularly have 6th grade boys (age 11-12) vocalize at the new or settling baritone level outlined in John Cooksey's research when I never had that 20 years ago. That being said, they should ALSO be singing in falsetto and strengthening the whole range.  Many boys have found this exercise helpful - have them put their hand on their chest and say their name. They will feel a vibration because they speak in their lower register. Then, try a siren (with the hand still on the chest). If their voice is actually in their falsetto range, the vibration will disappear.  Many boys are tactile learners and will need to feel it before they can hear it.
Applauded by an audience of 1
on September 19, 2013 6:17pm
I found when working with young men with recently changed voices they were more successful when I (a female) sang the same note in the high range in my voice. For example, if a boy is supposed to sing bass clef fourth space G, I model it by singing a treble clef second line G.  If they sing bass clef first line G, I sing the fourth space bass clef G so they hear that that note is too low for my voice. Then together we sing a major scale up to the higher octave.  I have all the boys join in, (and often I ask the girls to join in too, to remove the stigma) singing either in unison with me or in the appropriate boy register. Then I have them echo-sing, bouncing from low to high on pitches in the triad. Low do - high do; low mi - hi mi; low so - hi so; low arpeggio - hi arpeggio.  Then try the inverse, hopping from hi to low.  Give them a try.  I agree; sirens are very helpful too. You may also run into difficulty with transitioning from the newly changed voice to headtone/falsetto.  Try echoing phrases like cartoon animal sounds - Mickey and Minnie Mouse - you can think of others - and silly phrases like "oh no!" "uh-oh" "mm-hum" and "holy-moley" in different ranges. Hope you find these suggestion helpful.
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