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

of choristers.

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

alto singers.

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.