Alto Boys

How is the alto part, in a church choir consisting of males, to be sung?

In our cathedrals this part has been given, ever since the Restoration,

to adult men, generally with bass voices singing in their "thin"

register. For this voice our composers of the English cathedral school

wrote, carrying the part much lower than they would have done if they

had been writing for women or boy-singers. For this voice, also, Handel

wrote, and the listener at the Handel Festival cannot but feel the

strength and resonance which the large number of men altos give to the

harmony when the range of the part is low. The voice of the man alto,

however, was never common, and is becoming less common than it was. It

occupies a curious position, never having been recognised as a solo

voice. I have heard of an exceptionally good man alto at Birmingham who

was accustomed to sing songs at concerts, but this is an isolated case.

The voice seems to have been generally confined to choral music.

This voice is entirely an English institution, unknown on the continent.

Historians say that after the Restoration, when it was very difficult to

obtain choir-boys, adult men learned to sing alto, and even low treble

parts, in falsetto, in order to make harmony possible.

Let us concede at once that for music of the old cathedral school this

voice is in place. The churches are, however, getting more and more

eclectic, and are singing music from oratorios, cantatas, and masses

that was composed for women altos, and is far too high in compass for

men. We may admit that because the alto part lies so much upon the break

into the thick or chest register of boys, it is very difficult to get

them to sing it well. The dilemma is that in parish churches, especially

in country places, the adult male alto is not to be had, and the choice

is between boy altos, and no altos at all.

There is no doubt, moreover, that the trouble of voice-management in boy

altos can be conquered by watchfulness and care. At the present time

there are, as the information I have collected shows, a number of very

good cathedral and church choirs in which the alto part is being

sustained by boys.

* * * * *

The following is from Mr. James Taylor, organist and choirmaster of New

College, Oxford:--

"New College, Oxford, Dec. 13, 1890.

"Dear Sir,--In reply to your letter, I can confidently recommend boy

altos in parish or other choirs, provided they are carefully trained. We

have introduced them into this choir for more than two years, and the

experiment has fully come up to my expectations. We still retain two men

altos in our choir, which now consists of the following:--Fourteen

trebles, four boy altos, two men altos, four tenors, and four basses. I

find boy altos very effective in modern church music, such as

Mendelssohn's anthems, &c., where the alto part is written much higher

than is the case in the old cathedral music.

"Yours very truly,


Dr. Garrett, organist of St. John's College, Cambridge, writes:--

"5, Park Side, Cambridge, Dec. 12, 1890.

"Dear Mr. Curwen,--I have had boy altos only in my choir for some years.

I introduced them of necessity in the first instance. The stipend of a

lay clerk was too small to attract any other than a local candidate, and

no suitable man was to be found. If I could have really first-class

adult altos in my choir I should not think of using boys' voices. At the

same time there are some advantages on the side of boys' voices.

"I. Unless the adult alto voice is really pure and good, and its

possessor a skilled singer, it is too often unbearable.

"II. Under the most favourable conditions it is very rare, according to

my experience, to find an alto voice retaining its best qualities after

middle age.

"III. The alto voice is undoubtedly becoming rare.

"On the other side you have to consider:--

"I. The limitation of choice in music, as there is a good deal of

'cathedral music' in which the alto part is beyond the range of any

boy's voice.

"II. A certain lack of brightness in the upper part of such trios as

those in 'By the waters of Babylon' (Boyce) 'The wilderness' (Goss), and

many like movements.

"As regards the break question, the advantage, in my experience, is

wholly on the boys' side. A well-trained boy will sing such a solo as 'O

thou that tellest,' or such a passage as the following without letting

his break be felt at all:

This passage,[B] which is from the anthem, 'Hear my crying,' by Weldon,

I have heard sung by an adult alto, who broke badly between E flat and

F. The effect was funny beyond description. In fact, if a boys' break is

notation] is never allowed to practise above that, there will be no

question of break arising. My alto boys can get a good round G, and five

notation] The advantage of this in chanting the Psalms is obvious. What

can an adult alto be expected to do in a case where the reciting note is

close to his break? These are considerations which may fairly be taken

into account even when the decision is to be made between possible

courses; when there is a choice. In many cases there is none. It must

be (as you say) boy alto, or no alto. I am quite sure that careful

training is all that is needed to make boy altos most efficient members

of a choir. Or rather, I ought to say that careful selection and

training are both needed. To take a young boy as an alto because he

happens to have three or four raucous notes from, say, B flat to E flat

I prefer taking a boy whose break lies higher, and training his voice

downwards. If, as a probationer, he can get a fairly good round B

certainly be produced as he grows older.]

