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Choral Tone Revisited

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Guest Roffensis

On the subject of the Mendelssohn, I have always very highly rated the old 1975 Ely Cathedral Choir version, now reissued wisely on CD (Chandos) with a stunning treble, with tremelo :D, utterly magnififcent, particularly at "with Horror overwhelmed", strangely enough as directed by Arthur Wills. The choir is stunning and the full English sound there to relish :P . Don't ever think that such a tone can have no passion B) . The alternative in modern tone may well be the "weengs" of a "div" or worse, with the mouth wide open to accomodate a cadbury's flake sideways, "Lird" hear me call, and whole host of other nasty twistings of vowels and the English language in general. If that's not enough, try a thoroughly nasty snatch of "Greater Love" with the fitted "tlee", where the rolled R is totally absent, and all the ins inside out, contorted into every mispronouciation possible.

Lough was very "romantic" in his rendition, at 15 and 16...........oh and when did you last hear a continental trained voice still going treble at 16?? By that time such a voice would be ripped to shreds ready to join the local football club and scream out "hear we go". :wacko:

R

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I've never heard Arthur Wills's choir at Ely, so can't speak with any authority, but are you absolutely sure he cultivated the "English" tone? I wonder where he would have learnt it. As far as I am aware, his only significant appointment before getting the organist's job at Ely was as Sidney Campbell's assistant there. And Campbell most definitely did not train his boys that way. Somehow it just doesn't sound like my image of Dr Wills (but of course my image may be completely out of focus!)

 

As for diction, surely that's an entirely separate issue to tone production? Any voice, however produced, is capable of good diction or bad. I could just as easily accuse traditional head tone production of reducing all the vowels to various variants of "oo". But there's no reason why it has to be like that, of course. And there's no reason why chest voice vowels have to sound wrong either. How you get them to sound right will be different for the two methods, naturally.

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Guest Roffensis

Interestingly, I just played that Ely CD, and upon hearing it again must say the diction is pretty bad at times, and the tone suffers at times. A lot of it down I would guess to the East Anglian accent?, and perhaps a lack of time to actually correct it. Nor is the diction constant. I do not believe Wills actually favoured the overall English Anglican tone, in those days it was not as "full" as Kings for example, but getting on that way. Sidney Campbell was at Canterbury, and he did actually promote the traditional tone to a degree, all the cathedrals did. Liverpool Cathedral still does with Ian Tracey.

R

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Interestingly, I just played that Ely CD, and upon hearing it again must say the diction is pretty bad at times, and the tone suffers at times. A lot of it down I would guess to the East Anglian accent?, and perhaps a lack of time to actually correct it. Nor is the diction constant. I do not believe Wills actually favoured the overall English Anglican tone, in those days it was not as "full" as Kings for example, but getting on that way.  Sidney Campbell was at Canterbury, and he did actually promote the traditional tone to a degree, all the cathedrals did. Liverpool Cathedral still does with Ian Tracey. 

R

Yes, Campbell left Ely for Canterbury and of course went from there to Windsor. I can promise you that he didn't promote traditional tone at all. Not that he aimed for a particularly continental tone either. He just got his boys to sing naturally. I know this because I watched him taking choir practices for three years!

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Guest Roffensis

As for diction, surely that's an entirely separate issue to tone production?

 

No, mouths may be totally the wrong shape to get the correct tone, eg the cadbury's flake mouth will hinder a good ringing head "E".

Consonants do not have any tone of their own, it is the vowels that are joined to consonants that give tone, try getting t t t t t t t t to a tone....the vowel gives tone....To, too, taa, ta, and so on. D D D D D D D do, down, dawn, dusk, etc etc. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz! sorry.........!!

The boy soprano is really very good indeed, and yes it would be good to hear him do the Mendelssohn, he is a little strained here and there etc as you say, not to mention pulling the tone back, but the control is excellent, stunning even. One can think of, by contrast, very many trebles that one would NOT wish to hear do (in)the Mendelssohn. Thanks for the link!!

R

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No. Shouting can strain a voice, and so can certain types of singing. It takes a fair amount of power to fill a large church, and a head voice will carry clearer than a thinner chest voice. Boy's chests are not sufficiently developed to be any where near as powerful as an adults, and you can hear the strain in them trying. But this is all by the by. Yes the head voice is really a boy falsetto, but the tone is not like an adult trying to sing very high notes, because the boys voice is still a boys voice. QED! The use of vibrato, or tremelo can be taught, and it also increases power without strain. Try it.

