The parents of girls are often irritated when they hear that I only teach adults or teenagers after the voice change. They assume that voice change only occurs in boys. This is about as far-fetched as believing that only boys go through puberty. This blog post is about what happens in girls and boys when their voices change, what children's voices are already capable of and what follows from this for singing and vocal coaching.
The voice change occurs at a crucial stage of development, puberty: it is the transition from the child's voice to the adult voice that begins at the age of 11-12, driven by the hormone testosterone. The hormone causes the larynx and vocal cords to grow in boys and girls, but at different rates.
Girls' bodies produce less testosterone, so their larynx does not grow as much (by 20-30 per cent). In boys, the larynx grows larger (by 60-70 per cent), and as a result it becomes more prominent as the "Adam's apple". The vocal cords also become longer and their muscle belly (the "vocal folds") thicker. In boys, the vocal cords grow by about one centimetre, in girls only by 3-4 millimetres. As a result, the pitch range decreases by up to an octave (eight tones) in boys and up to a third (three tones) in girls.
As a rule, the voice change begins at the age of 11 or 12 (slightly earlier in girls than in boys) and lasts six to twelve months. In rarer cases, it can take up to two years for the pitch of the adult voice to develop. Signs of the voice change, especially in boys, are hoarse, rough or brittle tones. More than with girls, boys experience large, uncontrolled fluctuations between low and high tones during this phase, with a gradually breaking through "adult" voice quality in the low range.
These are adaptation problems: While the laryngeal cartilage and vocal cords grow in spurts, the muscular coordination of the voice gets confused again and again and has to be relearned. In adolescent boys, this transition can be so blatant that it is as if a new, foreign voice breaks through and they have to learn it again from scratch: Their "voice age" starts again at zero, although they may already be 13 or 14 years old. This has an important consequence: assuming appropriate vocal training, a male voice does not reach its full potential until it is between 25 and 30 years old - only then is it "fully grown".
This is much later than in women, whose voices break more inconspicuously in girlhood. With them we hear vocal fluctuations, also hoarseness or airiness, because the vocal cords do not close properly at times. Otherwise, it is mainly the colour of the voice that changes: the previously childlike, rather flat tone sounds fuller and more mature after it has become somewhat deeper.
Before the voice changes: what the child's voice can do
Not just the adult voice, even the healthy child's voice from the age of 5 or 6 is strong and capable of producing stable tones and melodious, even brilliantly clear singing that can drown out an entire orchestra. Although this has always impressed the adult world, in the past the child's voice was often underestimated in its possibilities. Since the 19th century, it has been a tradition to teach children to sing with the softest possible tones in the high register, the head voice register.
In lower registers, children's voices were often perceived as harsh and unmusical, even to the point of the opinion that it was harmful to the voice to encourage children to sing in full voice, the "chest voice". Even today, the conviction persists that children have only one voice register: the head voice. In the meantime, we know that children, just like adults, in Chest and head voice can sing - whereby the child's voice shows a greater resemblance to the adult female voice. In the pre-pubertal age there is no significant difference between boys' and girls' voices (size and structure of the vocal apparatus is about the same).
Unlike adults, children find it very difficult to switch from the chest voice to the head voice when they ascend to higher notes. If, on the other hand, they come from above with their head voice and slide downwards, they succeed better in finding their way into the chest voice. This argues in favour of continuing to train children's voices in the head voice, in which the vocal cords are stretched and only vibrate at the edges. Via the middle voice ("mix" or "passagio"), in which gradually more muscle tension is brought into the vocal folds, the chest voice can then also be developed for children's singing: singing with full vibration of the vocal cords. The vocalisation from the head voice "downwards" gives the voice body connection without the danger of the sound becoming hard and damaging the voice when singing loudly.
This is the singing pedagogy modelled on the Vienna Boys' Choir. Its goal is clarity, sonority and expressiveness of the voice over the entire range of the child's voice.
The audible change of register or break between chest and head voice is considered a characteristic of an adult voice after the voice break. In singing lessons, adults learn to sing in such a way that this break is no longer audible. There are genre-related exceptions, however: Funnily enough, in yodelling it is precisely the audible change between head and chest voice that is made into an art form. "Yodelling" is the archaic use of head and chest voice, cultivated as a call between the mountains in the Alps, in such a way that you can clearly hear the rollover between the registers, called "Kiekser" or "Schnackler". Children and young people can also yodel: Here is a boy singing a country song by Hank Williams in a video that went viral - also exemplary of how wonderfully children can already sing ("belten") in their full chest voice:
Deviations in the voice change and the castrato voice
Besides the usual development from the child's voice to the adult female or male voice, there are also deviations. Examples of this are: the premature or delayed change of voice, an untypical drop in the pitch of the speaking voice (unusually low voices in women, high voices in men) or a failure to change the voice. The cause of these special ways of the voice can be disturbances in the hormonal balance or psychological factors. Accepting the new voice is not always easy for young people who may be subjected to ridicule because of their voice change.
The changes in the human voice during puberty are closely related to the development of the sexual organs: If a boy's testicles are removed before the onset of voice breaking, no voice change takes place. He speaks or sings with a "castrato voice". Castrati achieved some fame in Italian opera in earlier centuries, until the 19th century. Before puberty, castration was performed on boy singers to preserve their beautiful soprano or alto voices for adulthood. In today's concert life, the castrato voice is replaced by the countertenor: the high adult male voice with great virtuosity in the head voice range. Philippe Jaroussky demonstrates the artistry a countertenor can achieve with an aria by Vivaldi:
Range and vocal genres in adulthood
After the transition to adulthood, an average voice has a range of about two octaves (two scales). Trained voices reach 2.5 to 3 octaves, voice ranges with more than 3 octaves are very rare.
Depending on the range in which they can sing best, singers' voices are divided into different "voice genres" or voice pitches. In concert and choral life, the division into four voice ranges is common, in descending order: (a) soprano, the high female voice, (b) alto as the lower female voice, below that (c) tenor, the high male voice, and (d) bass as the lowest male voice range. Between the two female voices lies the mezzo-soprano, and between tenor and bass the baritone, although these terms are more commonly used for solo voices.
Singing lessons when your voice changes?
What are the implications of all this for singing and vocal exercises at the time of voice change? From the point of view of vocal pedagogy, it seems reasonable to start with vocal exercises from a child's age of about 6 years - for example, as an accompaniment to children's choir or music lessons at school. With careful guidance, we already see impressive vocal abilities at this age, which can ideally be carried over into the time after the voice breaks. For many children who are enthusiastic about singing, it is not an option to stop singing altogether during the period of puberty. If they remain on their own during this time, the risk of vocal damage is greater than if they receive singing lessons in parallel.
But it is also risky: boys whose larynx grows quickly in a short time and who have to deal with hoarseness and breaks in their voice should strain their voice as little as possible. Voice training is not advisable here. Caution is also advisable for girls who struggle with vocal instability during puberty, even if the changes are less severe in them. In the end, a case-by-case assessment is probably most responsible here, according to the motto: "one size does not fit all".
One thing is certain: you can sing at any age and (almost) always!
If you are looking for good exercises to improve your breathing and singing technique, feel free to check out my Online singing courses in.
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