"Yours very truly,


[B] I have transposed the passage from the alto clef.--J. S. C.

* * * * *

A remark may be interposed here that from a physiological point of view

we must expect voices of different pitch in boys, just as in girls,

women, and men. Boys differ in height, size, and in the pitch of the

speaking voice, which is a sure guide to the pitch of the singing voice.

There is thus no physiological ground for supposing all boys to be


* * * * *

The following letter is from the Rev. W. E. Dickson, Precentor of Ely:--

"The College, Ely, October 30th, 1890.

"Dear Sir,--I have much pleasure in replying to your note. If I

resolved to do so in a few words I should be obliged to say that seldom

indeed do I hear boy altos sing with sweet voices and true intonation,

either in my own country, or in those foreign countries in which I am in

the habit of taking my holidays.

"But I should like to be allowed to explain that, in my opinion, the

coarseness (at any rate) of boy-altos in English choirs is due to

mismanagement by the choirmaster. His usual plan is to turn over to the

alto part boys who are losing their upper notes by the natural failure

of their soprano voices. This saves trouble, for such boys probably

read music well enough, and they are simply told to 'sing alto,' and are

left to do so without further training, until they can croak out no more

ugly noises. Surely this is quite a mistake. Am I not right in

maintaining that a perfect choir should consist of



well balanced as to numbers, and all singing with pure natural quality?

If I am, then it follows that the second trebles should be precisely

equal to the firsts in number and strength, and should include boys of

various ages, as carefully selected and as assiduously trained as the

others. I cannot but think--and, indeed, I perfectly well know--that

where this has been done by a skilful teacher, whose heart is in his

work, boy altos have been made to sing with sweetness and accuracy.

"You will probably agree with me--though this is quite by the way--that

secular music should be largely used by such a teacher. The part-songs

of Mendelssohn, for instance, should be trolled out by the two sets of

boys, who may even interchange their parts at practice with the best

results. But of course this is said only in reference to choirs of a

high class.

"I do not deny that even the best teaching and the best management will

not secure quite the same timbre which you get in choirs with falsetti

in the alto part. A certain silvery sweetness is obtained from these

voices to which our English ears have become accustomed, and which we

should miss if boys, however well-trained, took their places. In the

Preces, Versicles, Litany, &c., of the English Choral Service, we should

be conscious of a loss. In cathedrals, too, the complete shelving of

some or even many compositions, favourites by long association, if not

by intrinsic merit, would be inevitable. But I am unable to doubt for a

moment that when the change had been made, and time had been given for

the new order of things, under a thoroughly competent musician, we

should not regret it.

"At Ely we have ten men in daily attendance; fourteen on Sundays. We

keep twenty boys in training. If this vocal body were thus


10 FIRST TREBLES 5 TENORS (6 on Sunday)

10 SECOND TREBLES 5 BASSES (8 on Sunday)

we should certainly be stronger and healthier in tone and quality than

we are now, with a disproportionate number of trebles, thus:--


3 [4] ALTOS 4 [6] BASSES

As to rustic choirs in village churches, I fear the case is hopeless,

and I myself should be glad to see editions of well-known hymn-tunes and

chants in three parts only--treble, tenor, and bass. Handel wrote some

truly grand choruses in three parts in his 'Chandos Anthems.' But his

tenor part is not for every-day voices!

"Believe me, truly yours,


* * * * *

The following, from Dr. Haydn Keeton, organist of Peterborough

Cathedral, is against boy altos:--

"Thorpe Road, Peterborough, December 12th, 1890.

