The Alto Voice In Male Choirs
The suggestions of the preceding chapters are addressed directly to
those who teach vocal music in public or private schools, but the
general principles and rules are equally applicable to the training of
soprano choir boys.
The results in beauty and power of tone which may be obtained from
carefully selected choir boys can seldom be equalled in the school-room,
first, because training is required to deve
op voices in strength and
purity of tone, and the time devoted generally to school singing, one
hour a week possibly, is no more than that given to a single rehearsal
Again school singing includes all members of the class, and while it is
true that there may be but few pupils in each room who cannot sing, yet
there are likely to be some.
These voices, which we call monotones disappear almost entirely when
pupils are trained to use the head voice. Still, there is a percentage
in every class in school, whose inherited musical perceptions are very
feeble, and their slowness cannot but retard the general progress.
Many of the difficulties that beset the teacher of music in schools,
then, are eliminated at the start by the choir trainer, when he selects
boys with good voices, who sing in tune naturally.
The increase in the number of vested choirs in this country has been
very rapid during the past few years, and fortunately, the ideas which
have prevailed among the majority of choir-masters on the subject of the
boy voice, have been just. This is easily understood when we reflect
that we have made the best English standards our ideal.
The leaven of sound doctrine on the boy voice is working rapidly, and
there are many choirs both in our large and small cities that are
excellent examples of well-trained soprano boys.
There is, however, one problem of male choir training which is not yet
satisfactorily solved, at least it is troublesome to those choirs which
have a small or moderate appropriation for music.
Boy sopranos are plentiful, basses and tenors are easily obtained, but
good male altos, men, not boys, are almost unknown outside of a few
large cities. This state of affair has led, in many cases, to the
employment of boys as altos, and they have of course sung with the thick
or chest voice. It is an unmanageable and unmusical voice, it is harsh,
unsympathetic, hard to keep in tune, its presence in a choir is a
constant menace to the soprano tone, and were it not for the idea that
there is no recourse from this voice, save in the employment of woman
altos, it would not be tolerated by musicians.
There is a recourse, however, and it is at the command of every choir
trainer whose sopranos have been taught to sing with the head voice
alone. It is to select certain sopranos, and when the voice breaks, let
them pass to the alto part, and continue to use the head voice.
The objection which will naturally occur, is, that no singing should be
permitted during the break. Well, let us consider. The period during
which the voice, in common parlance, is breaking, is a period of
laryngeal growth, just as inevitable and natural, as is the growth of
the body generally. The voice may be fractured, but the larynx is not.
Every choir trainer must have observed the preliminaries to this period.
A boy for instance, shows all at once a sudden increase of volume and
finds it difficult to sing unless quite loudly or softly.
This shows that the vocal bands are relaxed. Following this, the
speaking voice will lower in pitch, and show hoarseness at times. As
soon though, as this hoarseness passes away, that is, when the
congestion at the larynx has passed, the voice is better perhaps than
before. Then comes another break, as we say, that is, a period of sore
throat and hoarseness.
After this has passed, it may be that the boy has lost his upper notes,
but can sing the lower ones with ease; the tone too, is changed in
timbre. It has the color of the man's head voice; or it may be that the
boy can still sing his high notes, but that the lower ones are
uncertain. Voice mutation is not one continuous period of growth of
vocal bands and laryngeal cartilages. On the contrary, the periods of
vocal disturbance are separated by intervals when the throat is
comparatively free from irritation. These intervals may be long or
short. It evidently depends upon the rapidity or slowness of the general
growth and development.
There can be no doubt now, that during a time when the voice is
uncertain and hoarse from the irritation of the vocal bands and
surrounding parts, that singing is positively harmful, but during the
intervals separating these periods, especially where they extend, as in
many cases, over several months, it would seem that the singing voice
might be used.
Each individual case must be observed and judged by itself. This is
entirely possible in choirs. If then the choir-master is careful to
observe and to humor the changing voice at all critical times; if he
will insist that the boy sing very lightly or not at all if it hurts
him, and if he will resolutely check any tendency to break into the
tenor or chest quality, he can train in a short time a good alto force
from his choir, and these young men so trained may become efficient male
It is true that in many cases boys may be carried through the mutation
period, and at the end show such light tone upon the falsetto or head
voice as to be of no value. The strength and timbre of the male falsetto
depends partly upon the character of the vocal bands and partly of
course upon the size and shape of the resonance cavities.
Men who have voices of wide range and good volume in the chest or usual
singing voice, generally possess strong head or falsetto tones, and it
may be that soprano boys who possess large voices, that is those which
show volume of tone along with purity, whose resonance cavities are
large, will prove to develop a better falsetto, as men, than those boys
whose voices are thinner. One other point remains to be disposed of.
Will the use of this voice by youth or adult, injure his other voice, be
it naturally bass, baritone, or tenor? No, it will not, and yet the
average choir-master will most assuredly be met with this objection or
fear. It is surprising that so many of those who are in the business of
trying to teach voice, should be ignorant of the character and range of
the male falsetto or head voice, but in spite of this ignorance, and
more or less prejudice against its use, the fear that by using it one
impairs the tones of the chest register or the usual singing voice, is
utterly unfounded. It is produced with far less effort and tension of
the vocal bands than is the chest voice, and is physiologically
perfectly safe. The mechanism which the larynx employs to produce the
falsetto is just as natural as the mechanism employed to produce the
chest voice. That it is an unusual voice with us is due to circumstances
of musical development. The advent of the male vested choir has,
however, created a demand for it, and it may be met as indicated, by
keeping boys upon the head voice during mutation or so much of the time
as is safe, and afterward, when the age of adolescence is past, even if
some prefer to sing bass or tenor, the number of those available for the
alto parts will be sufficient to meet all requirements.