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Your thoughts on Middle School Boys?

I see a lot of you asking questions about what to do with certain boys. 
I have always wondered why educators in the Middle School do not let boys sing Treble, after all, that's what they are.
From my experience teaching several 13 - 15 year olds each year, some of the boys that feel they can not sing the top line anymore really just want to
sing a different part.  They may be just on the cusp of voice-change.   But, there are plenty of 12 - 14 year olds that have NOT gone
through voice-change yet and are powerhouse trebles. 
I would like to hear your thoughts on why, as an educator, you would place these boys in an alto section (for those of you choosing SATB choirs).
I would also like to hear, if you can, how the boys feel about being placed in those upper parts.
I'm not trying to step on any toes, but maybe that's what we need?  I understand most college education programs do not cover the boys
changing-voice.  And, I'm almost convinced that we truly need gender-segregated choirs until a few years after voice change (Senior year?). 
If we're not careful, we just might end up with all SSA choirs. 
Replies (14): Threaded | Chronological
on December 16, 2012 5:19am
I'll never use the term Cambiata.  Maybe it's because I put more stock in European research, or perhaps its because I see too many people who know better latch onto this thing because it's available.   I fully understand some of us don't have time to find new works.  Some of us don't have time to do anything new.  But, I see that as the easy route out, and a detriment to the singing boy.  I will never use the term Cambiata because I see it as fundamentally wrong.  I sing in a cathedral choir of Men and Boys.  I teach voice to the older middle school age kids.  The 14 year old that sings beside me every week is a fantastic countertenor.  Now, perhaps he'll stay, and perhaps he'll become a bass.  The point is, his range lies outside of anything that Cambiata would place him in.  I'll never go down that road. 
I too agree with you, Chad, that there are plenty of Misunderstandings when it comes to boys.  I'll never figure out why Americans think they have to re-invent the wheel.  Boys have been singing in Europe for at least the last thousand years, and probably longer.  Yet, just like everything else, this little country that's not even 300 years old thinks it knows best.  
Greg: What sort of "educator" would force a boy to sing a low part?  This sort of "education" has been and is still going on now.  Ask the music educator graduates from any college what they know about boys singing, and you'll get your answer.  It's not the fault of the person, it's the fault of the system.  I'm trying hard to change that, but I'm only one person, and can only do so much to change a societal paradigm. 
My goal in the next few years is to start a choir school where I live.  That way, at least those few boys might get the chance at a proper education... 
on December 16, 2012 10:44am
Hi, "J," and thanks for your thoughts.  (And since you're a countertenor I wonder whether you know my son, Ian Howell?)
It isn't quite clear why you don't like the word "cambiata," which after all simply means something in the process of changing.  It isn't a defined range, and it isn't a defined voice type.  It's simply descriptive of a process that many middle school boys do in fact go through, which means that it's a USEFUL description.  In my late wife's youth choir some boys sank at a measurable rate of about a halfstep a week, others went through a brief "break" but recovered soon, some (like both our sons) kept usable head voices, while a very few crashed and burned and could not sing for several years thereafter.  Every voice is different.
Regarding the European experience, yes, boys have been singing for a very long time.  (Witness Guido d'Arezzo, who wrote that it took him 10 years to teach his boys all the chants they needed to learn by ear, in the early 11th century, and whose "gamut" of notes included all those he found in chant in both men's and boys' ranges.)  But it was not until the 15th century that "the choir" started sining in parts (previously reserved to soloists), and that boys were actually incorporated into choirs, necessitating the invention of the new "treble" G clef for their parts.
And I'm afraid that asking boy trebles to sing low just because they're boys is NOT a systemic problem, and is NOT taught in music education classes, and it definitely IS the fault of the indivdiual teacher.  We had one such in our school system, and were very glad to see her retire. 
Best of luck in starting your choir school.  We need more of them, led by people who care as you do.
All the best,
on December 17, 2012 4:46am
Perhaps you are right, John.  However at least right now, the current students of music education going into teaching that I have been able to observe do not know anything about how to teach choir.  Since I have a passion for boys singing, I do my best to slowly bring them around to at lest be open to the idea that it's ok if boys sing treble too.  I, like you, have seen my share of teachers that hold old views with the one you mentioned.  But the failing of the system I spoke of comes from my current experience with the knowledge that is handed down (or lack of).  There are very few graduating students that I would feel comfertable with when sending any of my boys.  
Regarding "cambiata" and the associated research, that's a topic I think best not discussed here.  It's rather long.  
Also John, I do know of your son and he is a fine Countertenor!
Applauded by an audience of 1
on December 17, 2012 11:05am
I can't argue with what you've observed, J; just comment that what I've observed is a bit different.
I don't know whether the way we handle our music education students is typical or atypical.  We have a weekly Lab Ensemble that meets under the guidance of our music ed and conducting faculty, and includes BOTH instrumental and vocal music education majors.  (Entirely too many actual jobs are not restricted to one or the other, so we feel that they all need experience in both vocal and instrumental techniques and conducting!)  Instrumentalists often play the secondary instruments they are studying in methods classes (which puts them at about middle school level in technique, although not as musicians!).  And all instrumentalists must sing.
And the good thing is that ALL our music ed students get podium time (after their first semester) for warmups, rehearsals, and so on, and are immediately critiqued by the faculty.  So part of the thinking is that the voice majors WILL know more about the voice, and will demonstrate it in ways that allow the instrumental majors to pick it up, and vice versa.  Perhaps not ideal, considering the course load they carry because of state and national requirements, but a LOT better than nothing.
But I'll certainly agree that the one thing we can NOT duplicate is the changing voice (neither boys nor girls, because of course both go through a change).  And while they may study and talk about it, their only hands-on experience comes during their student teaching semester (which now takes place at the Masters level), under the eyes of experienced supervising teachers.  And of course some will be asigned to middle schools, but others to elementary or high school for student teaching.
Still, I can't imagine that ANY of our potential choir directors are clueless about the challenges of the middle school voice, even though they may not be "experts."  THAT comes under the heading of "learn by doing," but of course so is ALL teaching!!
All the best,
on September 4, 2014 10:43am
J. Young, thank you for your words of affirmation. I have started at a new school this year, and most of my boys (who care, anyway) are still unchanged voices. In Texas, at the Junior High level, you must compete with TB, TTB or TBB music. I do not see how that will be easy for these boys, or even possible for some. I am working with all my choirs to match pitch, but the few with changed voices are finding it hard to sing in a middle range for the group. I am working toward singing some SAB material with them. Boys should be encouraged to sing, not sing specific music or voice parts. Singing appropriate repertoire is essential to keeping these boys singing through their secondary education. This is what they need, what they want, and what is good for them. With enough praise, they begin to embrace their own voice, and even mourn the loss of the treble range. I have seen this in the Amarillo Youth Choirs.
on September 5, 2014 6:11am
Too bad you can't change what it says on the music re; alto, sop, etc.   Can you have just boys and girls choirs - separately.  That's what was done with my middle school classes - including general music....It worked out really well.
on September 5, 2014 6:33am
We all need to do what works best for us as individuals.  I've taught this age group for 23 years.  Everything changed for me in the quality of my choirs when I split by gender in 7th grade.  I put them back together in 8th grade, and the Mixed Choir that results is something I feel great about!  
Here are some thoughts I wrote on the issue that work for me in my middle school classroom.  
Dale Duncan
Creator of S-Cubed Successful Sight Singing Program for Middle School Beginners
My YouTube Channel with teaching tips and sight singing tips:
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