"Dear Sir,--I have had about eighteen years' experience with alto boys,

and although I have had some exceedingly good ones, one or two as good

as it is possible, I think, to have, yet I must say that, in my opinion,

it is a bad system to substitute boys for men, especially in cathedral

music. The reason why the change was made here was that about the year

1872 three of our men altos were failing, and I happened to have three

boys with good low voices, who took alto well. In consenting to this

change I had no idea of its being a permanent one, but owing to the

agricultural depression our Chapter have been quite prevented doing what

they would like to do with the choir. The general effect of the change

has been this--that I have been always weak in trebles. We are limited

to Peterborough for our choristers, and, as a rule, there is not one boy

in a hundred who knows even his notes when he enters the choir. It

takes from eighteen months to two years for a boy to learn his work, and

it is not until a boy is at least twelve that one can turn him into an

alto. The result is that four of my senior boys have to be turned into

altos, and I am left with a preponderance of young, inexperienced boys

as trebles. At the present time I have twelve trebles, eight of whom are

quite young.

"In addition, see what extra work is involved in teaching the boys to

sing alto. Some boys do not take to alto very easily, and the extra work

given to the altos means that quantity taken from the trebles. I am

unable, in consequence, to give the necessary time to the elementary

work that one ought to give. We can only get one hour's practice in the

day, owing to the boys going to school.

"Then, again, as to tone. The tone of a choir with men altos, if they

are at all fairly good, is so much superior to one with boy altos. In

cathedral music so many anthems and services have trios for A.T.B. There

is not one boy in a thousand who can sing the trio in 'O where shall

wisdom' (Boyce) with a tenor and bass effectively. And how many there

are similar to that!

"I do not see how boys could work at all in ordinary parish choirs, for

here there are not the opportunities of teaching boys to read well at

sight. It is only by daily practice that one can make anything of boys.

"Yours faithfully,


Dr. Frank Bates, organist of Norwich Cathedral, has favoured me with a

copy of a paper on the boy's voice, in which he says:--

"The compass of a boy's voice when properly developed is from

The chest or lower register extends from

The head or upper register extends from

No fixed compass can possibly be given to the different registers, as

the older a boy becomes the lower the change occurs; the head register

often being used as low down as A."

In a letter to me Dr. Bates says:--

"I quite think that, for ordinary parish church services, the effect of

boy altos, if properly taught, is all that one can desire."

In reply to my remark that the break comes in so awkwardly for boy

altos, Dr. Bates says:--

"I fail to understand the reason you quote for the non-usage of boy

altos. There is no change whatever in a boy's voice, in its normal

is made lower down all the brilliancy is taken out of a boy's voice. As

a boy gets older he uses the upper register much lower down. I have

known boys at the age of eighteen with lovely top notes but very poor

chest register. In such cases, when a boy's top register commences at

There is evidently some conflict of nomenclature here, as the limits of

the registers as given by Dr. Bates differ considerably from those which

are usual. I am glad to learn that Dr. Bates is writing a book on "The

Voices of Boys," which will no doubt clear up the subject. In the paper

before me he recommends practice of the scales to such syllables as La,

Fa, Ta, Pa, in order to bring the tone well to the front of the mouth,

and reinforce it by means of the soft upper palate. He recommends the

teacher to train the boys to use the upper register by making them sing

over and over again, very softly, the following notes:--

Here again the transition seems to me to be taken much too high.

Mr. Frank Sharp, of Dundee, trainer of the celebrated children's choir,

which has sung the treble and alto parts, both solos and choruses, of

Messiah, St. Paul, and many cantatas, writes to me:--

"In part-singing where there are boy trebles, the adult male alto voice

has its charms. The contrast in quality between the open tone of the

boys' voices and the condensed, sometimes squeaky sweetness of the man

alto does not affect the blending, and helps the distinctness of parts.

Considering the growing scarcity of this latter voice, why not use boy

altos? They can be made as effective as ordinary women altos, but they

are as short-lived and need more attention than the boy trebles. Their

chief drawback is a tendency to produce tone without the least attention

to quality or effect save that of noise. Nevertheless, there is nothing

to hinder boy altos doing all that is necessary, or, indeed, all that

can be done by the adult male alto. I have trained boys to sing alto in

Messiah, St. Paul, and equally trying music, during the past twenty

years, and anyone else who keeps the girl's alto voice before him as a

model can do the same. The boy alto voice may be said to have a husk and

a kernel: the one strident, harsh, and overpowering; the other sweet,

and, with use, rich and round. The average healthy boy, with his

exuberant love of noise, will naturally give the husk, but the skilful

voice-trainer will only accept the kernel, evolved from right register,

good timbre, and proper production. Seeing and hearing a process in

voice-training is, however, more satisfactory than much writing and the

reading thereof."

