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Fewer Adolescent Sopranos?

In the past four years I've been teaching high school choir in the NW I've noticed a signifigant drop off in the amount of young women who are comfortable and confident singing in the soprano register. Most of my incomming students (who usually have little or no experience) only want to sing alto even if their range is sufficient to sing soprano. Even in young women who are comfortable singing soprano there seems to be a declining lack of confidence to project even at the top half of the staff. Has anyone else noticed a similar trend and could this have to do with the prevelance of lower, alto voices heard in popular music? Also, is social media perhaps affecting the overall confidence level of adolescent singers? A few of my district colleagues have noticed it too, just wondered if anyone else has experienced this and what they've done about it. Thank you!
Replies (9): Threaded | Chronological
on October 14, 2015 8:35pm
Hi John,
I really suspect it begins in elementary school. Without a good experience in choral singing and good vocal examples by a classroom music educator, I have found many kids(boys especially) do not sing from their mid-range and transition into head with ease. Kodaly trained teachers will allow this to happen.  Sadly, many teachers use CD's and electronic musical effects in the classroom, which cheats young singers from experiencing their acoustics naturally either without instrumental accompaniment or just piano support.  The child voice in Pre-K, K and 1st grade should be light and childlike, not belty and chesty/throaty,   and pitch training with solfege helps in the range of D (above middle C) to high D. If our children do not experience correct vocal production at a young age and in middle school, there is a good likelihood they will not even have an interest in joining choral groups at the high school level. I have found so many boys ages 10-14 who have no concept of their head voice. That is a shame that no one helped them with this!!   I feel we should be focusing on better elementary teacher training and more vertical alignment of strategies and goals between elementary and middle/Jr. High.  In my city, we have plenty of elementary teachers who are highly qualified, but many of these are doing more instrumental than vocal teaching.  Also, our district has spotty programs in grades 6-8.  It is a breakdown of the curriculum in Jr. High that is killing our potential here.
Applauded by an audience of 3
on October 15, 2015 10:38am
I completely agree. The lack of adequate training at a younger age is really happening our efforts at the high school level. Thank you for your thoughts. 
on October 15, 2015 2:22pm
Yes, it starts in elementary school, but in many districts it continues in the upper grades, as you acknowledge in your grades 6-8.  It's really a simple matter of priorities, from the local to the national level.  Our music programs are being neglected, eliminated, or attacked K-12, across the country.  A few examples from Arizona-----
   During the recession, our district cut music for K-6 from two 40 minute periods per week to one 35 minute period.  That also cut our staff in half.  How am I supposed to provide this instruction and experience in 35 minutes, one day a week?  And how do I fit in percussion, recorder, notation, music history, folk dancing, and preparation for school concerts and special events?
   Half day kindergartners do not get music at all.   
   Our district has never had band or string instrument instruction at the elementary level.  "Choir"--if it happens at all--takes place before or after school.
   Some other districts eliminated music completely from their elementary schools, although I heard of one that eliminated music classes but kept instrumental music as a "feeder" program because the high school band was considered an important part of the football program.
   We have never had music professional development that included both elementary and middle school teachers.
   Music teachers are often required to attend all the "regular" professional development sessions where grade level teachers discuss reading and math instruction, test scores, remediation, etc.  I have been fortunate to work under prinicipals who let me arrange my own P.D.
   Many high schools schedule music classes and rehearsals at the same time as AP classes.
   Many middle schools create similar limitations on the scheduling of music classes and rehearsals, for example, by making music a 7th grade elective.
   Many districts are charging "activity fees" of over $100 per year for participation in sports and band.
In many schools we are witnessing the end of the concept of a "well-rounded" curriculum, and this will only get worse as over-testing and budget cuts continue.  Better elementary teacher training is irrelevant when music instruction is allotted 35 minutes per week.  Vertical alignment is also meaningless under these time constraints.
on October 16, 2015 5:16am
My observation is that most girls want to sound like their favorite pop stars as was mentioned above.  They emulate their dress, follow their every twitter,  have every song memorized.  It is tough to compete against such adulation.  Any advice from those who have figured out how to motivate girls to sing in head voice and to support their singing with adequate breath?  I suspect the pop culture will rule the day for a long time to come, as  parents generally prefer the pop style and parents are the ones kids want to please.
on October 16, 2015 7:14am
I'm so thrilled that I've seen this post!  I've been experiencing the same thing and am glad to know that I am not alone!  That said, I'm not thrilled to hear that it actually is a wide spread issue.  God bless all the music teachers out there who are trying to do something with nothing (budget and resources wise)!
on October 16, 2015 6:07pm
Speaking as a former high school baritone who was terrified of being removed from the tenor section because I believed that baritones don't get solos, I think it's important for directors to emphasize that teaching students how to use their voice in one way expands their abilities, it doesn't change who they are.
If you can convince your singers that developing their upper range will help them expand their sound, and that they will not lose the core of who they are (and who they want to sound like), it will be much easier for them to accept and welcome your instruction. You may also find many more willing to embrace the mantle of a different voice part than they'd like to have.
on October 16, 2015 10:56pm
I know it's not nearly as easy in the choral setting, but in teaching voice to teenage girls  (beginning voice students) I have found that an approach that works is to respectfully and sincerely affirm the value of their musical/vocal preferences.  I then have very little difficulty getting them to explore their voices.  With encouragement, virtually everyone will "have a go", often within a very few minutes.  (I never ask them to "try".) If there is gear-changing, there is gear-changing.  Who cares at this stage?  Eventually most find they want/need to be able to sing notes towards the top of the stave more easily, and ask for assistance in learning how to do it. Students get to the point of, among other things: 
  • being confident to use the higher part of their voices.  (Some are even happy to "live" there from time to time).
  • agreeing that a smooth register change will be the "default setting", but not the only way one might want/need to sing. 
  • finding they can competently sing more of the music they like
  • being interested in having a go at music in less familiar styles, while not abandoning their initial preferences  (Some even ask to try a classical song.)
Helen Duggan
on October 17, 2015 4:41pm
I teach middle school and I have also been experiencing this phenomenon. I do a lot of work with the girls teacing them to sing in their head voices. I purposely choose songs that will allow them to sing in their head voices. We talk a lot about how learning to sing in a classical style doesn't mean you HAVE to sing in that style, rather it means that you will have a better, stronger voice for singing in ALL different musical styles. When we are singing in various styles, I always try to point out how to adjust the style vocally. I haven't had any push-back from the girls. Rather, just helping them to strengthen this part of their voice, and be successful in singing high, gets them over their fear of it. 
on October 18, 2015 6:05am
As a Kodaly method trained 3-8 grade educator, let me tell you that you are exactly right. Many of the comments have already hit the reasons--trying to sing like pop stars, or at my school, teaching kids Broadway belting techniques in an after school program starting at age 7(!!). I teach head voice everyday, and I still have problems with my MS kids.

However, with patience, it can be fixed! The first thing to do is to give them good models of singing. Make them listen to good singing. Model good singing yourself. The second step is to have them song simple songs in unison or rounds. (Am I sounding overly Kodaly yet? HaHa!) Great rounds to start accessing head voice are Annie, Annie or Laughing Singing. You can teach them lower, then pitch them higher slower. The kids won't even notice.

I really like the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music's solo singing series. It works great for groups. Of course, there's always the Juilliard books, but they are really hard to come by.

Finally, for adolescents especially, at some you just have to say "in choir, you sing in your head voice." Then explain what head voice is, maybe show diagrams. At this point, I talk about adjudication and explain that judges at festivals have certain expectations about what they will sound like. Kids love competition, even if it's just themselves.

Good luck!

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