This discussion is however, supposedly about the type of tone commonly found today, and I am simply making the point that the sound these days is often erring very much along a forced continental side. And a forced technique it is. You would also strain your voice shouting loudly, and in essence the modern tone is "shouty". I have no doubt in certain traditions it has A place, though what beats me. I do not find it attractive. It is thin, brittle and reedy, and quite frankly at times a boy's top line is made to sound like a battery of primary age girls, with the added bonus of poor diction, a silly sweetness, and almost acrid preciousness that sounds really most ridiculous. The boy voice is something to treasure. All the arguments here quite baffle, and to a degree, amuse me, not least those questions from those who really should know for themselves techniques and answers, particularly when in higher positions than I am. And, I still await someone to inform me what exactly George Malcolm's continental training technique was. It is from that period that things changed, and, like the Emperor's new clothes, a lot of people thought it all really quite wonderful, when all it was, was different.

Again I say to everyone, listen to older recordings of the 1960s, and even 70s, and yes, even to Lough, and ask yourself what has happened and more improtantly, why. Where is the passion to the words now, and do your boys "fill up" with tears singing like mine do? It's like organs, it's what's in fashion at the time. In the meantime vocal techniques are lost, and this thread sadly proves this.

All best!!

R

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No. Shouting can strain a voice, and so can certain types of singing. It takes a fair amount of power to fill a large church, and a head voice will carry clearer than a thinner chest voice. Boy's chests are not sufficiently developed to be any where near as powerful as an adults, and you can hear the strain in them trying. But this is all by the by. Yes the head voice is really a boy falsetto, but the tone is not like an adult trying to sing very high notes, because the boys voice is still a boys voice. QED! The use of vibrato, or tremelo can be taught, and it also increases power without strain. Try it.

This discussion is however, supposedly about the type of tone commonly found today, and I am simply making the point that the sound these days is often erring very much along a forced continental side. And a forced technique it is. You would also strain your voice shouting loudly, and in essence the modern tone is "shouty". I have no doubt in certain traditions it has A place, though what beats me. I do not find it attractive. It is thin, brittle and reedy, and quite frankly at times a boy's top line is made to sound like a battery of primary age girls, with the added bonus of poor diction, a silly sweetness, and almost acrid preciousness that sounds really most ridiculous. The boy voice is something to treasure. All the arguments here quite baffle, and to a degree, amuse me, not least those questions from those who really should know for themselves techniques and answers, particularly when in higher positions than I am. And, I still await someone to inform me what exactly George Malcolm's continental training technique was. It is from that period that things changed, and, like the Emperor's new clothes, a lot of people thought it all really quite wonderful, when all it was, was different.

Again I say to everyone, listen to older recordings of the 1960s, and even 70s, and yes, even to Lough, and ask yourself what has happened and more improtantly, why. Where is the passion to the words now, and do your boys "fill up" with tears singing like mine do? It's like organs, it's what's in fashion at the time. In the meantime vocal techniques are lost, and this thread sadly proves this.

All best!!

R

 

Richard - this is getting a bit heated I think, which is rather a shame. The underlying assumption behind everything you have said so far seems to be that what those who seek a different sound from you are damaging voices, and that they do it because they don't know any better or can't be bothered. The reason I am asking questions here about what you do is because I have heard your choristers sing and have read your published denunciations of just about every cathedral choir trainer currently in the profession. I am definitely not on a 'learning curve' here; my choir would not be able to function singing 7 services a week if I did not know what I was doing and why I do it. We're not in the business of damaging voices, and have had two early breaks in the last 5 years out of about 15 -20 boys- quite a good average I think. They were both tall chaps and are now singing as basses with some distinction and no sign of damage whatsoever. The whole business of the earlier onset of puberty is another huge issue. (You are also by implication questioning the competence of quite a few voice professionals who work hard training boys in cathedrals, but that might also be another issue I suspect). There's no need to be baffled or amused by honest curiosity; I suppose what I was hoping for from this thread was a detailed insight into how you, Richard Astridge, achieve what you think of as the ideal chorister sound - after all, you're an endangered species by your own account! You have a good range of adjectives to chracterise what you dislike; 'brittle' 'reedy', 'thin' 'acrid' 'precious' and 'silly' in one posting alone - but that doesn't constitute a training method. You are totally free to dislike any sound; but you seem to suggest that everyone who trains choristers nowadays is an incompetent voice wrecker because you disagree with them. On your more specific points - I can't tell you what George Malcolm's technique was because I didn't see it in action personally and I wouldn't presume to speculate - I 'm not sure that I have ever held it up here as an ideal sound, although I do admire some of its qualities, and I'm not alone in that (Britten seemed to quite like it!). I don't know anyone who trains boys to do what you list as the various diction faults in your other postings, and unless you have the courage of your convictions and name a particular choir you really dislike the sound of it's hard to see how we might take that discussion further. 'Ee' isn't a 'head' vowel - it's the result of a tongue position and has nothing whatever to do with register. It can be sung in any register. Consonants can give tone - m, n, v, j, z for starters - others are of course voiced. That Mozart performance is remarkable, yes - but how can a choir get more 'continental' than the Tolzer Knabenchor? It epitomises the very method of training that you say wrecks voices - but there he is singing (not quite) effortless top Fs...so what's going on? A sound further removed from Ernest Lough it is pretty hard to imagine. If you want passion from your singing - Westminster Cathedral Victoria Requiem gets my vote! Best wishes S