* * * * *

Mr. W. W. Pearson, master of a village school in Norfolk, who is

well-known by his excellent part-songs, writes to me:--

"I succeed very well in getting boys to sing alto because I always use a

large number of exercises in two parts, making each division of the

class in turn take the lower part. I do not choose boys for altos on

account of age. That, in my opinion, has nothing to do with it. I choose

them by quality of voice. There is no break in the voice of the natural

they are novices, by hearing them trying to sing with the others, and

dropping down an octave in high passages."

* * * * *

The following interesting notes are by Mr. W. Critchley, organist,

choirmaster, and schoolmaster in the village of Hurst, near Reading:--

"I do not choose the elder boys as altos, as I find that treble boys, as

a rule, are at their very best just before the change of voice. And

moreover, when that change begins, the voice is so uncertain in its

intonation that if the boy were put to sing alto he would be certain to

drag the others down. At present I have one or two boys with round,

mellow voices, who are very effective. Unfortunately, most of the alto

parts in hymn-tunes and chants hover about the place where the break in

the voice occurs, and it requires a lot of practice to conquer the

difficulty. As a rule, I get the alto boys to sing in the lower

register. It is very seldom they get a note which they cannot take in

this register, so I train it up a little, thus--

d1 t2 l2 t2 d1 r1 m1]

I do not see any other way of getting over the uncertainty in the boy

alto voice. It is merely a matter of time and trouble."

* * * * *

Mr. J. C. E. Taylor, choirmaster of St. Mary's, Penzance, and

head-master of the National School, says:--

"I have had one or two pure alto voices, and these are the best, but

notation] (D) have often become fair alto voices, and my present solo

alto boy is one of these. The trios in the anthems are taken by boy

alto, tenor, and bass. These alto boys are practised from lower G to

f's. My trebles, as a rule, last until fifteen years of age, and altos

until sixteen, and even seventeen."

* * * * *

Mr. A. Isaac, choirmaster of a church in Liverpool, says:--

"For the last twenty years I have been continuously engaged with male

voice choirs in connection with churches too poor to pay for adult help,

and, as you may readily guess, I have never yet had the good fortune to

secure, for any length, the services of gentlemen who could sing

falsetto effectively. I have had, therefore, to rely solely upon my boys

for the alto part. At the present time my choir, which is allowed to be

up to the mark amongst local Liverpool churches, is made up of 22 boys

(18 treble and 4 alto) paid, and 14 adults (5 tenors and 9 basses)

voluntary. There is, I find, no royal road to the alto part. My course

is as follows. I obtain my boys as soon as they are eleven, by which age

they have been made fairly familiar at my school with the old notation

on the movable do plan. Theoretical instruction is continued side by

side with special voice-training exercises. Occasionally I meet with a

boy who has a true mezzo-soprano voice, and he is a treasure, but in the

main my selections are boys with treble voices. As soon as a treble

shows signs of voice breaking, I let him down into the alto part. The

transition is not very difficult, for by this time the boy has become a

fairly good Sol-faist and reader. I have but to adapt the voice-training

exercises to him in company with his fellows, and I have no reason to

regret the issue. I take my boys always together, with two-part


Mr. Stocks Hammond, organist and choirmaster of St. Barnabas, Bradford,

in a published paper on "Boys' Voices," says:--

"During many years of choir training, I have experienced very great

difficulty in supplying the alto parts with good men's falsetto voices

(especially in voluntary choirs), and I have therefore been compelled to

have that part sung by boys, and experience leads me to prefer the boys'

voices to men's, unless, indeed, they are real alto voices, which are

seldom to be met with. I have never yet had any great difficulty in

finding boys' voices capable of sustaining that part, and can always

fill up any gaps that occur by the following means. Whenever I find a

treble begins to experience a difficulty in singing the upper notes, and

that in order to sing them he must strain his voice, immediately he is

put to sing alto, which he is in most cases able to do for one or two

years, and during that time he is thus retained as a useful member of

the choir; for otherwise he would very soon have been lost to it

entirely, for nothing hastens so much the breaking of the voice as the

habit of unduly straining it."

Mr. T. H. Collinson, Mus.B., organist of St. Mary's Cathedral,

Edinburgh, writes to me:--

"Boy altos are a fraud and a deception, as a rule, though occasionally

one meets with a natural contralto at an early age. Even then he can

generally be worked up to treble by gentle treatment, developing the

middle and falsetto registers."

