The August issue of Choral Journal is online and features an article titled “Trends in Young Male Puberty and the Changing Voice: New Dilemmas for Choir Directors” by Martin Ashley. You can read it in its entirety at acda.org/choraljournal. Following is a portion from the introduction.
The term “secular trend,” meaning a slow drift in measurement over time, is sometimes applied to the timing of voice change in young adolescent boys. Evidence that the age of onset of puberty is advancing, though not entirely conclusive, supports a belief amongst choir directors that voices are changing earlier than in the past. The phenomenon has been investigated by the present author through a meta-analysis of the literature,(1) a study of English cathedral choirs,(2) a clinical endocrinology study,(3) and detailed longitudinal studies of individual boy singers from 2005 to the present. The topic has assumed increasing importance since girls’ choirs have become common in English cathedrals.
While much initial controversy attached to alleged differences in timbre,(4, 5, 6) the more enduring issue concerns the musical capability and cognitive maturity of the oldest children in a choir’s soprano or “treble” line. The author’s 2013 cathedral study showed that puberty is beginning for many boys during Grade 6 (UK Y7) and sufficiently advanced a year later (Grade 7 or UK Y8) to cause potentially serious issues for voice coaches and conductors. Grade 7 has traditionally been the “top year” for many English cathedral choirs.
Recent experience has been of the oldest, most experienced girls singing reliably while the boys’ choirs have sometimes struggled with losses and even the prospect of catastrophic failure during a high-profile event.(7) In this review, which updates my 2013 paper, I am going to look at the relationship between biological puberty, the actual events of vocal metamorphosis as they impact upon choirs, and the current implications for choir directors.
1 Martin Ashley and Anne-Christine Mecke, “‘Boys are apt to change their voice at about fourteene yeeres of age’: An historical background to the debate about longevity in boy treble singers” Research Reviews in Human Learning and Music 1 (2013): 1 – 19.
2 Martin Ashley, “The English choral tradition and the secular trend in boys’ pubertal timing” International Journal of Research in Choral Singing 4, no. 2 (2013): 4 – 27.
3 Gary Butler, David Howard, and Martin Ashley, “A novel iPhone app: ‘Speech Test©’ is a noninvasive way to determine the onset of puberty in boys” (poster presentation, International Society of Paediatric Endocrinologists, July 17, 2017).
4 Graham Welch and David Howard, “Gendered Voice in the Cathedral Choir” Psychology of Music 30 (2002): 102 – 120.
5 Edward Wickham, “Girls on Top: how the male-dominated English church choir is changing” Guardian Music July 5, 2016.
6 Timothy Day, “Cultural History and a Singing Style: ‘The English Cathedral Tradition,’” in The Oxford Handbook of Singing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).
7 Jenevora Williams, “Boiling Frogs and Tipping Points: which sung pitch range is best for boys during voice change?” ABCD Choral Directions Research 1 (2020): 33 – 40.
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