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Guest Roffensis

Sorry! No intention of wishing to get things heated, but simply to draw attention to the current trend, and something of an abandonment of another, generally but not totally. I refer to no one, and nowhere, in particular. On the balance, people have referred to "my" own tone as stuffy, hooty, posh, and a variety of other descriptions that by and large do apply! But I also get complimented, so I too must be doing something right! You perhaps misunderstand my concern for an Anglican traditional style of singing, which I feel is not quite as it was.

 

Consonants do have to have vowel sounds attached to have a body. There are also extra vowel sounds to the standard five we commonly think of, the compound vowels. As a matter of interest, you mention the E vowel, and I teach my boys to avoid the mouth widening sideways, but to relax the jaw, and to keep the tone well up "high in the head", so that the E is also composed slightly of an A, not as we understand the A, but a element of it. If one does a "head glide" from E to A it can be found, the very first "rung" of the slide. I treat an "I" in a similar way, which has a slight "ah" in it. To adequately put this all into words in well nigh impossible, but how does one describe a colour?

 

Regards,

Richard

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...oh and when did you last hear a continental trained voice still going treble at 16?? By that time such a voice would be ripped to shreds ready to join the local football club and scream out "hear we go". :wacko:

R

 

Richard - for quite a few years now, boys' voices have been breaking earlier. This is probably due in part to a diet richer in protein (not necessarily 'better' health-wise!).

 

The point at which a boy's voice breaks has nothing whatsoever to do with how he was trained to sing - or, for that matter, whether he can sing at all. It is determined purely by physiological and chemical changes - and hereditary trends.

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The boy soprano is really very good indeed, and yes it would be good to hear him do the Mendelssohn, he is a little strained here and there etc as you say, not to mention pulling the tone back, but the control is excellent, stunning even. One can think of, by contrast, very many trebles that one would NOT wish to hear do (in)the Mendelssohn. Thanks for the link!!

R

 

There is a certain technique, here - but I am not sure whether it was wise to attempt those very high Fs.... (i.e.: a fourth above 'Allegri C').

 

I cannot help wondering if a better use would have been to get the child to balance an apple on his head....

 

 

 

.... now, where is my cross-bow?

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Eh? Explain, please! When I was a treble the technique I used to get my top notes was quite definitely the same falsetto I used to sing alto when I was older. I know I'm a bit peculiar, but...  :wacko:

 

Sorry - I did not explain that at all well. What I meant to say was that I have found that some boys appear to have difficulty repeating notes (or short melodies) if I sing them in falsetto; however, if I sing them at my own 'natural' pitch, they can repeat them successfully. This may say rather more about the quality of my falsetto singing than about any particular method of vocal training....

 

(I am not sure that the above is quite what I mean, either, but it is now 23h18 and I have been working since 07h45 and due in at school tomorrow by 08h, do it will have to do.)

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Ah yes. I've noticed too that boys relate more readily to the tessitura of the choirtrainer's voice than the actual sounding pitch.

 

 

Or in my case, since I sing like a badger, they look at me quizzically and say (in a slightly alarmed tone) "It goes like what, sir?!"

 

Interestingly, I have a colleague who is a trained singer and currently a D of M in a school in Greater London who recommends the same thing (i.e.: not using falsetto to demonstrate how you want boy and girl singers to sing).