* * * * *

In order to get to the bottom of this subject, I invited correspondence

in the Musical Standard (until recently the organ of the College of

Organists), and several interesting letters were the result. Mr. R. T.

Gibbons, F.C.O., organist of the Grocers' Company's Schools, where

excellent performances of operettas are given, wrote:--

"As soon as a boy's voice reaches only E[b] he is drafted into the

altos, and that preserves his voice much longer."

To this statement Mr. Fred. Cambridge, organist of Croydon Parish

Church, took exception. He said:--

"I do not wish to appear to dogmatise, but I should say 'as soon as a

boy's voice reaches only E[b],' it is quite time he left off singing

altogether, i.e., if his voice has previously been a treble. I know it

is the custom in some choirs to make a boy sing alto as soon as his

voice begins to break. In my opinion, such a course is utterly wrong. It

is not only injurious to the boy's voice, but very unpleasant for those

who have to listen to it.

"In a school of 500 boys, there ought to be no difficulty in finding

sufficient natural altos, without having to rely on broken-voiced


"In my own choir I frequently admit altos at 10 or 11 years of age, with

the result that I get five or six years' work out of them, and the

latter part of their time they are available for alto solos.

"I think (and I speak from upwards of 30 years' experience) that if Mr.

Gibbons will try this plan, he will find it much more satisfactory than

drafting his trebles into the altos as soon as their voices begin to


"I do not enter into the question of men versus boy altos, because it

is my experience that in a voluntary choir, especially in the country, a

really good adult alto is such a rara avis, that one is obliged to

rely on boys, and if they are carefully chosen and trained, they are, I

think, quite satisfactory. The only place when one misses the man alto

voice is in anthems with a verse for A.T.B., such as 'Rejoice in the

Lord' (Purcell), 'The Wilderness' (Goss), &c."

Mr. C. E. Juleff, organist of Bodmin Parish Church, wrote:--

"Allow me to say that I have found men altos infinitely preferable to

those of boys. In short, one good man alto I have experienced to be

equal to half-a-dozen boy altos as regards tone; and in respect to

phrasing and reading I have found men altos decidedly superior. The two

gentlemen altos who were in my choir at SS. Michael and All Angels,

Exeter, were acknowledged by London organists to be 'second to none' in

the provinces."

* * * * *

On the other hand, Mr. Thomas Ely, F.C.O., of St. John's College,

Leatherhead, gave a warm testimony to boy altos:--

"I may say that in my choir at this College I have four or five very

good boy altos. One is exceptionally good, possessing a natural alto

voice of remarkable richness and beauty. In our services and anthems he

takes the solo alto parts, and in my opinion he is far superior to a man

alto, except in such anthems as Wesley's 'Ascribe unto the Lord'

(expressly written for choirs possessing men altos), in which he cannot

take some of the lower notes. The compass of his voice is from F to


* * * * *

In these letters and experiences there are evidently two underlying

ideas. First, that the boy alto has a naturally low voice; second, that

the boy alto is a broken-down soprano. For both these notions there is

some physical foundation, because there is no doubt that the lower notes

of boys of 12 to 14 are rounder and fuller than those of boys of 9 to

12. Herr Eglinger, of Basel, to whose mastery of the subject in theory

and practice I can testify, from personal intercourse, distinctly

recognises this. He says:--

"It is only when boys and girls approach the period of change, say a

year or two before the voice begins to break, that a clear chest-voice,

corresponding to that of women, is perceptible. In boys at this stage,

the head-voice rapidly declines in volume and height; and what there is

of middle register is not much, nor of great service much longer. On the

other hand, the chest-tones acquire a resonance, and in boys a certain

gruffness, which, mixed with other voices, imparts a peculiar charm to

the chorus."

Thus although here and there a boy may be found with a naturally low

voice from the first, the majority of altos will be obtained from older

boys, who are approaching the period of change. It is, however, of much

importance to watch these boys, and stop their singing when their voice

really gives way, because it then becomes uncertain in its intonation,

and is apt to spoil the tuning of the choir.

* * * * *

The idea that boys must not use the thick or chest register is also a

mistake. It is the straining of this register, which produces a hard,

rattling sound, that is objectionable. Boy altos have as much right to

use the chest register, in its proper place and with proper reserve of

power, as women altos.