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Richard - for quite a few years now, boys' voices have been breaking earlier. This is probably due in part to a diet richer in protein (not necessarily 'better' health-wise!).
I know this is the current opinion, but is there any science behind it? If in the earlier twentieth century boys' voices appeared to break later, could this be because the head-voice production they were taught masked the real breaking of the voice and enabled them to sing in the treble register for longer than they otherwise might have done?

 

One is taught (or used to be) that, back in the middle ages, boys' voices broke at around the age of 18. The evidence cited for this is a passage in Edward IV's statutes for the Chapel Royal about every child being assigned to an Oxbridge college when he reached the age of eighteen. However, Roger Bowers (Cambridge University) who has extensively researched medieval cathedrals and their music maintains that this refers only to the age at which the boy was sent to university, not the age at which his voice broke. He has traced the fortunes of many medieval choristers (hundreds, I believe) and found that their voices broke at much the same age as they do today.

 

But what was the situation later on - in Purcell's time and S. S. Wesley's?

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I know this is the current opinion, but is there any science behind it? If in the earlier twentieth century boys' voices appeared to break later, could this be because the head-voice production they were taught masked the real breaking of the voice and enabled them to sing in the treble register for longer than they otherwise might have done?

 

...But what was the situation later on - in Purcell's time and S. S. Wesley's?

 

It is possibly the current opinion, because it is based on observation - not supposition!

 

Purcell's voice is documented as breaking at the age of thirteen - which was considered early, according to the same source.

 

It is possible that it goes in trends - depending on socio-economic and other conditions (both of which are documented as having an effect on this matter).

 

However, I am no expert - I have just observed the current trend over a number of years (and have discussed the matter with older colleagues who are - or were - choirmasters).

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Guest Roffensis

My voice broke late, at 15 to 16, and it took all of 6 months. Your point is excellent that the transition may well be masked by singing in head, and I can still reach a very pure and clean Treble F with no problem at all, in Alto voice :rolleyes: .

All best,

R

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I know this is the current opinion, but is there any science behind it? If in the earlier twentieth century boys' voices appeared to break later, could this be because the head-voice production they were taught masked the real breaking of the voice and enabled them to sing in the treble register for longer than they otherwise might have done?

 

One is taught (or used to be) that, back in the middle ages, boys' voices broke at around the age of 18. The evidence cited for this is a passage in Edward IV's statutes for the Chapel Royal about every child being assigned to an Oxbridge college when he reached the age of eighteen. However, Roger Bowers (Cambridge University) who has extensively researched medieval cathedrals and their music maintains that this refers only to the age at which the boy was sent to university, not the age at which his voice broke. He has traced the fortunes of many medieval choristers (hundreds, I believe) and found that their voices broke at much the same age as they do today.

 

But what was the situation later on - in Purcell's time and S. S. Wesley's?

Lots of science - the average age for voice change (which happens in distinct stages which can be widely or closely spaced) has dropped by about 2 years since the 1950s. It used to be about 14.5; it's now 12.5. I can't find the exact source or figures but could find out if anyone really wants to know - there has certainly been some pretty serious medical research done on the issue and there's no doubt that the age HAS dropped. I also found another interesting statistic - that a susbtantial proportion of non singing children have some sort of voice disorder (huskiness, nodules etc) - proportionally fewer children who sing suffer from the same problems. No one notices the ones who don't sing because it's not really an issue and the problems, unless they are really serious, usually resolve themselves.

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Guest Barry Oakley
Lots of science - the average age for voice change (which happens in distinct stages which can be widely or closely spaced) has dropped by about 2 years since the 1950s. It used to be about 14.5; it's now 12.5.

 

I have been watching this interesting topic quite closely. I certainly believe that diet has been a large influence on voice change in boys. When I was a boy chorister in Hull over 50 years ago it was not uncommon for voices to break at around 16 or even later. We were, of course, essentially war-time children fed on an arguably poor diet if compared with the food available today. Visiting school doctors frequently suggested to some parents that their offspring showed signs of vitamin/mineral deficiency and would benefit from a course of Parish's Chemical Food, an over-the-counter liquid universally available from pharmacies at that time.

In my own instance I could hit top C's with consumate ease at 16. Soon afterwards my voice broke quite smoothly without any attendant crackle.

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Lots of science - the average age for voice change (which happens in distinct stages which can be widely or closely spaced) has dropped by about 2 years since the 1950s. It used to be about 14.5; it's now 12.5.
Fair enough. I suppose this matches what happened to me and my peers only a few years later in the early sixties. I can't say exactly when my voice broke because it was a gradual process, but, it must have been when I was fourteen. It had begun sinking slowly when I was thirteen and had certainly gone completely by the time I got my first organist's post at fourteen and a half or shortly thereafter. I remember this being a pretty average date since, of the other boys in my year at school, many voices had broken before mine, others broke after.

 

I've also heard it suggested that earlier awareness of sexual stimuli (its excessive use in advertising, for example) may also be a factor in the earlier breaking date. Intuitively, I would have thought that psychological influences are much less likely to affect physiological development than physical influences such as food, but what do I know? Has any research been done on this?

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Fair enough. I suppose this matches what happened to me and my peers only a few years later in the early sixties. I can't say exactly when my voice broke because it was a gradual process, but, it must have been when I was fourteen. It had begun sinking slowly when I was thirteen and had certainly gone completely by the time I got my first organist's post at fourteen and a half or shortly thereafter. I remember this being a pretty average date since, of the other boys in my year at school, many voices had broken before mine, others broke after.

 

I've also heard it suggested that earlier awareness of sexual stimuli (its excessive use in advertising, for example) may also be a factor in the earlier breaking date. Intuitively, I would have thought that psychological influences are much less likely to affect physiological development than physical influences such as food, but what do I know? Has any research been done on this?

There's also a theory that hormones are being ingested in the food supply and that this may be having an effect - but this is strictly one for the biologists I think.

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Guest Roffensis
There's also a theory that hormones are being ingested in the food supply and that this may be having an effect - but this is strictly one for the biologists I think.

 

Add to that the "rumour" that Estrogens are in our water supplies, turning fish in hybrid gender and so on, and which would, in theory, retard somewhat ones development into adulthood, together with the associated voice break. :blink:

 

All best,

Richard

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I've also heard it suggested that earlier awareness of sexual stimuli (its excessive use in advertising, for example) may also be a factor in the earlier breaking date. Intuitively, I would have thought that psychological influences are much less likely to affect physiological development than physical influences such as food, but what do I know? Has any research been done on this?

 

I can only speak of my own experiences, but from what I have observed psychological factors actually can play a very large part in determining when the voice breaks.

 

Boys voices here in St Albans seem to last longer than I remember them doing in previous employment at another cathedral. We keep the boys on into year 9, i.e. one year longer than most choir schools which, being prep schools finish in year 8. Most boys make it to the end of year 9 - a few doing it with no problem at all, others by careful management of gradual changes to their voice. Some do leave early, but it has been very rare that they leave earlier than some stage in year 9.

 

I find that stress can play a large factor in the onset of voice change - either stress at home or at school. It can be because of, say, parental break up of marriage or other troubling factors including bullying.

 

Boys here like being part of the choir and never seem to want to leave - which is good, but sometimes I feel that one or two have oustayed their welcome. Persuading them that it's time to move on can be difficult and traumatic for them and I find it takes careful handling and patience (and sometimes endurance) on my part.

 

It's a big thing for them to deal with and cannot be rushed or glossed over. They like being in the team - they have a strong sense of belonging and don't want to lose their precious treble voices. So many manage to hang on to their higher registers and as long as they don't create either musical problems or appear to be straining their voices I let them carry on until they are ready to go.

 

What I observed before, when I worked elsewhere, was something rather like a subtle form of understated peer pressure. The move to a new school at 14 could be embarrassing with a squeaky treble voice (the boys in St Albans change schools at 11 so the pressure they feel at age 13/14 is much less). So the boys at St Paul's tended to "allow" their voices to change earlier - they were leaving the school and choir and moving on so they wanted to grow up that bit earlier. Many had changed voices before they left at the end of year 8 and some even in earlier years. I also thought that the school environment helped that to happen - it could be rather pressured at times.

 

I'm sure that you are right about the earlier awareness of sexual stimuli as well. In a choir school there could be the possibility of being more aware of that and being exposed to it in some form or other than of it happening when living at home with your parents.

 

So I think that the boys themselves and their environment can cause them to have some control over when or how quickly their voices change.

 

I haven't done a scientific study, but this is what I observe here. And I don't think we eat less red meat or have special water in Hertfordshire!

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